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A controversial design strategy is helping sixth graders do better in school

A study by researchers at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education found that when middle-school students use design-thinking strategies, they perform better.

A controversial design strategy is helping sixth graders do better in school
[Photo: Hero Images/Getty Images]

The value of design thinking, which has been popularized by design firm Ideo and the Stanford d. school, is hotly debated in the design community. Some designers call it B.S., others insist it has democratized design. Even Ideo, the design firm that popularized design thinking, has admitted that the methodology can be used as a surface-level problem-solving tool to make companies seem innovative even if they’re not.

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But design thinking has transcended corporate conference rooms and higher-education classrooms and made its way into middle school–in particular, Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park, California, just down the road from the d. school. The school teaches its students design thinking, and recently turned to another Stanford institution, the Graduate School of Education, to learn whether its strategies were actually helping students learn, something that’s difficult to measure using typical academic tests.

In a study published in the Journal of Learning Sciences in April, researchers found that students were able to take two design thinking-related strategies–asking for constructive feedback and testing multiple solutions to a problem–and autonomously apply them to new problems, for which they were able to find more effective solutions. They also found that students who tended to score lower on standardized tests benefited the most from these strategies.

Though the study supports the Stanford-backed design thinking strategy, it was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and has no direct affiliation to the Stanford d. school. However, Blair acknowledges that the research was influenced by Stanford’s brand of design thinking. “It’s definitely got the flavor of the d. school, but it’s also flavored by our partners that we’ve worked with,” she says, pointing to design-thinking programs in local summer camps as well as at Hillview Middle School. She says the researchers chose the strategies to include in the study based on ideas that consistently show up across all these institutions.

The experiment involved 200 sixth graders at the school. Half of them were taught about how to ask for critical feedback on their work, while the other half learned about the value of coming up with multiple solutions before deciding on a final answer to a problem. Each group then applied the lesson to a project, like designing a house or designing a new method to make school decisions fairer.

To evaluate whether the students were able to take the new strategy and apply it to an unfamiliar situation, the researchers asked the students to play online games that presented them with new problems to solve. For instance, one game might entail designing a poster for a school fair, then asking the students if they would prefer to receive positive or negative feedback from a focus group of animated characters. After the feedback, the students would have the chance to revise their poster, which was then graded by the computer based on conventional graphic design principles. The researchers found that students who asked for constructive feedback ended up creating much stronger poster designs compared to students who asked for positive feedback.

“I think it’s a first test of whether teaching these kinds of design thinking strategies can be beneficial for students,” says Kristen Pilner Blair, a co-author on the paper and a senior research scholar at Stanford, who hopes the study will provide a model for how to measure whether design thinking strategies are working or not. “It’s one piece of evidence toward these things being beneficial in terms of learning and problem-solving as well as [acting as] strategies in students’ toolkits that they can use later.”

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Blair is careful to point out that these results can’t be generalized to all design thinking. But they do provide some evidence as to whether the strategies that underlie the controversial methodology could be an effective way to help students, especially lower performing students. “The higher performing students were … using strategies already,” she says. “But lower performing students based on grades and standardized achievement scores weren’t using strategies as much going in and the instruction reduced that gap for those students.”

Asking for critical feedback and brainstorming multiple ideas before deciding on a solution certainly aren’t the exclusive purview of design thinking. But as this study demonstrates, they might be smart strategies for students learning how to solve problems–no matter what label you put on them.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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