College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

How Design Thinking Helps Students Take Action

By Sanjli Gidwaney — March 20, 2017 10 min read
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Design thinking is a classroom strategy that can facilitate 21st century skills while allowing students to take action on topics they are passionate about says Sanjli Gidwaney, Director, Design for Change, USA.

We are living in an ever-changing world, and it is sometimes difficult for young people to find their place and make sense of it all. While they hope to do good, it’s hard for them to know where to begin. As educators, parents, and adults, it’s important that we create space for youth to think deeply about what they care about, encourage them to ask tough questions, and to take action in a meaningful way.

But how do you put it into practice? How do you get from theory to the actions taken by fifth graders in North Carolina when they help refugees settle into their new homes and access healthy food, or when you see third graders shut down drug houses in Texas, or when you watch high school students combat the 70 percent high school drop-out rate on their Native American reservation in South Dakota?

This transition from theory (or intent) to action does not happen in a bubble. It requires commitment and passion on the part of both adult supporters and young people. It requires time, tools, trust, and the creation of intentionally planned opportunities and experiences. When all these pieces come together, young people can be empowered to do good in extraordinary ways.

There are many great resources out there to catalyze young people to do good, but as a general framework, one of the most powerful tools is design thinking.

Design Thinking Overview

Design thinking is a methodology and framework pioneered by notable design firm IDEO and the renowned Stanford Design School. It is a user-centered approach to solving problems: The needs of the person you’re solving the problem for is at the heart of everything you do. They are involved in telling you about the problem, brainstorming a solution, and helping you implement it. As a methodology, it can be used in all aspects of life, especially to catalyze young people to do good. For more information on the design thinking process, specifically how it relates to k-12 education, check out Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit. Here you will find a host of resources, videos and worksheets to jump start design thinking in the classroom. Another resource for educators is the PBS Kids Design Squad website with ready to go lesson plans and activities for students.

Design thinking, as it relates to global competence, encourages curiosity and engagement with real world problems. Young people can use design thinking to determine problems they’d like to solve in their community, work in teams, brainstorm solutions, investigate ideas, and critically analyze the ones they’d like to. In doing so, they learn how to incorporate multiple perspectives and effectively communicate their ideas to others. Design thinking embraces failure and encourages the iteration of solutions while creating opportunity to learn key 21st century skills. It also helps young people connect what they are learning to a larger context. In this way, they can see the role they have to play as contributing members of society, not only in their immediate surroundings, but also in the world.


The first stage of design thinking is to understand the issues you care about. This can sometimes be tricky for younger students, and even adults, as they don’t always know the answer.

Start by asking students to draw a map of their community, school, or program, identifying “bright spots,” where they feel good, happy, and safe, and “cold spots” where they feel unhappy, scared, or unsafe. Ask them to pick an area or issue they are most interested in exploring, either a “bright spot” to advance in new ways or a “cold spot” they want to fix. This step is critical because if young people are not working on issues they care about, it is difficult for them to learn and be engaged.

In Dallas, third grade students used the mapping exercise and identified a drug house in their community which made them feel unsafe when they walked to school. This prompted students to share their knowledge with the local police department, and collectively work together to shut down the drug house.

Once they identify an area of focus, ask them to find out as much information as they can about it. Encourage them to interview stakeholders who are affected or even part of the problem. Practice the art of asking good questions and conducting interviews by having them interview each other or their family members. (Use the following Scholastic article as a guide on how to teach children the art of stakeholder interviews.) In doing so, they will gain knowledge about the stakeholder group as well as themselves. In light of this new information, they will be forced to face their own long-standing assumptions and stereotypes. It is important to admit, acknowledge, and normalize these feelings and remind them, it is not bad to have assumptions, so long as we know when we are making them and the impact they can have.

Example Project
Third grade students from the United Nations International School (UNIS) in New York, being an international school community, used the Design for Change program to help their peers in Brazil. They started by exchanging letters with peers living in the favelas of Brazil. They learned about their hopes, dreams, and the issues they faced, along with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. They felt children in Brazil were not having their needs met: many of them could not go to school or play in a safe place. UNIS students wanted to solve the problem of their friends not having a safe place to play.


