Learning by Design
Tanya de Hoog, Junior School Principal

Design thinking refers to cognitive, strategic, and practical processes by which design concepts (proposals for new products, buildings, machines, etc.) are developed by designers and/or design teams. It revolves around a deep interest in developing an understanding of the people for whom the products or services are being designed for. It helps designers observe and develop empathy with the target user. Design thinking helps in the process of questioning: questioning the problem, questioning the assumptions, and questioning the implications. It is extremely useful in tackling problems that are ill-defined or unknown, by re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, creating many ideas in brainstorming sessions, and adopting a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing. Design thinking also involves ongoing experimentation: sketching, prototyping, testing, and trying out concepts and ideas.

In the Primary Years Programme (PYP), design thinking is integrated into different units of inquiry as students explore how they might generate solutions to problems related to the concepts they are inquiring into. For example, in Grade 2, as a part of their Who We Are unit of inquiry, students design an item for a friend to help remind them of a self-regulation strategy they can use if they are feeling frustrated or upset. In Grade 3, as a part of their How The World Works unit of inquiry, students design a toy for their Kindergarten buddy. In the primary grades, students focus on ideating, making, and sharing their designs. In the Middle Years Programme (MYP) grades, the process becomes more sophisticated, as students play even more of a role in identifying the problems they will solve as they work through the MYP design cycle and complete design briefs. For example, Grade 5 students looked for ways they can help build bridges between communities in connection to a Humanities unit.

To create their designs, students must consider the needs of their user and whenever possible, students are encouraged to interview their “user.” In doing so, students must think of thoughtful questions they can ask to deepen their understanding of their users’ needs. This helps to build empathy and perspective taking. For example, this year, Grade 6 students were given the challenge to design a dress for me to wear to either the Southridge Gala or to a special function at a conference I attend in the summer. In order to understand my needs, they had to understand the event, my personal sense of style, my hopes for the dress, as well as functional needs (e.g. being able to eat, sit, dance, etc.). In the end, they presented their newspaper dresses to me, highlighting the creative ways in which their dresses would not just meet but surpass my needs. While each dress incorporated what the students learned from interviewing me, each dress was also completely unique.

Benefits of Design Thinking

Student voice, choice, and agency – not only are students building and using creative and critical thinking skills to solve problems, they are also using their thinking skills to assess needs and pose their own problems. This helps to enhance student engagement and invites the co-construction of meaning throughout the learning process.

Collaboration – students work together to generate ideas and solutions, and take on different roles throughout the design process; they learn from and with their peers, users, and teachers.

Communication – for their ideas to be heard and feedback to be given, students must think of how best to articulate their ideas and decisions with each other as they move through the process. They also learn the art of negotiation and compromise as they make decisions to create the best design possible for their user.

Flexible, nimble, and feedback-driven thinking – as students work through the design cycle, they prototype and receive feedback, with the goal of improving their designs throughout the process. There are also constraints inherent in the design process that require creative and nimble solutions. 

Human-centred – design thinking is about the end user; as students look for problems to solve they are considering the needs of others. Contribution and empathy are inherent in and at the heart of the process.

Excerpt from the Spring 2018 Spirit Magazine