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October 2, 2014 Design Thinking: A Lesson That Connects Classmates By Kriscia Cabral
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    Design thinking is a creative problem-solving process that calls for thoughtful solutions to real-world situations. Design thinking in the classroom provides a motivating and engaging learning experience for students. Within the design thinking model, individual learning styles can be validated through a project based learning experience. The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires inspired our introduction lesson to design thinking. Read on to see how you can do the same with your students.

    The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires is a beautifully written story about a girl whose best friend is a dog. She strives to make something magnificent. She knows how it will look and how she hopes it will work. All she has to do is make it. This is where the little girl struggles. She tries and tries to make something magnificent, but it is not working. She goes back to her project over and over again making changes as she “tinkers, hammers, and measures.”Her ability to persevere and imagine that anything is possible is one of the many lessons shared in this story.


    Day 1

    After reading the story we talk first about the lead character's many attempts to make the magnificent thing. I introduce vocabulary terms such as perseverance and imagination. This introduction is a part of the whole-class discussion. We talk briefly about what the words mean and how they are important pieces to design thinking. Here is how I share the idea of each word and their connection to design thinking:

    Perseverance is the ability to keep on trying even when you are frustrated, you’ve made mistakes, and want to quit. It is important to the design process because when you are designing a prototype of any kind, you probably won’t get it right on the first try. You have to be willing to go back over and over again like the girl in the book did, and be willing to make changes.

    Imagination is the ability to dream without boundaries. It is important to the design process because when you are designing a project, you need to the think of the “what if” and imagine all possibilities. This means thinking of creations that do not exist yet. The girl in the book came up with all types of creations. Her ideas came from her imagination.

    I then ask, “If you could make a magnificent thing for yourself that is not a toy, something that could help you fix your problems, what would it be?” I ask this question to spark ideas for students. This will become helpful for the second part of the lesson. Students are invited to share out what magnificent thing they would make for themselves and why they would make it. I hear things like, “a teleport machine that could get me where I need to be with the press of a button,” “an interactive LEGO museum,” and “a sister-alert machine.”

    To wrap up our time as a whole group, I send students to their writer’s notebooks so they can write about the magnificent thing they would create for themselves. In their notebooks they are invited to tell about the magnificent thing they would want, write why they would want it, and then draw a picture of what it would look like.

    We end this first part of the lesson with students sharing their creations in an open mic forum.


    Day 2

    The second day of this lesson builds from the excitement of the students’ magnificent things. We revisit the idea of creating something. We review our vocabulary: imagination and perseverance. Then I introduce a new word: empathy.

    Here is how the conversation plays out:

    The last time we met we talked about about designing a magnificent thing. We also talked about how it is necessary to have an imagination and perseverance when you are designing something. Today we’re going to talk about another important piece in design thinking: empathy. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else's place. It is when you understand where a person is coming from and can relate to their needs.

    Using examples is key to helping students understand this vocabulary word. I explain that empathy is important to the design process because if you cannot relate to the person you are designing for, you cannot design for them. You use empathy to connect with the person you are designing for and make sure that what you are designing would be useful for that person in that situation.

    I then partner the students, explaing that each partner will design something magnificent for each other. The steps below represent one day’s work each. It took us about a week to finish the entire process.

    Step 1: The Interview Process

    We first brainstormed a list of questions that I projected on the whiteboard for students to refer to when interviewing. Students could use the questions from the list or could come up with questions of their own. One question that was required was, “What might be something you could use that is not a toy?” I eliminated the “toy” option because many students thought they could create a magnificent thing by re-creating an already existing toy. We discussed the idea that creating something magnificent is to create something that does not already exist. They had to ask lots of questions to find an actual problem that their partner was having and then brainstorm ways that they could create a solution.

    Students interview each other and gather research and information (the first part of the design process). They are encouraged to ask questions that will help them learn more about their partner and their needs.


    Step 2: The Problem Statement

    Their next step is to create a problem statement. This is a clear description of the issue that needs to be addressed. A problem statement is the guide to what needs to be created and why. I display a template on the whiteboard for students to follow. When filled out, it might read, "Mrs. Cabral is a fun and busy person who needs an automatic clothes folder to fold her clothes because it would allow her more time to spend with her babies."

    The template has blank spots for the partner’s name, two adjectives to describe them, a description of the need, and why it would be helpful for them.

    Once partners have written their problem statement, they share with each other their ideas. Sharing ideas requires that each partner listen to the problem statement and the solution that has been created. Partners give purposeful feedback such as, “I like the idea and hope you can add this or that to it.” This is a great opportunity for both partners to practice critiquing each other and revision to their magnificent thing idea. If both partners are in agreement, the next step is to sketch a prototype.

    Step 3: Prototype Sketch and Materials List

    The prototype sketch is a fun activity for students. This is where students draw what they have imagined in their mind. I give students one 8 ½" x 11" piece of paper and have them fold it in half width-wise. On one side of the paper they create their sketch. On the other half of their paper they create their materials list.

    Before listing materials, students draw their sketch with details for their partner to understand. They must then show their partner what the magnificent thing will look like. Just like the problem statement sharing and critique, partners take turns doing the same. This is the visual element that really opens up the design thinking of students. What one student thought the magnificent thing might look will likely vary from another student's visual thought. The sketch process is powerful in that as students critique, they are learning how to make changes based on the needs of their partner. They are learning to listen with purpose while they revise. If both partners are pleased with the sketch, the next step is to create a list of materials for actual prototype creating.

    A prototype is a model of what an actual creation might look like. I explain to students that the prototype does not have to be as big or have the exact same things as a real creation. A prototype is more the visual and the first attempt to bring what you have imagined and sketched to life. Students create a materials list based on the materials they see available. (Materials that can be used on what you have in your art supplies: cardboard, string, cotton balls, feathers, paper, jewels, etc.)

    Step 4: Creation Day

    This is the moment every student has been waiting for — when they get to create their magnificent thing. I give my class a set amount of time (30 – 45 minutes) over a two-day span to take their sketch and bring it to life for their partner. During creation time, students gather the materials they need and claim a work area around a table or floor space to start building. I remind students to have their sketch out as a visual guide. I also walk around and ask questions. Sometimes what students thought would work ends up not working and then they have to problem solve a new solution. Much of what goes on at this time is having conversations with students about perseverance, problem solving, and imagination. I also ask questions about their partner: Why do you think your partner will like this? What is it that your partner said they needed? What do you think will be your partner’s favorite part? Why?

    These questions let me know whether or not this student took the time to really understand and empathize with their partner. If their partner’s favorite color was blue and they are making a red creation, they were not empathizing with what their partner really wanted. I take time to reteach the meaning of empathy with those who need clarification and review.

    Step 5: Sharing

    At the end of this design challenge journey, we share. We start by sharing verbally what the experience was like. I prompt students with questions on the whiteboard: What was it like to experience a design challenge? How did you use your imagination? When did you have to persevere? How did it feel to empathize with your partner? What was your partner’s response to their magnificent thing creation?

    Students answer these questions in their writer’s notebook. I allow time for students to share some of their answers. Partners come up and share first their problem statement and then the creation they made. Students in the audience offer feedback. All magnificent things are then sent home with their new owners.

    By the end of the process, students have learned the process of creating something for someone else; they have learned about perseverance, imagination, and empathy; and most importantly, they’ve learned a little bit more about each other. In a week’s time, students have gotten the opportunity to really learn and understand their partner and hear so much about their classmates while others are sharing their final creations. It is a wonderful opportunity to grow as a classroom.

    Do you have a design thinking lesson you’d like to share? Please respond in the comments below.

    Thank you for reading,





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