Design Thinking and the Classroom of the Future

I recently joined my district’s ReDesign team, a group of teachers and administrators who meet once a month to share ideas about design thinking, and work together to find ways to start applying it in our classrooms. Especially considering the project-based senior English class taught by myself and Ms. J, I felt that this would be an important group to take part in. At the first meeting I attended, our facilitator led the returning and new members in a design thinking challenge, to get us acquainted with what design thinking really means. Since design thinking involves a process based on interaction and problem solving, learning by doing was ideal. Our fearless leader, Mr. L, used materials from Stanford University’s Institute of Design (known as the d. school) to train us–I am quickly learning that the d. school has many invaluable, free resources available for those who want to learn more about design thinking. To get an idea of what it’s all about, and what kinds of things we examine on our ReDesign team, check out the Stanford Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking.

My first ReDesign meeting was a little over a month ago, and two very cool things have come out of it–one practical, and one a little more imaginative. I’d like to share both quickly in this post.


First, the practical example. As mentioned above, design thinking is a natural extension of the work we’ve started with our seniors in English 12. (For more on our course design, see this post.) Now that our students have finished their inquiry-driven academic research papers, we are officially transitioning into the most design-heavy portion of the course, where students design, produce, and promote a project that relates to their area of research. Before we set the students loose solo, however, we decided to do a mini project with a little bit of guidance to get them used to this way of thinking and learning. This was an excellent time to share what I learned about design thinking directly with my students. (Here’s a version of the presentation that we shared with students, while mentoring them on a small scale project that spanned about a week from conceptualization to distribution: Design Thinking) Ms. J and I look forward to seeing what our kids can do when it comes to their independent projects… I am already solidly impressed with how much they have grown in their ability to work together, respond to feedback, iterate freely,  and think about the logistics of a final product with a specific audience in mind. We’ve since moved on to the initial prototyping for their individual senior projects, and it’s so exciting watching the students struggle but succeed through the problem solving process of finding the correct solution to a pertinent real-world problem or need associated with their topic. (Here’s our expectations guide that we’ve used to help students develop and frame their project/process plans: The English 12 Senior Project Expectations Guide) They are currently overwhelmed by the possibilities and the vastness of the task, but they are starting to trust the process, and that will guide each student to the right place in the end, even if that means that hundreds of different places are the right one!

The second cool thing that has already come out of my involvement with the ReDesign team has been the chance to imagine a little bit. During the first workshop, I was partnered with my colleague Mr. M, and we were tasked with envisioning a product that could help address a specific need within our classrooms. As we discussed the needs that we feel as teachers, many different things came up: better ways of communicating with students, ways to streamline and combine the many emerging classroom technologies that we already use, better ways to collect, assess, and archive student work in a meaningful fashion… So, since our challenge was on an imaginary unlimited budget, Mr. M and I designed the ultimate technological tool: smart desks with touchscreen surfaces that would instantly customize for each student. The desktop would contain the content and student work for all classes throughout a student’s career, allowing for archiving and review by teachers, students, and parents. Messaging capabilities would allow teachers to send quick reminders or notes to students. Students could type, speak, or write with a stylus to complete their work, which would be stored in the cloud and accessible from anywhere. Videochat and live workspaces would enable collaboration across classes and even schools. Media editing and learning software would be customizable and built-in. There would even be a mood indicator light on the side, so that teachers could know at a glance if a student was compromised or energized by emotion on that particular day. Students could touch and share, or group their assignments with a flick of the hand or the touch of a button. How cool would that be?!  We gloried in the freedom to ideate without limits and wondered how much money it would take to really bring the smart desk to life. But the most staggering thing was the realization that we came to: this kind of thing *will* be a reality in the years to come. In fact, as our friend Mrs. D tipped us off to, there are many others out there who are way ahead of us in envisioning the classroom of the future: Click here…

Adults often start to forget this, but really, anything that we can imagine, can be. By the time they turn 18, our students should believe that more than they did in kindergarten, not less. Because it’s possible and true.  Here’s to design thinking, and the wonder it brings.

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