Design Thinking In The Classroom

*Article contributed by Courtney Hartnett*

Walking past the open door, chaos appears to ring into the hallway. A longer pause and closer investigation reveal passionate conversations between groups of people. Heads down with pencils quickly working, keeping up with ideas. Numerous hands manipulating an assortment of expected and unexpected materials. Looks of excitement. Anticipation. Frustration. This room is deeply engaged in design thinking. Insert whatever age and educational setting, and the kaleidoscopic connections between individuals, the immediate setting, and the outside world continue to unfold.

Design thinking, also commonly referred to as the Engineering Design Process or creative problem-solving, is not a clear-cut, step-by-step process or curriculum. Rather, design thinking is a method of problem-solving rooted in empathy, creativity, and iteration to create products for specific users:

· Empathy is an important part of designing solutions. Rather than generic offerings, empathy invites designers to imagine solutions that meet the end-users’ unique needs and desires.

· Creativity plays an important role in coming up with innovative solutions that are practical and functional. Designers play around, exploring different configurations and arrangements, of design ideas.

· Designers create iterations of the product, trying out ideas and refining them through prototyping and testing.

Rather than a linear sequence, a visual of design thinking resembles more of a web. Progress towards the end-product is visible, but empathy, creative ideas, and prototype testing is revisited throughout as needed. Design thinking is powerful when embedded into learning environments. Students become problem-scopers—seeking out opportunities for improvements or solutions to real-life problems they encounter, and then tackle those problems with workable solutions.

For example, 3rd grade students at my school recognized that teachers had a problem carrying several items with them during the school day. Teachers had to carry a walkie-talkie, schedules, keys, access badge, cell phone, and student medication, among a number of other things. Items were often left behind or misplaced, wasting time to locate lost items or double-checking to make sure all things were accounted for. Using design thinking, students created well-sized satchel bags with compartments and labels specific to the items teachers need to carry with them at all times. With items having specific “homes” in the bag’s compartments, it is simple to identify when something is missing. Duct tape was the final “fabric” of choice and offered unique pattern options and flexibility in assembling durable bags. The final product was well-received by the teachers for the stylish appearance and customized functionality.

To start working with the design thinking mindset, there are a number of resources available. From an organizational or business standpoint, IDEO offers a number of examples and resources for applying design thinking within a company as well as to generate products for customers. The at Stanford describes their purpose as helping others develop their own creative potential through design. They have an extensive collection of resources that would be a good place to start for anyone interested in design thinking. When you have younger people in the mix, jumping into design thinking can feel overwhelming. Check out the videos from a five-minute film festival about Design Thinking from Edutopia. There are a number of examples of what design thinking can look like in school settings.

However you decide to start, design thinking offers endless opportunities for learning and engagement. Participants apply problem-solving in real-life situations that require communication, creativity, experimentation, and collaboration. This is by no means an exhaustive list of learning opportunities. Give it a try, and I think you will find the experience dynamic and rewarding for everyone involved.

The Perfect Summer Art Project


Have you ever wondered why blue prints are blue? Well, it’s because in the mid-1800’s an astronomer named John Herschel developed a printing process for copying his notes. He discovered that mixing ammonium iron citrate and potassium ferrocyanide created a photosensitive solution that has come to be known as blue ferric ferrocyanide. When this solution is applied to paper and dried in the dark, it can be activated when it’s exposed to UV light. Any portion of the dried solution that is covered from the light will remain white, and when the paper is rinsed in water the blue ferric ferrocyanide will change from green to “Prussian Blue.” This process creates the blueprint effect.

Summer is the perfect season for creating cyanotype prints and nature can provide the most unique objects to use as negatives. If you’d like to give the process a try, you can purchase the chemicals and mix your own blue ferric ferrocyanide or you can purchase pre-treated papers and fabrics. When working with children, adults must supervise the use of chemicals to ensure they are used safely. If you have any safety concerns, you might choose to use pretreated papers. You can purchase these papers HERE.

Check out this youtube video for instructions:

What is childhood?


When we are working with children, sometimes our work distracts us and we and don’t take time to think about what it really means to be a child. Being a child is something we all experience, but what is childhood?

Is it a period of time that begins at birth and magically ends when we turn eighteen? (That’d be 6,570 days to be precise)

Is it a developmental phase we must complete before passing into adulthood? (That’d be four phases if we’re following Piaget)

Is it a social construct that we create and enact as a society?

Or maybe it’s a social construction that shifts and changes from generation to generation?

Our beliefs about childhood are shaped by the history before us, the world around us, and our own experiences as children and with children. Our conceptions of childhood change as major scientific paradigms shift. For example, when our views about human behavior are dominated by behaviorist theories, then we tend to view children as passive agents who learn through series of actions and reactions.

