Opinion
Assessment Opinion

Design Thinking Develops Empathy

By Lisa Yokana — June 13, 2016 7 min read

Design thinking is a great way to help students tackle problems in manageable pieces—it can also help them learn empathy and think about the global implications of local problems. Lisa Yokana, high school teacher from Scarsdale High School in New York explains. Asia Society and BOOST Collaborative are partnering to create an on-going series of blogs related to global learning. A version of this blog was originally posted here.

How might we encourage our students so that they understand their own power and ability to change their world by taking action? The answer is simple: start small, make it relevant and local, and use Design Thinking to manage the process. Design Thinking is a codification of the artistic or scientific process and starts with empathy and understanding. Students gather insights, define the problem and then brainstorm multiple solutions before moving forward to prototyping and testing their ideas. In this post, I will share ways you can use Design Thinking to foster global competence in your classroom.

Getting Started
Look around you for inspiration. What affects students’ lives? Starting small, scaffolding skills, and building creative confidence is imperative. It can be paralyzing for a student to be faced with solving a real world problem right off the bat, so start with a simple design challenge. Redesigning the gift giving experience is one example of a simple challenge that students can relate to, and experiencing the design cycle is the only way to learn it. The outcome can be anything, but the important thing is that students truly follow the process without jumping to solutions. Using Design Thinking allows students to become comfortable with the “not-knowing” and iterative parts of the creative process.

Start Local with Recognizing Perspectives
Once students have practiced, look for a local challenge—global competence begins when students understand their local context and how it connects to and is impacted by, the rest of the world. Ask your students to be on the lookout for opportunities to improve their surroundings and community. I ask them to each bring in one issue in their lives that drives them crazy and then look for overlapping problems. After a discussion, the class votes on which one to tackle. This helps shift students’ mindset from consumers to a bias towards action.

Once you have identified a local challenge, dive into the design process. This spring, my students are solving the parking problems at our high school, something that they care about as it affects their daily experience. There are not enough parking spaces on campus for all the students who drive daily, and students park illegally so as not to be late to class. The first step: research and empathize. Students are used to finding the right answer fairly quickly, so this can be frustrating for them. Ask them to hold off on looking for solutions while they explore others’ perspectives and all aspects of the problem.

I create a design “parking lot” where students can put solutions they’ve thought of, this way it’s easier to let go of them and embrace the process. With each challenge, we map the stakeholders and then require students to interview someone from each group. For this problem, students interviewed other students, parents, teachers, and administrators in charge of regulating parking. They needed to understand the WHY behind students’ desires to drive to school, as well as the constraints. As the facilitator of this process, I required that each group complete a certain number of interviews from each faction of stakeholders. They collaboratively brainstormed potential questions, reviewed them with me, and then took notes during the interviews, which they also shared with the class. This way I can gauge their level of commitment and give them the first process grade. Their big discovery was that it wasn’t possible to simply add more parking spots or even build a parking structure.

As children struggle with real life problems, even ones that are in their own schools and communities, they learn to put themselves in others’ shoes and consider the issue from other vantage points. Following the design process allows students to consider multiple solutions as they brainstorm. They gain insight from making rough prototypes, testing them and reiterating based on feedback.

Iteration Is a Real-World Skill
I ask students to do an initial prototype/pitch early on in the process where they can articulate their ideas visually and verbally, and get immediate feedback from others in the class. If students have only worked a short time on their solution, it is much easier for them to abandon it if it doesn’t seem viable. Otherwise, they can create an elegant solution only to discover that it doesn’t solve the problem, or that no one likes it. The presentation is graded, but not in a traditional way. I am looking to see if students have explored different options and if they are using the insights they gained from interviews to craft their prototype.

One group of students proposed a shuttle bus to take students to and from the village during lunchtime so they could buy lunch. After asking for feedback, they learned that students wouldn’t use it and that the school wouldn’t provide it. They had to reiterate, going back to the “why” behind students driving to school. This group asked more questions and found that the real problem was that everyone who drove wanted the freedom of leaving after school when they wanted. Having moved beyond the simple and unrealistic solution of creating more parking spots, the students came up with solutions that included a carpooling app that incentivizes carpooling and a senior-only personalized parking system. As the facilitator of this experience, it is important to be checking in with each group constantly. While I give students the freedom to go out and conduct interviews during the class period, they know that they must show me their results and feedback notes when they return. This allows me to give them another process grade. As students reiterate their ideas based on feedback, I am constantly reminding them of their problem statement and the insights they have heard.

From Local to Global

Their final solutions are pitched to real people and are graded for quality of presentation, the evolution of the idea in response to their research, and their ability to articulate their idea and respond to questions. When their ideas are implemented, they learn that their solutions are valued. In this case, the administration wanted to develop the parking app, because they thought it had the best chance at changing the parking culture at our school. This is the first step in creating global citizens with a bias towards action. Although parking at the high school is far from a global issue, students see that their ideas are valued and valuable. They begin to see the world as a place where they can affect change. From here, students can look to their local community for challenges and think of ways to scale their solutions globally. This requires students to understand how problems change depending on local culture and constraints. Food access, for instance, will present different issues in New Jersey than it will in a small village in Africa. Designing a way for excess food to get to food pantries before the end of the day is not a solution that can be scaled to every country. This demonstrates the importance of empathy and understanding, the first step of the design process.

We need to foster a mindset of action and nurture students who are ready and equipped to take on the tough, complex problems of the world. So even though students begin by solving small, local problems, they develop a mindset of doing. Once students feel their impact locally, their mindset shifts, and they begin to see opportunities for global change. Design Thinking gives them a process and allows them to practice vitally important skills for life.

Here are further ideas and resources for global scale Design Thinking projects:


  • “Empathy on the Edge”: An essay on exploring how empathy Design Thinking works.
  • “Extreme By Design”: An interactive experience designed for 4th through 12th grade students, to be completed after watching the Extreme By Design documentary. Learning Episode 1 (“Being an Innovator”) will help students think and act like innovators using the design thinking approach.
  • “A Design Challenge to Students: Solve a Real-World Problem!”: This blog provides a couple of design challenge ideas to use with elementary and high school students.
  • The Ethics Institute at Kent Place School: This innovative program will bring teams of educators and students from schools across the metro-New York area to the Kent Place School campus to develop new approaches and solutions to complex real-world issues within their respective school communities using methods adapted from the Ethical Decision-Making Model and Design Thinking.
  • “Design Thinking, Making, and Learning from the Heart”: A blog highlighting the process of design thinking to redesign high school social studies curriculum.

Follow Lisa, BOOST Collaborative, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Images of app prototype are courtesy of the author.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning 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.

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