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Design Thinking with Kids

In recent years, design thinking has becoming an increasingly common buzzword in many different sectors, including education. Over the past few months we have been working to refine a design thinking model for educators to use in the classroom. We did this because we believe design thinking is a powerful way to build students' skills. Here's three reasons why:

  • At its heart, design thinking is about creativity and critical thinking. That's two of the four key learning skills identified by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning. If students work on problems in groups, this brings in communication and collaboration too.
  • The type of the exercises students do in design thinking let teachers stretch them beyond what they would normally do in the classroom - into Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development.
  • Working on real problems using authentic tools to arrive at meaningful solutions casts students in the role of 'little scientists', 'little engineers', and so on. By encouraging them to take on these roles, design thinking deepens their engagement and accelerates their learning.

Tim Brown is the CEO and president of IDEO, an innovation consultancy which has been evangelising design thinking for years. He describes it as "a 
human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for ... success." Importantly, design thinking is just as concerned with 'problem finding' as it is with 'problem solving'.

Brown and his colleagues at IDEO have not only built a robust model for design thinking over the years, they have also retooled it for educators wanting to innovate. At the same time, the Institute of Design at Stanford University (better known as has also developed a range of open source design thinking tools and their own initiative to foster innovation in education.

If you search for diagrams of the design thinking process online you'll find plenty. Most are made up of about five stages. Some emphasise the blend of divergent and convergent thinking, others the iterative nature of the process. Invariably they will highlight the need to understand and empathise with the audience you are designing for, and the importance of building and testing prototypes as part of the design process.

As a human-centred, solutions-focused approach to creativity and innovation, design thinking has much to offer the primary of secondary classroom. However, the process as described by IDEO and doesn't necessarily feel like a good fit in several ways. Firstly, it's relatively complex, particularly for younger kids. It also involves lengths of time that may not be feasible. It asks for a deep engagement with the real world that isn't always be possible. It relies heavily on written content, making it hard for students still building literacy skills to focus on the challenge. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, some of the key parts of design thinking come naturally to kids. Working with adults, facilitators will often encourage them to 'think like children', letting go of unnecessary constraints and inhibitions.

Given all of this, we wanted to create a process for design thinking specifically tailored to school students. A process that simplified the design thinking model, and focused on the elements that kids could learn the most from. We wanted to emphasise the 'what if' aspect of innovation, and the pragmatism of solution-focused thinking. We wanted to encourage students to be comfortable outside their comfort zone, and to experience the 'learning through failure' that comes from prototyping. We wanted to scaffold 'researching for empathy', and to challenge kids to see beyond their first attempt through multiple iterations of a solution. Our belief is that design thinking can provide an approach that does all of this.

The heart of our design thinking model for kids is a three-stage process: LEARN, IMAGINE, MAKE. At the beginning of a project, only the general area to be explored is defined. By the end of the LEARN stage a clear problem is identified, phrased as 'how can we...?' By the end of the IMAGINE stage a solution has been identified, and the MAKE stage uses prototyping and testing to refine that solution.

Students might work through all three stages in one session, or each stage might be tackled as an individual lesson. There are numerous different exercises that can be used in each stage, depending on the nature of the project and the available resources. The process map we created for high school students explicitly discusses the different stages, and gives examples of some of the exercises.Design Thinking Map for Secondary

For younger students we wanted something simpler, more immediately engaging, and less reliant on conceptual language. The reverse of the process map provides a simpler narrative - while it has more 'steps', each is made up of a single, straightforward exercise. Obviously, once familiar with the process, teachers may which to drop in different exercises with younger students too.Design Thinking Map for Primary

There are two ways we envisage teachers running design thinking projects in their classroom. The first is individually, where each student pursues their own research and develops their own inventions - though there will be many opportunities to share with classmates throughout the process, such as testing each other's inventions. The second way is in groups of three to six students, where each group collaboratively identifies a problem, then a solution, finally building and testing a shared prototype.

Regardless of which approach is taken, the teacher will guide the class through the three stags of LEARN, IMAGINE and MAKE. The remainder of this article touches on some of the exercises that make up each stage.

Stage 1 - Learn

The first stage is all about finding a problem. Most of the time students are given very specific problems to solve, so for many this can be quite a challenging - but hopefully liberating - stage. The key to design thinking is designing 'for' an audience - understanding the behaviours and needs of another group, empathising with them, and developing a solution that they will benefit from.

The most obvious way to get an understanding of the world from someone else's perspective is through observation. Sometimes you might be able to go and look at a real environment, other times you may need to engineer things to observe. The key with observation is to really take the time to look, and make note of what you see.

Drawing is an excellent way of documenting observations, particularly for younger children who are more comfortable drawing and perhaps annotating than simply writing. They might draw a scene, or an object. Perhaps a process might be better captured in a storyboard or a flowchart. Spatial observations might be represented best on a map of some sort, and so on. There is no reason to be limited to one type of drawing. A visit to the zoo may produce sketches, maps, process flows and much more.