Over the past one hundred years, our ideas about childhood have been impacted by shifts in social science theory. As with any theory, a particular theory might give us insights into certain aspects of a concept or phenomenon, but that same theoretical perspective will fail to explain other aspects. We have more diverse understandings of childhood when we consider the possibilities of multiple theoretical perspectives.

Have you ever taken time to articulate exactly what being a child means to you? If not, we invite you to consider how your ideas about childhood inform the work you do or want to do with kids.

If you’re interested in learning more about these theoretical shifts, check out this awesome slideshare presentation created by Daniel Bigler:


Can kids learn art and innovation skills online?


Did you know that online learning isn’t just for homeschoolers and college students? Most of us have seen online courses designed to deliver content via video lectures, assignments, and digital assessments. But, can creative skills like drawing, illustration, problem-solving, and invention strategies be taught online? Several new companies are on a mission to bring creative learning experiences to the e-course market.

Businesses like JAM Online Courses For Kids, Sparketh, and Thrive are designing and distributing courses that teach creative skills through video instruction, interactive discussions, and some even offer support from online mentors or teachers.

If you’re interested in online courses for your children, here’s the scoop on these three companies:

  1. Thrive.  With video art lessons designed to be part of their three-level program, Thrive lessons are created for kids aged 6-12 to allow them to develop their creative muscles at home. Thrive also explains that they offer parent guidance videos that provide parents with the information they need to support their children as they engage with the course content.
  2. Sparketh. Providing over 500 videos that teach visual art and design skills, Sparketh is on a mission to make learning art online “fun and effective.” The videos are divided into three categories: beginner, intermediate, and advanced, and users are encouraged to select videos that are appropriate for their skill levels. Many video courses also include printable content that kids can use to follow along.
  3. JAM. Jam Online Courses For Kids are designed to teach visual art skills as well as innovation and technological skills. Their mission is to “making magical learning experiences to help kids build confidence, creativity and talent that will last their lifetimes.” JAM courses are unique in that they are designed to provide children with an online mentor that will provide feedback and support as they engage with the course content.

Like most web-based content, each company offers free trials for their content–so, go on and give it a try.




Here’s the Scoop on the Maker Movement

*This article was contributed by Courtney Hartnett*

Makerspace? Maker? Maker Movement? Huh?

Heard these words and don’t quite understand what this whole “make” thing is? If you’re behind the curve with the Maker Movement, here’s a quick rundown so you can join in on conversations about one of the hippest creative movements spreading across the nation.

Maker Movement: In January 2005, Dale Dougherty published the first Make magazine— a bimonthly magazine focusing on DIY projects ranging from traditional arts and crafts to furniture building to complex advanced robotics. The readership quickly grew into a community that valued “making” over buying, with an emphasis on creative exploration, learning through doing, and collaboration. One year later, the first Maker Faire was held to showcase the variety of projects created and to celebrate the Do-It-Yourself spirit. Each year, this grassroots movement has gained more and more momentum, spurring the opening of makerspaces and Maker Faires in many communities.

Makerspace: Sometimes referred to as design labs, hackerspaces, and tech shops, makerspaces, as the name suggests, are spaces people gather to make things. Make culture is all about the sharing of knowledge, ideas, and tools, and makerspaces, which are usually community-run, nonprofit organizations, embody these principles. A membership to a makerspace grants one access to usually an extensive (and expensive!) collection of tools such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and welders as well as fellow DIYers that share ideas, skill sets, and a passion for creative construction. Schools, museums, and libraries are opening up their own makerspaces in recognition of the value of learning through creative, exploratory making— the lingo is tinkering— and opening up accessibility to the materials and skills for a range of people that may otherwise not have the opportunity.

Maker: That can be you. Find a makerspace in your community at, or check out the The Technology Innovation Learning Environment at Georgia State University’s College of Education and Human Development. Learn more about the Maker community at

Monkey See, Monkey Do: How kids learn through observation and immitation

Have you ever watched a toddler mimic their father shaving in the mirror? Or have you seen them carrying their mom’s purse around the house as they pretend they’re busy shopping for groceries? If so, you’ve observed authentic socialization in action.

It’s easy to gloss over the terms socialize and socialization because we often use them interchangeably. Although the terms are closely related, it’s important to notice how they are distinguished in academic theories and research.

The word socialize is a verb used to describe social activities among groups of people. For example, we socialize when we play games, go to work, build relationships, engage in conversations, etc. While also a verb, the term socialization is used by sociologists to describe the process of inheriting the norms, customs, and behaviors of a larger social group.

When considering the terms in these ways, socializing is what leads to the socialization of individuals within any given society. As adults who work with children, it’s important for us to understand the social nature of child development and to question how our interactions with children are contributing to their socialization.

With these ideas in mind, it’s interesting to consider how our actions affect how children perceive the world and interact with others. In 1961, psychologist Albert Bandura conducted an experiment in which children observed an adult beating up an inflatable clown. Then, the children were given the same toy and observed as they interacted with the clown. Not surprisingly, the children who observed the adult abusing the clown were likely to show aggression, too.

