Creative problem-solving used to take place on the playground during recess, when worksheets temporarily disappeared and teachers stood at a distance. There, learning happened through exploration and play. But for today’s students, creative problem-solving has migrated into the classroom as well, and been rebranded as design thinking.
Once the purview of business school seminars and executive education workshops, design thinking has started appearing in the classrooms of younger and younger students. The approach, which emerged out of Stanford University’s d.school, emphasizes empathy and iterative prototyping. For teachers, it provides a way to structure the otherwise murky concept of problem-solving. And for students, it provides opportunities to tackle real-world challenges in hands-on ways. Thanks in part to free tools like consultancy Ideo’s “Design Thinking For Educators,” schools around the world are embracing the technique.
Now, products are emerging that cater to design thinking’s newfound popularity in elementary education. The latest is a $299.95 classroom kit developed by LittleBits, a New York-based startup that makes modular electronics—computer-age Legos, in essence. LittleBits founder and CEO Ayah Bdeir unveiled the kit today, with the goal of shipping it to schools before the start of the next school year.
“Let’s use invention as a way to engage the students, to allow them to create things that are relevant,” Bdeir said recently as she showed off the components and teacher guide at the company’s airy New York City headquarters, which overlook the Hudson River in Chelsea. More than 2,200 schools already use LittleBits’ direct-to-consumer products, which was a signal to Bdeir that there would be a market for a specialized classroom set, complete with lesson plans and online training modules.
The kit is being marketed as appropriate for a “STEAM” curriculum—STEM, plus arts. But the kit’s intended outcome, according to Bdeir, is more akin to that of design thinking than to any specific subject. “The design thinking method is a variation of the engineering method, which is a variation of our invention cycle,” she says. Through the kit, which includes everything from light and temperature sensors to simple motors, students learn to prototype, to play, to remix their inventions based on their playtime learnings, and to share. “Ultimately what we’re trying to do is create problem-solvers, and prepare them for careers that haven’t been invented yet.”
It’s not hard to imagine that students will welcome the chance to invent a throwing arm, or to “hack” their classroom. Schools, however, may balk at the price tag.
If LittleBits is offering a way for schools to dip their toe in the design thinking waters, the Institute of Play serves as a case study for how to take the plunge. The nonprofit, which was launched by a team of game designers, has been introducing students to design-based thinking through its own New York City public charter school, called Quest to Learn. It also develops curriculum resources and works with partner organizations to develop workshops and programs. One of the Institute of Play’s goals is to transform students from game participants to game architects. The “gold standard” at Quest to Learn, according to New York Times reporter Sara Corbett, is designing a game that is “hard to beat but harder still to quit.” Whether playing or designing a game, students try, fail, and iterate, the same rhythm as that of design thinking.
After-school programs that incorporate design thinking are also on the rise. Engineering for Kids, a network of franchises founded by former high school technology teacher Dori Roberts, got its start by offering workshops and summer programs to teens and pre-teens. But the company’s fastest growing program segment, according to Roberts, is its Junior Engineers program for children ages 4 to 6. A design-thinking framework underpins the classes for that age group, from “Let’s Make Toys” to “Widgets and Gadgets.”
Despite this outpouring of interest, there is little research supporting the effectiveness of design thinking in classroom environments. To the extent that design thinking positively affects learning, it may simply be a result of the hands-on activities that tend to accompany it. Indeed, the benefits of active learning, or learning by doing, are well documented. “Physical engagement with something creates an involvement and activeness in learning that passive listening or watching does not,” informatics researchers Sara Price and Yvonne Rogers wrote in their 2004 article “Let’s Get Physical.” They continued, “enabling explorative play within the real world stimulates independent discovery, and in so doing, facilitates both the acquisition of information about, and experience with, the environment.”
Long before Bdeir graduated from MIT and founded LittleBits, she relished that form of playful exploration. “We used to have a forest outside school and we’d create these fortresses and compete,” she says. “Pine cones were our currency, we would collect them and do all these things.” In her mind, the LittleBits STEAM student set is an extension of that approach. “This is natural thing. But if you formalize it a little more, you’re leaning into something that is already engaging and fun. It’s not rocket science.”
Someday, if childhood play turns to scientific study, it might be.