Education Opinion

Design Thinking in the Elementary Classroom: the Power of Empathy

By Beth Holland — May 11, 2016 4 min read
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Many thanks to Julie Colantoni, first-grade teacher at Memorial School in Medfield, MA, for sharing her story. You can learn more about the exciting happenings in her classroom on her blog.

A few weeks ago, images tagged with #PaulWalksOn started passing through my Facebook feed. Smiling hikers on the Appalachian Trail posed with shiny new boots and posted reflective stories. Whether out of curiosity or procrastination, I searched the hashtag to find out the story behind this wave of images, and that’s how I came to learn about Paul.

For years, Paul yearned to travel from Australia to thru-hike the Appalachian trail. Unfortunately, first due to health issues from family members and then because of his own heart troubles, Paul passed away before achieving this goal. In his final days, Paul had listened to The DirtBag Diaries podcast while dreaming of the hike he would never take. After his death, his wife reached out to Fitz and Becca Cahall, creators of The Diaries. They not only understood the need to tell Paul’s story but also could empathize with his longing to complete that epic hike. At that moment, they designed a solution to get Paul on the trail - even if through his boots.

To solve Paul’s problem, Fitz and Becca engaged in empathy. Though they probably did not consider their efforts as a Design Thinking challenge, they certainly dove into the process. Countless other hikers also empathized with Paul and have taken up the charge to carry his boots this summer. They understand his story. They know what it means to “do the things they’ve always dreamed of doing.” As I watched these events unfold on social media, I thought about the power of solving problems and building community in the classroom, especially with younger students.

When introducing Design Thinking, elementary school teachers often worry that younger students cannot truly engage in empathy - the first step in the process - because they lack the initial experiences. Julie Colantoni, a first-grade teacher in Medfield, MA, raised this concern during a Design Thinking introduction in an EdTechTeacher workshop. However, a few days later, when faced with a “bathroom challenge,” she decided to trust the process.

First, Julie presented to her students that a problem existed in the school’s bathrooms. Though guided, the students began to engage in empathy. Why might this be a problem? Who does this problem impact? What could we, as first graders, do to fix this problem? With those prompts, her students dove into the Design Thinking process. They came to their own realization that their actions impacted others and that this issue caused extra work for the school custodian. In essence, they defined the problem for themselves.

Then, Julie’s students recognized that they needed to DO something about it. More than just fixing their own actions, they recognized the need to educate their peers about keeping the bathrooms clean. The students brainstormed ideas that ranged from creating videos to posting signs to remind other students to clean up after themselves. After actually listening to each other’s ideas, and much debate, the students decided to create posters for the bathrooms. However, they did not stop with that one idea. Instead, they went back to empathy: kindergarteners can’t read. Julie’s students iterated on their initial ideas, learned about the power of imagery, and created new prototypes to ensure that all students could understand the message on the posters.

After helping the students laminate and hang the posters, Julie initially thought the process complete. Her students felt otherwise. How will people know to look for our the posters? The students went back to brainstorming and eventually decided to make a morning announcement. At this point, the students had to learn how to write scripts, practice public speaking, choose who would make the announcement, ask for permission, and finally educate the entire school about the bathroom problem. Julie’s students truly took ownership of the process. In the end, they were more excited about doing something good for the community than making their posters.

It took almost two weeks for Julie’s students to work through the Design Thinking process. In an online discussion post, she shared:

When looking at what the students did to solve their problem, I realized that they were applying a lot of the skills that we were working on, but in a more practical way. When they created posters for the bathrooms, they had to write for an audience. They had to decide the number of bathrooms that needed posters. They had to ask to make an announcement on the speaker and create what they were going to say. They were editing their own thoughts. Win...win!"

A few weeks later, I saw Julie in another EdTechTeacher workshop. “I have to tell you the best part!” she exclaimed. A few days after the bathroom announcement, as the students came in from recess, a trail of wood chips from the playground followed the kindergarteners. Once brought to their attention, the younger students sprung into action. Because it had been modeled by Julie’s first graders, they recognized a problem to solve and wanted to now seek out a solution.

This brings me back to #PaulWalksOn. The hikers carrying Paul’s boots have never met the man, but they can empathize with his story. Like those individuals who have volunteered to carry his memory this summer, many of the students in Julie’s school will never ignore another problem because they understand what it means to engage in empathy. In his book, Linchpin, Seth Godin writes, “What we want, what we need, what we must have are indispensable human beings. We need original thinkers, provocateurs, and people who care.”

Through the Design Thinking process, Julie started to build the skills that her students will need to become indispensable, to become linchpins. When introducing empathy to younger students, it does have to start with an initial experience. They do need something on which to build new mental frameworks, but that something could be as concrete as a messy bathroom.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.