Design Thinking is a set of principles first outlined in 1969 by American Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, an economist, political scientist, and artificial intelligence pioneer. Simon’s work on decision-making and organizational dynamics—in which he redefined the concept of “design” as a way of thinking, rather than simply a blueprint for physical objects and systems—gave rise to a multi-phase, human-centered model for understanding problems and developing solutions.
The essential phases in the Design Thinking
approach as it is practiced today are empathy (observing something about people or the world), definition (identifying a problem or challenge), brainstorming (considering many possible ideas), prototyping (quickly iterating potential solutions), and testing/reflection (evaluating results and seeking feedback before repeating the cycle). The process is both a way of working and a way of understanding, aimed at challenging assumptions and redefining problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent. It can be applied not only in solving concrete challenges or answering unmet needs, but also in envisioning entirely new insights, products, or creative works.
Remarkably, only a few decades after research by Simon and other theorists of design became more widely known in the 1970s and 1980s, many of the world’s most innovative and successful companies (Apple, Google) have adopted Design Thinking as an engine of unprecedented growth—as have the countless designers, programmers, creators, and leaders who fueled their rise. Major universities (Harvard, MIT, Stanford) teach the Design Thinking process to students in a broad array of fields, from computer science to architecture, from business to urban planning and beyond. Design Thinking—the topic of millions of scholarly and popular articles, books, professional conferences, webinars, workshops, infographics, handbooks, white papers, and much more—is seemingly everywhere, seen as one of the most important frameworks today through which to understand the world, and to make it better.
In progressive learning environments such as Shore, Design Thinking is now taking its place in classrooms from Pre-K on up as an essential model for learning, problem-solving, creative expression, and collaboration. The Design Thinking process can provide a structure for activities as diverse as coding, creative writing, lab experiments, discussions of primary sources, and art; and it helps support a classroom culture rooted in empathy, teamwork, and comfort with failure. Says Innovation Lab Manager and Design Thinking guru Cam McNall, “I see it as a toolkit, a way to break down almost any challenge or process, make it approachable, and experiment with solutions from a place of curiosity, creativity, and collaboration.”
Design Thinking’s mantra—“Fail early, fail often”—is displayed prominently in the iLab, where McNall emphasizes with students of all ages that in Design Thinking, failure is the best learning tool of all. That perspective fits right in with Shore’s overarching educational philosophy, which emphasizes risk-taking and resilience in the face of challenge. “Throughout the school,” he explains, “we work hard to get kids to focus on the process, rather than the final grade. That enables them to be open to trying something new, potentially failing, and then trying again with a different perspective. There’s real strength in being able to get away from viewing the end result as the be-all, end-all of their work. There are so many wonderful discoveries to make along the way.”
It’s not just about building things in the iLab, underscores McNall. Design Thinking dovetails with Shore’s emphasis on a social-emotional curriculum that nurtures interpersonal skills such as collaboration, empathy, and grit. “Any time you want to get to a new place, Design Thinking will help. It can apply to discussing literature or creating an experiment in science.” By privileging concepts such as empathy, Design Thinking asks students to put aside their own opinions and ingrained beliefs purposefully, in order to understand things more deeply and meaningfully. This requires both imagination and humility. “Fundamentally,” says McNall, “it’s cultivating the ability to wonder, to ask questions about our assumptions and thought processes, to listen and work constructively with peers, to break down and compartmentalize tasks. These things are huge, not just for hands-on work, but also for resolving conflicts, managing our time, identifying causes of stress, and figuring out how to be successful at school and in life.”
Still, Design Thinking may find its fullest expression at Shore in the rich, interdisciplinary projects McNall has devised with fellow teachers to explore topics in science, social studies, history, and math. In sixth grade, for example, students studying the history of Africa come to the iLab after reading A Long Walk to Water, Linda Sue Park's award-winning book based on the stories of two Sudanese 11-year-olds, Nya and Salva, who both must deal with the challenges of water scarcity. Working in groups, students use basic materials and their understanding of concepts such as vacuum and pressure to design a water pump similar to one that might really be used by African villagers.
“Armed with the empathy and historical knowledge they developed in the classroom,” says McNall, “students approach their work in the iLab with an urgent sense of just how critical access to clean water is.” Yet they soon find that designing an effective and economical pump system is no easy task: they struggle over several class periods with various prototypes, refining their ideas many times until they finally end up with a working water pump. That level of challenge is essential in pushing students to work through the Design Thinking process, McNall says. “As they try and fail and try again, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a child create something new that I’ve never seen before.”
