Why Students Need to Think Like Designers

How educators are using “design thinking” to help kids develop key critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Humans have been designers from the beginning. When we needed to stay warm, we tinkered around until we figured out fire. We needed something to hunt with without getting close to dangerous animals so we designed the bow and arrow. When we needed to move more than one rock at a time? The wheel.

While designers’ work today is exponentially more complex, their core goals remain the same. The best designers excel at identifying human needs and then developing solutions, working within a set of limits like budget and accessible materials. This process of thinking backwards, from a desired solution all the way back to reconsidering the very basics, is often called design thinking, and it’s catching on in education as a way to prompt critical thinking and encourage hands-on problem solving.

Tim Brown, CEO of the legendary design firm IDEO (which has created a Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit), explained in his TED Talk how his team used design thinking to address the question, “How might we improve access to safe drinking water for the world’s poorest people, and at the same time stimulate innovation amongst local water providers?” They teamed up with designers, investment experts, and 11 water organizations across India to develop products, services and business models that involved the communities they served.

Swedish designers Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin also used a design thinking process for their invisible bike helmet, which has gone viral over the last couple months. Haupt and Alstin determined the reason most Swedes aren’t wearing helmets is due to discomfort and some good old-fashioned vanity. So they went to work designing a solution. Seven years later, they’ve designed an airbag that looks like a scarf.  It’s worn around the rider’s neck and when its sensors detect an accident it deploys in less than a tenth of a second, completely encasing the biker’s skull. It has greater shock absorption than a helmet and it’s already won Europe’s CE conformity label, according to NPR. You have to see it to believe it.

This type of divergent thinking is what propels the innovation our future economy and society depend on. Employers need people with critical thinking skills more than ever, but apparently they’re in short supply. However, it can be tricky to start kids thinking this way, especially when standardized testing and traditional methods too often stifle divergent thinking. The quandary itself is a bit of a design thinking problem: How might we encourage kids to think like designers and tenaciously engage in high-level problem solving?

Game design is one route. As the Quest to Learn schools in New York and Chicago have demonstrated, games-based learning introduces students to systems and design thinking. When kids are immersed in designing or playing educational, exploratory games, they’re using every problem-solving skill in their toolbox to figure out how to advance to a new level or figure out a solution. If they’re designing a game they may know the goal, but game design requires thinking backward to fill out the game’s rules and system.

“We think that design thinking is actually a way of looking at the world,” Katie Salen, professor in the School of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University, explained in a DML Research Hub video. Salen is also the director at the Institute of Play. “It’s a way of looking at the world as someone who is active in thinking about how to solve problems, is active in kind of analyzing and understanding how things work. And we think that’s a great stance to have to look at the world generally.”

Beyond gaming, art teacher Theresa McGee, a recipient of a PBS Teachers Innovation Award, uses design thinking in her classroom to help her students see connections between art and their everyday lives. Her fourth graders use design thinking to create illustrations of working machines that could make the world a better place, and then create podcasts to explain their working parts.

Designer Emily Pilloton took engaging students with design thinking even further. Her non-profit design firm, Project H, was invited to Bertie County, North Carolina, to bring a design perspective to repairing a struggling school district. As part of her design-led effort to partner with the community to improve education, Pilloton helped develop a design-build class for high school students. Over the course of the year, students conducted ethnographic research to identify problems in their community. Then, they designed prototypes and refined their designs. Over the summer, they’re offered a paid job as the construction crew of their projects: the first being an open-air farmers market, then bus shelters, then home improvements for the elderly.

Design thinking is partly human nature—we’ve always been problem fixers. But in today’s world, kids’ futures depend more than ever on problem solving and critical thinking that not only goes outside the box, but disregards the box all together. Working backwards from that goal, design thinking might be a way to make sure they move on with those skills.

Published December 11, 2013