Bandura’s study confirmed that children can learn by observing and imitating others’ behaviors.  Since children act out the behaviors they observe from others through their interactions with other children, the adult world strongly influences the socialization process.

Want to learn more about Bendura, the Bobo Doll Experiment, and child socialization? Check out this video by Crash Course:


Three Excellent Documentaries About How Children Use Technology

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve witnessed the phenomenon of children online. As a generation who’ve had access to screens before they could even crawl, today’s children are digital natives. Despite its undeniable benefits and endless possibilities, the effects of technology on children’s physical, mental, and social development is a hot topic for researchers and adults across multiple arenas.

Not surprisingly, some excellent documentaries have been produced that explore the ins and outs of how children are using, consuming, and interacting with technology in different ways.

Here are five of our favorite documentaries about children and how they are using technology:

  1. Minecraft: The Story of Mojang   There’s just something about kids, computers, touchscreens, and pixelated building blocks. If you’ve ever wondered why in the world kids spend so much time building worlds on Minecraft when they could be playing in the woods, this documentary will show exactly what this game is all about and why it’s all the rage with kids and adults alike.
  2. Screenagers: Growing up in the digital age   When kids grow up with constant access to screens, do the benefits outweigh the risks or should we be more concerned about the influence of screens on their development? In Screenagers, the filmmakers ask these questions and explore issues like social media, internet safety and cyber-bullying.
  3. #BeingThirteen: Inside the Secret Lives of Teens  Do we really understand the effects of growing up online for today’s kids? That’s the question explored by CNN as they studied the social media use of a group of 8th grade students across the United States. They collected over 150,000 social media posts and investigated the content to better understand the online language today’s teens are developing.

These documentaries are not only eye-opening, but they share insights into the digital lives of children in the 21st century. As adults, we must be aware of the multiple ways children are using technology within their social groups so we can provide the skills and tools they need within these digital social settings.

**Disclaimer: These documentaries should be previewed by adults to determine how and if they should be viewed with children.


How to use Technology to Engage Kids

Recently, we explored the question of how much is enough screen time. Through this discussion, we learned that adults should play an active role in children’s screen use so that we can guide and support them as they encounter new ideas and technologies. Using technology with children provides us with opportunities to engage with them in real-world contexts as they experiment with technology and view media.

Here are FOUR suggestions for using technology to engage children:

  1. Observe kids as they use technology. Kids quickly develop preferences for games, shows, and websites, which provides the perfect entry point for adults. When children are using technology or viewing media, adults should ask them to tell us about what they’re doing as we observe them using the media.
  2. Use technology with kids. We can take this engagement to a deeper level when we participate in media activities with children. Are they connecting worlds on Minecraft? If so, join in. Are they streaming their favorite youtube channel? Become a subscriber and watch with them.
  3. Show kids how adults use technology. Instead of always peering over their shoulders, adults can let kids in on the ways we are using technology. Invite them to observe and use technology with you, but be sure to choose media that is appropriate for young audiences.
  4. Understand who kids are and what they’re trying to achieve. In his insightful Tedtalk, researcher Maurice Wheeler discusses the importance of understanding who children are and what they’re trying to achieve with technology. He argues that until we understand these key points, we can’t authentically engage with them. Check out his talk to see the three developmental groups that children fall into online and how this effects how they consume and use online media:

“When was the last time you were called CHILDISH?”

When was the last time you were called childish?  That’s the question Adora Svitak wants to ask adults.

Based on her observations, it’s not an adjective that should be associated with kids because adults can be just as irrational, compulsive, and immature as the images that come to mind when the word “childish” is used to condemn an individual who is acting irresponsibly or foolish.

Svitak wants to reclaim the word “childish” and expand its meaning to reflect the hopefulness, inspiration, and inventiveness that children bring into the world. It’s precisely this kind of “childish” thinking that drives innovators to imagine new ideas and to create new possibilities. Svitak acknowledges that kids already do a lot of learning from adults, but she presents a very convincing case for her argument that adults should start learning more from kids.

If you’re looking to be inspired and aren’t afraid to be called childish, take eight minutes to hear this kid out. But, beware: sometimes the truth hurts.


Give the gift of presence


During the holiday hustle and bustle, sometimes we need a reminder about the gifts that really matter. When you cross on thing off your to-list only to see five more tasks pop up in its place, it’s easy to spend our days caught up in the “next thing” instead of the things right in front of us.

In his book, The Gift of Nothing, Patrick McDonnell shares the power of presence during a season obsessed with presents. The book tells the story of Mooch and Earl, two characters from his award-winning comic strip, Mutts, as Mooch searches for the perfect gift for Earl. But, what do you give to a friend to a friend who has everything? After searching high and low, Mooch finds the most special gift: friendship.

If you haven’t read this heart-warming children’s book, consider this recommendation our gift to you–it’s bound to brighten your day.

*Image credit: