Deirdre Moore | October 2013

Designing a Difference

I’ve seen it over and over again.  When students get involved in a cause, when they feel empowered to be agents of change in their world and help others, the excitement and energy are palpable.  Just recently I witnessed it again.  A group of 5th graders at an International Bacclaureate school were working on a project to raise money for providing clean water to others who don’t have access.

I loved hearing the passion in the students’ voices as they described their ideas.  Hearing that untainted hope is one of the great benefits for me of working with young people.  It got me thinking about a lecture I heard a few years ago on given by George Kembel about a design thinking process used with students studying at the Institute of Design at Standford and set me to wondering how we could use it effectively with students in elementary, middle, and high school to go beyond raising money and start thinking about designing solutions themselves.

The students studying at the Institute of Design at Stanford are given real-life problems to solve in developing countries.  They follow these five steps to guide them in designing solutions:

Empathy – Spend time with those you are trying to help to discover latent needs and better understand the problem.

Define – Frame the problem based on the insight gained from the empathy stage.  The problem may end up being different from what was originally believed to be the problem.

Ideate – Generate lots of ideas around solving the problem.  Entertain them all!

Prototype – This should not be anything fancy but a way to show others how you intend to solve the problem.  If you are working in a group and several ideas were generated then several prototypes should be created. You never know what might work!

Test – Apply the prototype to the problem and the people for whom you designed the prototype.  Have them use it to see whether it meets the needs and solves the problem.

Of course, anyone who has tried to solved a problem knows this is not a linear process and the various steps may need to be revisited until an acceptable solution has been found.

What struck me most about this process was the “empathy” step.  The idea that one must spend time with the people experiencing the problem in order to truly understand the issue and be able to clearly articulate and define the problem is brilliant in its simplicity.  It guards against arrogance and easy fixes.  It necessitates deeper thinking and draws on one of the very things that art does best; the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, to see an issue from the perspective of someone else.

Naturally educators of children below college age need to take into account the age of their students and resources available when trying to choose a problem to present to their students to solve.  Solving issues in developing countries would not be appropriate, but that doesn’t mean the above design thinking steps are not applicable.

By helping the students to define an issue they can experience in their school or neighborhood communities to gain understanding from the empathy stage, educators can help students think critically, listen with an open mind to the ideas of others, implement ideas and evaluate their effectiveness, develop persistence in the face of prototypes that don’t work, and learn to work with others to create real change, however small, in the world.  We can help students use design to make a difference.

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.