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Learning doesn’t always have to be teacher led. There are other models that create authentic experiences for students and are closer to what they will experience once they are finished with school. Last spring, a group of high school juniors came to me, wanting to explore the intersection of art and technology using both paper and sewn circuitry. I had never worked with either before but was excited to learn these tools myself, so I eagerly agreed to the project.  Tinkering alongside your students might sound scary, but it's a great way to model the learning process. For the first few weeks we met and played with materials, using online tutorials and YouTube videos as resources. My students constantly looked to me for answers and I enjoyed their continued surprise when I responded by saying that I had no idea how to do something. I would ask them what they needed to know and how they thought they could find answers. My students quickly learned to ask thoughtful questions, and which online sites were good resources.

When we tried things and they didn’t work they way we hoped my students would get frustrated. Again, they would turn to me to solve the problem. Although I genuinely didn’t know how, it was uncomfortable for me not to provide answers. Often this would happen at the end of our time together for the week. I found they needed time to process failure. But soon, they would be back in my classroom sharing their strategies for figuring out where we had gone wrong and eager to dive back in. I could see the shift as my students discovered that learning is a process that is fully engaging and that they could be in charge of their own journey. They became the leaders of our inquiry, and I a true co-participant. Their self-confidence grew and they wanted to take what they had learned and share it with others.

We teamed up with a first grade class at one of the elementary schools in our district. The first grade teacher didn’t understand circuitry, but when we talked about the possibilities, she was excited. Her students had collaborated on stories, which they wrote and illustrated on iPads. Each group then identified their main character and the problem they had to solve in the story. Their art teacher helped them make their main characters into stuffed felt animals in his class. And then my students arrived. Every Wednesday, for six weeks, my students would leave high school and travel to the elementary school across town. Each teamed up with a group and taught them about electricity and circuits. Then they helped them plan and draw their circuits. Each stuffed animal would have one object that when attached by snaps would complete the sewn circuit and light the tiny LED. The younger students were excited and couldn't wait for Wednesday afternoons when the “big kids” came to their classroom.

led circuit

My juniors loved working with the younger students but were nervous about being considered the experts in the room. We talked about how it feels to be the teacher and how teachers aren't really the holders of all knowledge anymore. If students can use YouTube and other online tutorials to learn, then what is the role of the teacher? The model of learning together, teacher and students participating in the journey side by side, is important today as more and more content is available online. By modeling the learning journey, being vulnerable and admitting that something is hard, but persevering through the struggle, teachers can teach the most valuable lesson there is: that all learning is a process. It's not linear. It can be bumpy, frustrating and discouraging, but ultimately worth it. Modeling the tools to get through the hard moments is valuable but also creates a different kind of bond with your students. They know you're in it together.

Our young students finished their light-up stuffed animals and presented them at our final celebration by proudly reading their stories. My students became masters of their own learning journeys and felt the power of sharing that process with others, both young and old.


For breakfast, I had oatmeal with raisins and coconut milk! 

Follow Lisa Yokana on Twitter @lyokana59. 

Published in Breakfast Club

How might we encourage our students to become global leaders? How might we create agency, or a mindset of action, in 21st century kids?

Our students are passive. They are used to "sitting and getting" information. Even as we talk about preparing students for the 21st century, the pressures of college acceptance and testing make it difficult to change students' (and parents') mindsets. How might we create a bias towards action in our students so that they understand their own power and ability to change their world? The answer is simple: start small, make it relevant and local, and use Design Thinking to manage the process.

I see it everyday in my own classroom. Ask students to get up and move and they groan, 'Do we have to?' or 'I'm so tired.' And in truth, most of them are exhausted by jumping through the seemingly endless hoops required of them for acceptance to "that" college. Creating a generation of 'doers' is possible if you start small and get them hooked by changing something local.

Look around you for inspiration. What do students complain about? What affects their lives?  Starting small, scaffolding skills and building creative confidence is imperative. It would be paralyzing for a 14 year old to be asked to solve a real world problem right off the bat, but by starting 'local' and using Design Thinking as process, anything is possible.

design thinking 1

Start Here
Start with a simple design challenge that anyone can do. Redesign the gift giving experience is an easy one that students can relate to. 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.

Find a Local Challenge
Once students have practiced, look for a local challenge. My students have proposed new design solutions for our school library, cafeteria, as well as our local public library's young adult and children's rooms, and made furniture for our Learning Commons. Ask your students to be on the lookout for "bad" design or opportunities for improvement. This helps shift students' mindset from consumers to a bias towards action.

design thinking 3

Dig Deeper
Once you have identified a local challenge, dive into the design process. The first step: research and empathy. This can be difficult for students who are used to finding the "right" answer fairly quickly. Ask them to hold off 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.

What skill do global citizens need more than empathy? And what better way to learn it than by unpacking a complex problem and looking at it from different perspectives? Empathy needs to be part of our children's decision-making process and Design Thinking is an effective way to teach it.

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. And when, finally, they propose solutions and real people listen, they learn that their ideas and solutions are valued. They begin to see the world as a place where they can affect change.

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. Design Thinking gives them a process and allows them to practice vitally important skills for life.

design thinking 4

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

  • 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!" Blog Article: 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.
  • "Empathy on the Edge": An essay on exploring how design empathy thinking works.
  • "Design Thinking, Making, and Learning from the Heart": A blog highlighting the process of design thinking to redesign high school social studies curriculum.


For breakfast I had an English Breakfast Tea in a big mug with milk and sugar, a few slices of cheese, and an apple.  

Image credit: Lisa Yokana, Emily Block, and Fallon Plunkett

Published in Breakfast Club


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