Design Thinking
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Inspiring Students to Love Learning with Design Thinking

January 22, 2018

Students are often labeled as ‘lazy,’ but they’re not. They just need to be inspired.


By Julie Bianchi, Director of Detroit Country Day School Middle School  

Labels are everywhere — on clothing, on billboards, on bumper stickers, on sports equipment, the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, labels are also placed on children.  They are labeled everything from high-flyers to low-level readers to math nerds to troublemakers.

After over 25 years in education, though I don’t condone the labels, I’ve become accustomed to categories people tend to use to group students. The one label, however, that I cannot accept for children is the label of lazy.

When educators imply that a child is lazy, I cannot help but reverse the thinking behind the statement: What methods have been implemented to inspire this child to learn? How is it that a youngster, at their most energetic and enthusiastic time of his/her life, is ruled by apathy and disregard for learning.

It doesn’t make sense. Educators have within their professional power the ability to create activities that take the malaise out of the classroom. We know more about how kids learn than we ever have. It is our responsibility to harness that knowledge and use it to inspire every child.

Look at how kids operate in their worlds today. They are bombarded with input from everywhere, all the time. They have grown up on screens and interact with them more than with each other.  Children are often programmed morning to night with directed activities. They begin their days in the classroom, which is demanding enough, but for most kids that is followed by multiple other activities. They race from school to hockey or lacrosse or dance or violin or religion class or math tutorial. And for many, it is more than one of these. They are required then to complete homework, shower and somehow fit in a healthy dinner too. Literally, they are on the move for most of the day. And what they are doing is almost always being directed by an adult. In other words, they are being told what to do.

In this world, children have little or no autonomy. Does indifference that stems from a lack of independence lead to laziness? William Glasser, the author of “The Quality School,” implored educators to respond in their planning to our students’ needs. Beyond human survival needs of food, water, and air, he surmised that students have four more psychological needs. Glasser concluded that if these needs were met in the classroom, student engagement would be up and management issues would be down.

The four needs Glasser defines are 1) love and belonging 2) freedom 3) power and 4) fun.  These psychological needs were articulated by Glasser in the early 1990s — long before the dawn of the internet, cell phones and social media. Yet, when a lesson or unit in 2017 addresses these needs, something remarkable happens: Students are involved, interested, and fully engaged. So the question remains: What can teachers employ that would serve these needs in a time of instant knowledge and over-scheduled children?

Design Thinking

Design Thinking

Detroit Country Day Middle School students presenting on Design Thinking. Image courtesy of Detroit Country Day School Blog.

One option to consider is Design Thinking. Created by business leaders and further established by Stanford University professors and students, the Design Thinking process is applicable to any number of organizations and situations — from the boardroom to the classroom. If used in school, Design Thinking is a rather methodical process which requires innovation, original thought, and creativity as it allows students to invent solutions for the purpose of helping others. It serves our children’s four psychological needs perfectly.

Step 1: Empathy for Others

Design Thinking

Students at DCDS practicing Design Thinking in the classroom. Photo courtesy of Detroit Country Day School Blog

The first step in Design Thinking is to develop empathy for others. This step serves Glasser’s first need of love and belonging. It provides a platform in which students understand and appreciate the human condition.  They are asked to observe and wonder, which prompts innovation for improving conditions for someone else. The act of designing solutions for others concurrently builds a sense of community and personal satisfaction.

Step 2: Brainstorming

Most of the original brainstorming that takes place is with an eclectic group of students.  The give and take from the members in a Design Thinking group encourages free thinking and a free flow of ideas. This part of the process enables Glasser’s need for freedom. Freedom, he said, is important as it is a catalyst for endless possibilities and potential. The brainstorming sessions are active, optimistic, and energizing. Ideas spur on more ideas. Students are not out to compete with each other. Rather, they build upon each other’s thoughts, feel free to share ideas, and communicate face-to-face. In our digital, Snapchat world, it is refreshing to see students working together in this way. This part of the process is infectious and students can’t help but participate. You would be hard-pressed to find a dazed look of indifference during this activity. As students finalize their choice of design, they come to realize that they are free to make this decision. If their design serves others, they are successful.

