I first came across design thinking when I attended a workshop led by Kevin Jarrett (@kjarrett) at the International School of Amsterdam. It was a fun weekend of working through the design thinking process, making, and video chatting with DT leaders like David Lee (author of Design Thinking in the Classroom, a great starter guide for educators wanting to get into design thinking). 

When I returned to my school, our Grade 3 team had begun a unit focusing on migration. They had been exploring the different journeys that people take as they migrate, and the challenges they must face and overcome.

In past years the students had written stories about migrant journeys, but the teachers were looking for a way to help the students engage more in the challenges that people face. Based on my recent workshop, we had the idea to have the students design something for people who are migrating to meet some of their needs and wants.

A First Crack At Design Thinking

We created a framework to walk the students through a modified version of the design thinking cycle from d.School.

Empathize – Students had already heard stories of migration, spoken with members of our community, and explored aspects of migration. We then asked them to identify major challenges migrants face, along with a list of needs and wants that they might have.

Define – Students were asked to create a problem statement that outlined the problem they were tackling and the needs that they would meet for a migrant.

Ideate – Students brainstormed a range of ideas in descriptions and drawings. They then got together in group who were focusing on similar problems, and gave each other feedback on their ideas. As a small group they narrowed down their ideas and settled on a final design.

Prototype – Students used mostly recycled materials to build models and prototypes of their designs.

Test/Feedback – While the students couldn’t test their prototypes, they did present and share their work and received feedback on their ideas.

Evaluating and Reflecting on the Design Process

While overall it was an engaging and exciting experience for the students, as the unit progressed, we were able to identify areas that could definitely have been implemented better. 

First of all, since we developed the idea midway through the unit, we didn’t have a chance for authentic empathizing. It would have been great if students could speak with, and ask specific questions of, people who had been through a migration. 

We also ran into the trouble of students developing ideas that were well beyond just sky high dreaming, they were just impossible (like a plate that “makes food appear”.) While our original plan was to encourage students to dream big (we were thinking vehicles, or future technology that might not have been invented), some ideas went beyond the realm of possibility. While it still allowed students to think critically about the experiences of migrants, it limited the critical thinking they needed to do in order to develop their prototypes. Next time, I would set some general guidelines for the creations that allow the students to focus more on the process and thinking behind the work in a deeper way.