Once students have decided on the issue they’d like to address, they need to identify possible solutions to solve the problem. The best way to kick start this process is by introducing rapid brainstorming. Divide students into groups and give each a stack of sticky notes, chart paper, and markers. Each group should write their problem statement (for example:

Refugees face many challenges when resettling in Raleigh, NC. They have limited access to resources such a healthcare, education and good nutrition. This problem is made worse by intolerance and lack of understanding in our community.) on the top of chart paper and then try to come up with 100 possible solutions to address the chosen problem in three minutes. To do this, each group member writes possible solutions on sticky notes—one per note—and then posts them onto the chart paper. Students might also choose to invite stakeholders identified in the previous stage to join them in the brainstorming process. This exercise encourages students to explore all kinds of wild and crazy ideas without judging or second-guessing their ideas and those of others.

Next, students will begin to group related solutions together, creating headings for each group to organize their thoughts. Once the groups have been identified, students will evaluate the ideas or sticky notes in each grouping based on the type of impact they would like to have: bold, fast, long lasting, easiest to implement etc. To facilitate this process you might consider downloading the Yes, And activity and Accessing Resources activity from the Design for Change USA web portal.

Once all the groups have been evaluated, students will identify a single solution or a combination of solutions to move forward with. They may choose to debate and discuss in hopes of arriving at a consensus about which solution to implement.

This activity is not only exciting and energizing, it also encourages students to practice articulating their ideas, brainstorm and think critically, all while learning how to work with others—necessary functions for success in their daily lives.

Example Project
At UNIS, students brainstormed many possible solutions including sending supplies books, and food, but they felt those options were short-term in nature after speaking with their partner organization in Brazil. They continued to engage their friends in Brazil realizing there was no community center in favela where they could play.


The next stage is all about taking great ideas and turning them into action. As a class, create a master schedule of activities with accompanying deadlines. Then have each group create a separate action plan and schedule of activities for their group specifically, noting the different responsibilities of each group member.

For example, if they wanted to host an event or fundraiser, they need to think about the resources they will need, the time it will take to plan and host, the location of the event, the cost, and desired impact or goal, as well as what contingency plans they might need.

They might need to revisit their ideation stage to iterate or tweak their solutions. Design thinking is not as linear a process as it might seem at first glance. Students will find themselves jumping back and forth between stages until they figure out what works. During this stage, encourage students to check in with the stakeholder community and reflect on their project ideas and implementation. They might consider interviewing the user community.

This stage allows and embraces failures, which are learning opportunities that let students learn how to fail fast, fail often, and fail forward—part of the beauty of design thinking.

Example Project
UNIS students decided to raise funds to build a community center for their friends in Brazil. They were very excited until realizing how challenging fundraising can be. They needed to revisit their plan of action, turning the set back into an opportunity. They enlisted the help of their supporters, recognizing they needed people with various skills and at different levels of authority to champion for them—and so they made every effort to share their story and meaningfully connect with folks who could help. While it was easy to give up, they persisted, overcoming several other challenges with grit and a positive attitude. In the end, students organized a highly successful fundraiser.


The design thinking process culminates in the sharing of all the hard work done by the students. Ask students to create a short video, presentation, or slide show about their experience through each design thinking stage. Ask them to share this at a gathering or event to inspire others to become involved. Students can even submit their projects to other organizations to be featured on their website, expanding the reach of their story. Sharing can happen both offline via conferences or parent teacher events, or it can happen online through social media. As part of this stage, students can solicit advice from the stakeholder group to determine if they have met their intended goal.

During this stage, students have the opportunity to bring attention to their social change project and use it as a vehicle to spark even more good. This gives students the chance to exercise their communication and digital literacy skills, and the chance to inspire others. It also gives them an opportunity to reflect on the changes they’ve brought to their community. This article from Edutopia, suggests several ways to encourage young people to reflect on their work for personal growth and for the advancement of their project or task.

Example Project
Students at the UNIS school shared their project in several meaningful ways. They first shared with a notable tech entrepreneur, Adam Pisoni, founder of Yammer, and then with the school board and parent association and on social media. Students from younger grades were so inspired, they organized a gala fundraiser, involving the entire school and outside community—the Brazilian Ambassador was even present—and raised over $15,000. They also created a documentary film about their project.

Using the design thinking process can result in lifelong skills. Design thinking recognizes the designer in everyone‐and the validity of multiple perspectives. When we transition from designing for someone to designing with someone, we can truly solve problems effectively. This shift in thinking can be used in all aspects of both in personal and professional life.

Follow Design for Change, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Images of UNIS students working on their Brazil project courtesy of 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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