Those “eureka!” moments are equally prized by Technology Integration Specialist Jill Codding, who brings computer coding and design projects to classrooms throughout the Lower School. “One of my favorite activities is something called the ‘Marshmallow Challenge,’” says Codding. Teams of students get 20 sticks of spaghetti, a yard of masking tape, a yard of string, and a marshmallow, and in 18 minutes they’re asked to build the tallest structure they can that can still support the weight of the marshmallow on top. “It’s a fascinating exercise to observe.” The raucous activity is eye-opening and genuinely challenging, Codding explains. “The kids have to figure out how to work together in a very short time, listening to each other and trying many ideas really quickly.” But “winning” the challenge isn’t the point, she says. “The most valuable part of the project is actually the debrief at the end, when students excitedly share what worked and what didn’t, and how they might do things differently the next time. Pretty much every child wants to dive in and repeat the exercise right then—which truly demonstrates the power of the Design Thinking philosophy.”
Computer coding, too, encourages students to flex their Design Thinking muscles. “It’s not about simply learning the specifics of a programming language,” says Codding. “Instead, I see coding as a vehicle for creative expression, for practicing logical thinking and sequencing, for analyzing a problem and refining your ideas to find a solution. I also appreciate that coding gives students a chance to become experts and learn from each other. They come to see that it’s not copying to be inspired by someone else’s ideas. It’s how learning happens; it’s how we’re creative.” Sharing one’s work isn’t an option with Design Thinking, Codding emphasizes; it’s a requirement. “I show my students that one of the most important ways they can get better at something is by sharing their ideas and seeking feedback. Encouraging them to be open to receiving and acting on feedback is critical—just as critical as helping them practice giving that same kind of constructive feedback to their peers.”
McNall and Codding have big ideas about how Design Thinking can support Shore’s program even more broadly. “In today’s world, manufacturing and innovation are driven by digital technology, and incredible new tools are everywhere,” explains McNall. “For kids, excitement about that technology inspires curiosity and inquiry. But to take advantage of what the technology offers us—to empower our students to address sophisticated new challenges in the world by imagining solutions that haven’t been possible until now—they need a real understanding of what those digital tools can do. Getting to that point will be a game-changer for Shore. Entering the realm of digital creation will give our students a real step up in mastering richer ways to engage with the world.”
Whereas the iLab was conceived as a “dirty” space—filled with tools and materials for hands-on skill development and experimentation with wood and metal, glass and plastic—digitally imagining new ideas in the physical world requires a “clean” space built to support the next generation of tools. “That includes things like laser cutters, high-quality 3D printers, CNC routers, vinyl cutters, and plotters,” lists McNall. “These are all important tools for kids to know and understand and be able to incorporate into their Design Thinking approach.” Imagine a student who discovers an interest in historic machines or architecture, and can precisely manufacture period-appropriate parts, McNall suggests; or picture inlaid wooden art projects or custom furniture shaped using a CNC router.
For Codding, robotics and circuitry are key in the new digital world of Design Thinking. “I want our students to be able to interact with the world, express ideas, and solve problems by using sensors, motion, and DIY computing platforms like Arduino and Raspberry Pi.” With these types of resources, digital “makers” around the world have created homemade geiger counters to measure radiation, automatic lighting and safety systems, weather and health monitors, video and music devices, and much more. At Shore, third and ninth graders recently had the chance to experiment with new Sphero
app-enabled robots, gyroscopically stabilized spheres that can be programmed to navigate a space, light up, and respond to infrared signals from other Sphero devices. Grade 3 experimented with guiding the robots around the Center for Creativity, while Grade 9 wrote code so they could play lawn games like cornhole with the agile spheres. “What’s so special about this type of technology,” says Codding, “is that it can be used for everything from solving math problems and exploring geometry to telling stories and having fun.”
At heart, Design Thinking’s purpose is nurturing a mindset of discovery and creativity that applies whether the task at hand is an inquiry into history, a science experiment, a computer animation, the assembly of a simple truss bridge, or the fabrication of a complex architectural model. “Every teacher at Shore wants the same thing: to enable breakthrough moments for our students,” says McNall. Design Thinking is a tool that seems tailor-made for the purpose.