Students’ Design Thinking Skills Sets Them Up for a Successful Future

Yesterday I received this email from three 6th grade students:

Dear Dr. Spencer,

                As sixth grade students, we have been given the design challenge to enhance our school experience. There are problems ranging from balls left in the field to bathroom catastrophes. We thought that you would be a great person to interview because you are the Executive Director of Innovation and Design. 

So today I happily set aside my desk work and traveled over to the school to talk to the students. I can honestly say, I’m not sure who learned more from our experience: them or me.

As they had shared in the email, the students have been given the challenge of enhancing the school experience. In Del Mar, a K-6 district, our vision states that we are in “unrelenting pursuit of the extraordinary school experience” and now, so our these 6th grade students. Their teacher, who has been trained at both Nueva School’s Design Thinking Institute and Stanford’s, is using her Quest elective class to provide the students with the skills and strategies necessary to utilize the design thinking process. Her focus is spot on. Jim Hackett, CEO of Ford, explains. “The old way was about disciplines,” Hackett told Fortune Magazine in September. “The new way will be about projects and understanding what people want.”

During my conversation with the students, we discussed the school, and the needs I saw as rising to the top. But then the conversation shifted, and the students became intrigued more with my job, and the goal of our district to bring design thinking experiences to all students, and not just those lucky enough to have their teacher. One student then remarked, “What happens to us in middle school? They don’t do these things there, do they?” Although I wish I had a better answer for them, all I could say was “not yet…” They continued pressing me. “How will we handle the homework load in middle school? We have a reduced homework load now.”

And so we started to analyze the skills that the students are receiving, and how those skills would translate to middle school (and life!) success. Homework load? No problem! Within these design thinking challenges, their teacher has taught them:

  • Backwards Planning: Just like homework, design thinking challenges have deadlines that must be met. But unlike assigned homework, backwards planning ensures students know how to prioritize their work load based on estimated work time, complexity of task, and due date.
  • Questioning: Design thinking requires students to define the problem that needs to be addressed. The questions they are formulating are complex, and get to the root of a problem so that they can better ideate and prototype solutions. This means they’ll have a better understanding of what information they need to complete their work. Furthermore, they’ll have the confidence to ask clarifying questions of their teachers.
  • Prioritization: When prototyping possible design thinking solutions, a lot of elements must come together. It can be easy to get distracted by wanting to make a prototype pretty, or add “just one more thing.” Learning how to prioritize actions based on a needs statement will also help them figure out if they should start their math homework due tomorrow before or after writing their English essay due next week.
  • Iteration: One of the most important concepts students learn in the design thinking process is that the iteration process is not a one time thing. Iterate, prototype, seek feedback, and do it again…and again… and maybe even again. Failure is not a cause for meltdown, but just an opportunity to iterate again. If you doubt me, just watch Audri and his Rube Goldberg machine process!


Carole Bilson, President of the Design Management Institute, states, “There’s a lot of observation, listening and research as you are developing products and solutions.” Evelyn Huang, Director of Design Thinking and Strategy at Capital One Labs, explains that Design Thinking, a “human-centered methodology, coupled with a ‘fail fast’ attitude, allows us to quickly identify, build, and test our way to success. We spend less time planning, more time doing, and, above all else, challenge ourselves to see the world through the eyes of our customers every step of the way.”

With skills like this being developed in our 6th graders , I don’t think the students will have any problems tackling the challenges they face in middle school next year. In fact, I venture to guess that these students will be redesigning the middle school experience in no time! And then high school. And soon, they’ll be solving problems we can’t yet fathom. Homework? Psh! No problem at all.


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