A Year of Design Thinking at Meadowbrook

A Year of Design Thinking at Meadowbrook

It is time to wrap up a year of being Meadowbrook’s first Design Thinking Integration Strategist, as espoused by the MIT Edgerton Center. It’s been a great year working with teachers, students, and staff of all levels of Meadowbrook to really understand how Design Thinking could be successful at a school that is already so accomplished and challenging for their students. Being an in-house resident at the school allowed us to play with various Design Thinking concepts and try new things, iterate often, and learn from each project to make the next project experience even better. I’ve seen Design Thinking make a space for genuine learning that revolves around empathy, creative thinking, and continuous  iteration,  and I think it has a lot to continue to offer the students of Meadowbrook. The following are some of my reflections around implementing Design Thinking across the K-8 curriculum at Meadowbrook, and some tips for moving forward in this worthwhile endeavor.

Key Factors in the Success of Design Thinking Projects

I’ve learned that the success of the design thinking project and the students’ journey will depend on a number of things, but that these can be controlled for, and that with practice, they grow better. Among these are:

Good modeling and instruction.

The students need examples to bound their thinking so that they know how wild their ideas can be, and what realistic goals should be. Because most are new at the process, they should be given clear benchmarks for their performance, i.e. brainstorm at least 20 ideas in the next 10 minutes.

The more planning the better.

Planning becomes a time for the teacher to also discuss the basic tenets of design thinking, so that during class time, when the teacher and I split up to help different groups of students at once, we would go ahead and help the students with their design thinking.

Authenticity goes a long way.

When students identify a real need that they are working towards, their project becomes that much  more relevant and they will be motivated by the potential for real impact through their projects.

Another Phase, Another Challenge

It became clear that each stage of the Design Thinking process brought its own challenge for different student levels. The following are reflections, Phase by Phase, that could lead to better, more instruction at each stage of the process.

Understand Phase

While it may seem like interviewing a user is a pretty straightforward task, the detail lies in knowing when to dive deeper into certain questions and away from the pre-scripted list of questions. Often, it is difficult for students to keep pressing on in an interview after they’ve identified an opportunity in the user’s life. Furthermore, in class projects it has been hardest to scaffold and set up moments to learn from observation of the user’s experiences or day to day because of time restrictions.

Define Phase

The metaphor here is the need to peel back the onion, layer by layer. In general, I’ve observed that the older the student, the more layers of true need they can peel back. That is, they can take the information gathered in the Understand Phase and extract a need that lies deeper, at the core of their stories. Across all grades this stage needed the most scaffolding. Sometimes, teachers facilitated by using students’ collective stories from their interviews of their user and created a set of needs statements that they then distributed amongst the student groups.

Imagine Phase

We’ve found that younger students are more readily able to think creatively and wildly about their ideas, while older students often offer more concrete solutions to their needs statements. We’ve also found that younger students prefer to have one idea and expand on these and go down potential rabbit holes before they explore many ideas at once.

Prototype Phase

The most common mistake in this phase is for students to create small models of their final design that don’t answer a critical question; instead, they just create a representation of the final design at a smaller scale or in materials of lower resolution. Students should use checklists to make sure that each prototype is purposeful and working towards answering a clear critical question, something they need to know before they dive into making their prototype.

Try Phase

The trickiest part of the Try Phase is to truly internalize feedback that you receive from your user. This will allow students to take their user’s feedback to the next level and understand the needs that are being unearthed by their reactions to a prototype. This can inform what they’re testing in the prototype, as well as other features that might become useful in later iterations.

Implementation Alternatives

Taking class time to create full Design Thinking projects proved to be a big barrier to entry for teachers that might not find time in the year to go through the full cycle or for teachers whose students might be too young to truly engage with all parts of the process at once (namely, with need-finding).

For these situations, I propose two approaches to Design Thinking integration:

Design Thinking Kits, projects that every school grade gets, and goes through, in a huge sprint of the DT process. This would happen at the beginning of the year, and they would level the playing field to give the teachers and students a primer of the Design Thinking concepts, vocabulary, and mindsets.

Introducing the Lower School teachers to the mindsets of Design Thinking at every stage of the process. This would be a conceptual run through of what is important at every stage so that they may bring up and apply core concepts and vocabulary when they are engaging in these types of activities during other curriculum.

Overall, I believe that Design Thinking has truly found a hope in the accepting and challenge-driven home of Meadowbrook. I think there is still great room for potential as more teachers will come on board and invite formal practices of Design Thinking into their classrooms (in fact, many are already doing so in unofficial ways). I look forward to seeing more of Meadowbrook’s successes as they continue to pioneer the practice of implementing Design Thinking in the K-8 classroom, and I look forward to continued communication and sharing of best practices and lessons learned.

- Jessica Artiles