Using Design Thinking in the classroom can have meaningful effects on student learning and ability to solution make (rather than problem solve). But throughout my own personal learning journey most ideas I’ve come across have been a far stretch for the type of work I do with 6 and 7-year olds each day. But then I watched a YouTube discussion between Ben Sheridan and Dr. John Nash which really helped me flip the script on my own thinking. From this video and my Eduro coursework I took away the mantra: “Share quickly, fail fast.” So here I am sharing (as quickly as my fingers can type) an idea that may fail fast with our first graders. But regardless–we’re going to persevere. Because whether they fair or succeed–thinking will be happening.


In our current social studies unit, students have been inquiring into: “An international community works cooperatively when people are open to diversity.” Through their tuning in, finding, out, and sorting out stages of the inquiry cycle, the students have asked and investigated some powerful questions:

  • Why do grownups fight wars?
  • Why do people speak different languages?
  • Why do people have different skin colors?
  • Why are times different around the world?

But now, as we come to the end of our unit and I continue reflecting back to my earlier thinking, I realize that there is one big gap in the learning process–student agency.  During each step of their learning journey so far I’ve been guiding the steps and prodding them with wonderings that have led us to deeper and more meaningful inquiries. But now that it’s time for them to demonstrate their knowledge. So why is my summative assessment not student-centered?

Why? For what reason? Is the summative assessment supposed to be a reflection of my teaching or their learning?

These questions led my team and I to a crossroads and over the past few weeks, we’ve debated and cajoled, listened and pondered… and then we struck gold (we hope!). We created a summative assessment about 4 new students that we want to welcome to our school community. We “created” students with a physical or academic difference that currently challenges our school’s physical plant and/or our Grade 1 community’s demographics. Each of the case study students is worthy of attendance at our school but is our school community open to diversity enough that we are willing to design an environment so the student can be successful?

… it will be! Once our students chose a case study, we will lead them through the Design Cycle to create an adaptation that would make the case study child’s access to our school easier.

Here are the case studies:

Using the Design Thinking framework, our students will showcase their learning by working cooperatively (in small groups or pairs) to create a school adaptation. The students will be encouraged to be as inventive and creative as possible. Their ideas should have no limits. The only requirement should be: will your idea help your friend be successful at our school? If yes, then keep going. If no, rethink and recreate!

Empathize: Based on their weeks of inquiry and solution making skills, students will choose a case study child that they are eager to assist. Why do you want to help this child? What about their story is meaningful or important to you?

Define: In this stage students will define the needs and insights of their case study. We will collect all of their thinking to develop a problem sentence for the class, something along the lines of: We will create an adaptation that will will help (insert case study student here) be successful at our school.

Ideate: Students will draw visual solutions for the problem sentence. Again, they will be encouraged to think without limits. (Note: As this is their first time through the Design Cycle, I might prompt them with an idea of my own–a zip line from the ground to the upper floor for Bronny and her wheelchair or bike ramps and a push bike to help Kevin access all the different buildings at school with ease. I know, I know, the ideas are pretty lame, but they are better than an elevator.)

Prototype: After ideating, teams will chose one visual that they would like to prototype. They can use any material we can access (playdough, MakerSpace tools, Legos, blocks, etc.) to create their adaptation. Once their prototype has been created, they will explain their reasoning* (using Book CreatorExplain Everything, or any other digital medium of their choice).

*Their digital reasonings will be shared with our parent community and will be used as a way for the teaching team to reflect on the relevance and success of the unit.

Test: Students will share their prototype with “School Developers” (the Principal and PYP Coordinator). Students will have the option to use the feedback gleaned from this conversation to make modifications and improvements to their prototype.

Projected Outcomes: I don’t know what the outcomes of this project will be. I don’t know how the students will do. I can’t even fathom what amazing inventions they will concoct. And I don’t know if their ideas will be feasible or not. But I do know one thing: their ideation and prototyping will provoke conversation in our the Grade 1 community. Beyond that, my hope is that their prototypes prompt the greater school community to think more openly about what diversity looks like at our school. It means more than just the passport you carry, the food you eat, and the language you speak.


So what’s the point of all of this you ask? Why is the Design Cycle such a big deal for this project?

I want to use Design Thinking to help my students solution make and not problem solve. If I told them, “We’ve got a problem in our school– a student in a wheelchair can’t get to our classroom upstairs” students would yell out a dozen or so ideas to “solve” the problem. I’m sure their ideas would be OK, but will they be creative, imaginative, and innovative? Probably not.

I am using the Design Cycle because I want students to work together and generate ideas. I want them to think and rethink and rethink their thoughts in to solution! I want them to invent and create to make new ideas we’ve never thought of before. I want them to share quickly and fail fast so they can move on to better and greater ideas.

I believe all of this thinking and tinkering will be worth it in the end. But if it was a big, fat flop, I’m sure to learn A LOT!