Design Thinking the Design Thinking Process

“Empathy should be used in every situation.
We should think with empathy throughout life.”
– 6th grade student

Why are there so many design thinking framework graphics? Why do they have different shapes? Different elements? Different flow patterns?

Those were the questions 6th graders asked when we looked at a variety of design thinking framework graphics, ranging from Stanford to IBM to Intuit and the Henry Ford Institute. These students had spent this past year diving into the design thinking process through a variety of experiences ranging from creating a student chair to redesigning the school experience. Because they had spent so much time exploring the process, looking through other frameworks raised an important question:

What does Design Thinking look like in Del Mar Union School District, and how might we develop a Design Thinking visual that represents what Design Thinking means for students and staff?

We realized that we had a unique challenge – unlike corporations or colleges, we have to represent design thinking to five year olds who cannot read all the way up to 6th graders (who think they know everything!). How could we adapt our visual for our customers?

Luckily for me, 6th graders were up to the task. A week later, and they had prototypes to present. And I must admit, WOWZA was the term that kept coming to mind during their presentations. I’m sharing their concepts here, but what you’re missing is the rich dialogue around WHY they made their concepts the way they did.

Some key takeaways from the student dialogues:

“The Design Thinking process adapts to how you’re using it.”

“I thought it was linear at first, but now I know I can move around as I need to.”

“The process restarts again and again, going broad and narrow at the same time.”

“I didn’t understand the value of going back until I did it so many times on this project.”

Beyond the graphic, we also talked about the design thinking process as a holistic entity. This is where the conversation really intrigued me. One student commented that the trouble with using the design thinking process in schools is that the non-linear cyclical process runs counter to traditional teaching and learning. Content standards and state tests require classes to keep moving in a forward momentum, even when the design thinking process would have us circle back around and around again to dig deeper into a complex problem. It can be frustrating having to move beyond an experience when students know there’s still so many layers to unravel. Finding balance, as a teacher, is critical to the learning.

But the students all saw that the value of design thinking went beyond the process itself. Students realized that using design thinking taught them time management and backwards planning. They learned the power of constraints, like deadlines, to push creative thought into action.

Most importantly, students discovered that empathy is the start of it all. It allows people to understand what others are going through. As the students explained, empathy has a use in every situation. If we all would think with empathy throughout our lives, many problems could be averted, or solved, in compassionate ways.

If only we were all as smart as these 6th graders!

So… which model strikes a chord with you? Why? What do you think propelled the students to create that version?


Thanks Mrs. Tanner for letting me spend time with your students! I appreciated how you identified this process as an authentic assessment possibility.

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