Design Thinking: Helping Children Approach Problems

It’s Optimistic. Design Thinking is the fundamental belief that we all can create change—no matter how big a problem, how little time or how small a budget.”

-Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit

69831049 10157629851838967 1977105890255306752 o

As I shared in my Back to School Night welcome, our theme for this 2019-2020 school year at Baker is Design. Each year we choose a theme that can serve as a focus, linking together all of the different constituencies a part of the Baker school community – parents, teachers, staff – as well as the different ages we serve – from a preschool classroom to an 8th grade Geometry class.

As educators, we are interested in “design thinking” as both a concept and a process that “centers around applying creativity and innovation to our actions, decision making, and problem solving as human beings…it focuses on the impact that this creative and innovative thinking has on individuals” (Alrubail, Rusul, Teaching Empathy Through Design Thinking).

While the distinct processes a part of the design thinking model are important for children to experience, I want to focus this blog on the starting point for any design challenge: the problem.

When children are faced with a problem, they are engaged in the complex and sometimes abstract work of understanding different experiences and different points of view. As an example, when the Intermediate team met in Campfire last week to discuss how to improve the recess experience, they started by sharing their different perspectives and noting those on the white board.

20190918 102905

So why are design problems helpful for children to encounter?

  1. They help normalize an important life lesson: there are limited resources and different needs associated with any human community. Limited resources and other fixed challenges provide the framework for creativity. The famous international architect, Frank Gehry, talks about limitations and constraints as the source of his creativity. Problems, constraints, limitations are the fodder in which innovative thinking is born. Matthew May in the book, The Laws of Subtraction, writes, “Recent studies offer evidence that, contrary to popular belief, the main event of the imagination — creativity — does not require unrestrained freedom; rather, it relies on limits and obstacles.” From an early age it is helpful for children to respond to constraints and challenges as an opportunity for creativity, rather than a catalyst for frustration or disengagement.
  1. Working through design problems develops in children both confidence and a sense of agency. There are multiple studies that describe the correlation between stress in humans and a low locus of control. When children, in the midst of working through a challenge, have a high locus of control and a sense of agency, their anxiety and stress naturally lessen.
  1. Perspective taking is one of the key qualities cultivated by those who work successfully on creative teams. Differences in experience provide a child the opportunity to think in sophisticated ways about another perspective, and, working from this abstraction, formulate questions to understand a problem more deeply. Giving children natural opportunities to consider another point of view builds this important empathy muscle.

How might you develop this capacity in your child?

Depending upon your child’s age, there are many ways to modify the suggestions below, but the general principle is to invite problems or challenges without immediate solutions to be present in your dinner table or carpool conversation.

  1. Use discussions to Invite empathetic thinking. One of our Baker parents was working remotely to support the relief efforts in the Bahamas after the devastation of Hurricane Dorian. The challenges she observed in her work were specific and numerous. No matter your work, inviting discussions about real-life challenges, whether they are a part of your day or on the front page of the paper, can support children’s empathetic development. No great designer can approach a design problem without empathy. Questions like: What are the challenges at a family in X situation might be experiencing? What questions would you want to ask them? What else would you like to learn about this problem? Are all questions that invite the child into the conversation with you.
  1. Share about your own design problems and invite your children to advise. Whether it is the three disparate events all occurring at the same time on your calendar or the two places that you need to be at the same time, or the need for a delicious dinner solution for a visiting friend with a particular allergy, children loved to be asked for their advice, and the invitation can build their own capacity to offer creative solutions.
  1. Actively discuss people who bring creative responses to challenging problems. We need to look no further than the weekend news for inspiration on the incredible sixteen-year old, Greta Thunberg, whose careful observations and straightforward style have inspired climate-focused action across the globe. It is important for children to see others close to their age who are engaged in their own real design challenges.

One of the important outcomes of a Baker education is the ability to think in creative and creative ways. As a team of educators, we so appreciate the ways that you take the baton and 3 p.m. and continue this important work.