How to Teach Design Thinking

I only lasted one year as a teacher. I had entertained the possibility of teaching ever since 8yr old me had mistakenly assumed my mother’s classroom was a monarchy. For a few weeks in 1993 I mentally prepared to take over when she retired, and the knowledge that I was not predestined to become a middle school special education teacher both relieved and disappointed me.

But when I entered the classroom myself, I discovered a world of discipline-happy teachers, irrational rules, and bored, angry students. I didn’t last long.

I still struggle with having made that decision. I love UX in part because we find ways of teaching without the rules of the traditional classroom. And I love volunteering with Atlas Workshops, because I get to teach students design thinking outside traditional classroom confines. I’ve had some particularly inspiring and some particularly challenging experiences over the years. At this point I feel comfortable sharing recommendations for teaching the design process.

Four Steps to Teach Design Thinking

These suggestions are true whether you’re teaching students, teachers, business people, or non profits. In my experience, successfully teaching design thinking requires the following.

1. The Environment must be a Safe Space

Most people know the term “safe space” in reference to therapists offices or highly volatile conversation topics. But a safe space is anywhere that people feel they can fail, without repercussions. In my experience, people of all ages are afraid of failure. Students are afraid of being embarrassed in front of peers, business people are afraid of losing the respect of their colleagues, and clients are afraid of appearing foolish in front of the “experts.”

However, in order to brainstorm, we need to let go of our structure and interest in being “right,” and instead follow ideas to see where they might lead. Not every idea will be a good one, but we need to feel that we’re safe to explore. Which means, in order to create ideas (a necessary part of design), we need a safe space.

2. Everyone Needs to Learn to Think Outside the Box

High school students have amazingly diverse perspectives. But they are also immensely stubborn. When they come up with an idea, they want to stick with it. Unfortunately, most first ideas are not the end-all-be-all. A good designer knows that forcing him or herself to come up with 6 ideas instead of 1 results in far better options.

Adults can be just as stubborn, boxed in by the ideas they’ve heard before, and the routines they’re used to. It’s useful for all of us to push ourselves, whether that means seeking new inspiration, giving ourselves unique constraints, or merely asking different questions.

3. Noise Cannot be a Concern

My dad was a middle school teacher in the 1970s. He didn’t last much longer teaching public school than I did (maybe it runs in the family), but where I left voluntarily, he was pushed out. One of the biggest complaints against him – always from other teachers – was that his classroom was too noisy.

I’ve worked with other teachers who have this same concern. It’s become clear to me that when we worry about our students bothering others, we’re not worried enough about hearing what our students are saying. Our activities in UX are all geared around hearing what others have to say, learning from them, and brainstorming solutions together. We need to be noisy, and as a teacher that means I need to account for spaces where my students can make a little noise.

4. Teachers and Students must be Equals

When I first started working as a content strategist, I worried about clients disrespecting me. It wasn’t an idle concern; I am female, short, and younger than some of my colleagues. Five years ago, five years younger, I faced even more clients who would interrupt me, disregard what I was saying, or simply assume I had nothing valuable to share. It was infuriating, and I just wished they would listen and recognize that I could add value.

But now I also fear the opposite. I’m assertive, and I speak with authority, and I sometimes see clients who simply nod and agree with me, perhaps afraid to disagree and risk being wrong. Now I spend more time making sure my clients and students see me as their equal, someone just as fallible. The only way students will share their ideas and brainstorm solutions is if they get rid of the idea that the teacher has the one right answer.

UX is always about teaching

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my trips with Atlas Workshops is that my work with adults is also a form of teaching. When we work in an agency, our clients believe we’re experts, coming to solve for them. But in reality, we’re also teachers, coming to show them what they can do. These four requirements are the only way to ensure a successful project.

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