Creating a persona is a great way to encourage children to think explicitly about the intended audience. A persona can be as simple as a sketch of a typical ‘user’ of the solution accompanied by some notes about them and about their relationship with the topic area.

Conducting interviews is a fun way to inform a persona, or just to capture interesting insights about a topic. It can be very powerful to actually interview someone you want to design a solution for. If that’s not possible, kids can interview friends or classmates who are playing the role of a typical ‘user’. Even with relatively little preparation it’s amazing how many useful observations can come from a role-play interview.

Design thinking places lots of emphasis on gaining insights from real world exploration. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with doing some ‘desk research’ too.

Personal experience can also be one of the most powerful tools in gaining an understanding of an area and uncovering useful insights. While there might not always be the opportunity to ‘get hands on’, if there is it’s always a catalyst for a deeper level of thinking.

There are a number of techniques by which information gathered in these ways can be captured and shared. A mindmap is a simple, useful tool for capturing thoughts about a topic, and helping kids to explore associated ideas. Make a pros and cons list of all the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ parts of an experience, environment, product or topic helps students appreciate the perspective of the audience they are focusing on.

To create possible challenges, students review the most interesting and provocative learnings that have been uncovered. They think about the biggest pain points - where is there a demand for better solutions? We want them to capture a challenge clearly and succinctly, which they do by writing it as a question in the form “How can we...?”

Stage 2 - Imagine

Having clearly articulated their challenge, students move on to the IMAGINE stage. This is the part most usually associated with invention and innovation. There are some simple tools and exercises that can help us come up with ideas - from the straightforward to the totally unexpected.

One of the simplest exercises is ‘first idea’ which encourages kids to write down the first solution that comes into their head, no matter how straight-forward, expected, boring, or impractical it is. Another is 'crazy idea’ where they  come up with ideas that are ridiculous, extreme, foolish, inappropriate, irresponsible. Neither of these usually produce final solutions, but they are useful provocations. Using a crazy idea as a starting point, students might evolve it to be more sensible, for example.

Perspective exercises encourage kids to come up with ideas by pretending to be someone different, with a different point of view. Analogy exercises draw inspiration from how similar problems have been addressed in other contexts.

A quick draw gets kids to draw lots of solutions in a short space of time. It's a great way of avoiding some of the natural over-thinking we do.

As a result of these types of creative thinking exercises, students develop a range of possible solutions. They then need to look at them critically and identify the one they thing has the most potential. There are lots of wonderful resources for more creative thinking tools, including Edward De Bono’s ‘Serious Creativity’ and Michael Michalko’s ‘Thinkertoys’.

Stage 3 - Make

Having captured an idea on a piece of paper, it's time for the MAKE stage. Making is an important part of the process for two reasons. Firstly, actually building a prototype of the solution can be a powerful way of further refining the idea, bringing up new questions and possibilities. Secondly, finding ways to test the prototype can provide invaluable feedback to improve the idea.

Prototyping can be done using anything, from simple cardboard boxes to interactive electronic components. The key is to create a prototype that allows people to experience what it might be like to use the solution.

Not all ideas can be easily built as physical objects. Some ideas are better explored, tested and refined through ‘paper prototypes’. This is particularly true of processes and digital interfaces.

Getting real people (actual ‘users’) to test a solution is a great way to get real feedback that can help kids assess and improve their ideas. Where this is not possible, friends or classmates can roleplay and still provide surprisingly insightful learnings.

Many kids will get to the the end of making their solution and be ready to move onto the next thing. One of the biggest possible benefits of design thinking is developing sustained focus and resilience. Encourage kids to learn from the process of prototyping and testing, and to work at improving their idea.

Many of the tricks to running a great design thinking project will come with practice and experience. Having said that, here are a few useful tips to keep in mind.

  • Stuff inspires. Having interesting stimulus around can be enormously helpful in all stages. This can be anything from from multimodal research material to eclectic craft materials for prototyping.
  • While it’s important to let kids do their own research and develop their own ideas, don’t be afraid to lend your own experience and collaborate with them.
  • Be explicit. Share the process with the kids, and help them understand the way they are moving through it. This gives them greater insight into their own working practice and helps them evolve good work habits.


We hope that you find the idea of design thinking in the classroom as exciting as we do. If you're interested in implementing the process described here you are welcome to download PDFs of our process maps for primary and secondary, and facilitator's guide.

You can purchase a lovely printed copy of guide along with two process maps for a very reasonable AU$20 plus postage. We'd love to hear your thoughts about the approach, or perhaps answer any questions you have, so drop me an email or start a conversation below.

Design Thinking with Kids toolkit


Brett Rolfe


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