Step 3: Concept or Prototype

The next step of Design Thinking is to build the concept or prototype. It is a hands-on, rigorous activity, which requires vision and tenacity. Glasser’s third need of power is front and center in this part of the process. Students find that in order to build their prototype, they will need group members to take charge of its different aspects. Each naturally offers his or her strengths to complete the concept. For example, one group member may choose to build the base, while another adds artistic flair. This part of the project can seem frenetic, noisy, and messy. However, a teacher seasoned in Design Thinking will have created a classroom environment that thrives in this moment. Students work under a strict time limit to create their piece. Each empowered by their strengths and bolstered by their commitment. The goal is not a perfect prototype. The goal is to bring an idea to life—one which can be fine-tuned and is worthy of reiteration. When freedom and vision work together, students’ sense of empowerment is palpable. They become proud of their efforts.

Step 4: Feedback & Refine

The last phases of Design Thinking are some of the most fun — Glasser’s last need.  Students present their prototypes and receive feedback from other groups. These moments of honest feedback don’t feel critical. They offer insights and reflection, often propelling an idea even further. Students head back to the building tables, armed with ideas for improvement. They are motivated to make their concept better because they are designing for someone else. The reiterating and refining takes focus and resiliency. Too often today we see students give up on an assignment as it is too hard, too boring, or too complicated. When kids work to perfect their concepts for their target group, there is a strong sense of authenticity and accountability. The work they have done impacts someone else. The effort is inherent.  Truly, when the designers see their designs in the hands of their target groups, the smiles and pride are everywhere. For most kids, fun accompanies a sense of accomplishment.

Student Reactions to Design Thinking at Detroit Country Day

Design Thinking

Photo courtesy of Detroit Country Day School.

At Detroit Country Day Middle School, we have led our students through several Design Thinking opportunities. It takes a resolute commitment of time and resources to make the projects fruitful. It also takes incredible amounts of planning. In the end, however, we know that we owe it to our students to provide experiences that fulfill their four needs while scaffolding and spiraling the content. After one particular Design Thinking process concluded, we asked our students what they liked best about it. Here is a sampling of their responses:

The freedom, creativity, and ability to make our own choices.

I liked the work experience and the ability to share ideas without fear of judgment. I also liked working with my group to create something beneficial for the DCDS students and staff.

I liked the fact that we could focus on our work but still have fun!

I got to have fun with my group and make a cool idea.

I loved how we all had different jobs, and we had lots of fun. I learned a lot about coding.

We got to expand our minds a little more.

The Idea of imagination applied to real life.

I liked that we had to face challenges that made us a stronger and more experienced.

I like how we had freedom to do what we wanted.

That everyone was doing the equally amount of work.

The expansion of creativity.

Preparing for the Future

Teachers have an incredibly challenging responsibility. The world in which our students live is outpacing traditional, assembly line school structures, making relevance and authenticity more and more difficult to maintain. Students in this generation are not lazy.  They are different. Curiosity and compassion are still in the young teen’s DNA. Tapping those attributes may require educators to do “school” differently. Our students have come to understand that true innovation is defined by creating solutions designed to make things better for someone else. This level of empathy is more and more vital in raising productive, compassionate members of our ever-shrinking local and global societies.

Offering opportunities like Design Thinking prepare our students with the collaborative and innovative problem-solving skills needed to be ready for their next educational steps and even their future workplaces. With Design Thinking, diversity of thought and talent is an asset — all individuals are valued. That sense of purpose inspires even the most stubborn learner.

So before we label our students as lazy, look very closely at the types of activities they are being asked to accomplish. Every child can be inspired — every child deserves to be inspired. And for educators, I am convinced that there are ways of making that happen in every classroom every day.


Read more about how to inspire students in 5 Ways Detroit Country Day is Changing Traditional Education.  and check out their blog: dcdsyellowjackets.blogspot.com.

To learn more about a Detroit Country Day School education visit www.dcds.edu 
Detroit Country Day School is a private, independent, co-educational, non-denominational, preschool through grade 12 college preparatory school in Michigan focused on a well-rounded liberal arts education. Emphasis on academics, arts, athletics, and character development is prevalent across the curriculum. The school admits students of any race, color, religion, sexual orientation, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs and activities generally accorded or made available to students in the school. 

Lower School (Grades PK-2)
3003 West Maple Road
Bloomfield Hills, MI 48301
Phone: 248.430.2740
Junior School (Grades 3-5)
3600 Bradway Boulevard
Bloomfield Hills, MI 48301
Phone: 248.430.3566
Middle School (Grades 6-8)
22400 Hillview Lane
Beverly Hills, MI 48025
Phone: 248.430.1677
Upper School (Grades 9-12)
22305 West 13 Mile Road
Beverly Hills, MI 48025
Phone: 248.646.7717

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