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Why Teach First Graders Design Thinking?

January 21, 2016 | Beth Singer, Principal

Which scenario sounds better? A teacher standing in front of the room talking about elusive concepts such as gratitude or preserving the environment? Or a creative, thought-provoking, design-centric, high-energy experience that immerses kids in problem solving and thinking of others?

Ok, it’s not a fair question. We all know that lessons are better learned when experienced rather than heard, and that’s one of the reasons we teach design thinking, but it’s not the only reason.

Over the past 7 years, we’ve created design-thinking curriculum for kids ages six-12.

Having practiced design thinking for 30+ years, we know that if we can train elementary age kids to connect emotionally with their audience, explore a range of solutions, and use their intuition to take some chances, we will be training the thinkers of tomorrow to solve some of the world’s most complex social and physical problems.

Blessings and Collages

Last month, we explored the idea of what constitutes “a blessing” with 65 first-graders. We asked them, is it a person in our lives, a toy, a pet, a flower, or is it the love we feel from grandpa? Is it one single thing, or a collection of unrelated things greater than the sum of the parts? We explored these questions with our youngsters and, through the medium of collaging, they answered, magnificently and from the heart.

Preserving the Earth and Packaging

For the next class, we talked about our responsibility to protect the earth and preserve its resources. We looked at packaging and its many important, practical and commercial uses, but also at its role as one of the biggest sources of pollution on the planet. We asked the class, Where do you think all this packaging will end up? 

Using only recycled materials, the students created their own packages, for their blessings collages made the week before. Taking materials meant for one purpose and giving them an entirely new meaning enchanted our 7-year olds. They giggled with delight as they took their problem-solving wings for a major test drive and made relationships amongst the recycled materials where previously none existed. Bursting with pride, that both the inside and the outside of their packages will be a gift for the recipient, the kids came face-to-face with environmental values AND design thinking.

Design thinking is a protocol for solving problems and discovering new opportunities to achieve extraordinary results. Apple and 3M were companies on the brink of failure, but using design thinking, they adopted an innovative culture that achieved amazing records of success. Procter & Gamble, Samsung, and Steelcase and many others are beginning to integrate design thinking and its proponents across operations. A multitude of postgraduate studies programs in well-respected schools now require design-thinking courses—including MBAs, engineering public policy programs.

As professional designers, we use this strategic and creative process to solve problems—every day. We’re using the right and the left sides of the brains in the same progression. Now, we’re teaching kids to do the same thing.




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