Practical Tips to Plan a Curriculum Unit With a Design Thinking Model

Do you need practical tips to create a project-based curriculum unit that follows a design thinking model? This post provides activities for each of the five steps including empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. All ideas are for children and will fit easily into your lesson plans.

To start, let’s review the purpose of design thinking. It is a creative problem-solving model from IDEO that professionals in the workplace use to find realistic solutions that meet their customers’ or end-users’ need. It is applicable to many fields including graphic design, healthcare, business, and engineering.

Given the wide range of applications for a design thinking model, it is important that educators provide learning experiences that develop the “soft skills” required for this type of creative problem solving. These include empathy, logic, curiosity, flexibility, and open-mindedness. One way to develop design thinkers is to use design thinking as a framework for curriculum planning.

Determine a Real-World Problem

Before planning your curriculum unit that uses a design thinking framework, there is something that you must do FIRST. The parameters of the project cannot be limitless. Instead, you must determine a real-world problem. It should relate to a topic you are teaching.

These suggestions might get you thinking about a real-world problem you can use in your own class:

  • History Project: Children often do not think history is important in their daily lives. Create an interactive map for a local museum that explains the significance of events to young visitors.
  • Computer Science Project: People love to play video games. However, the games must be fun and hold their interest. Develop a race that will hook players.
  • Social Studies Project: The Earth needs your help. Produce an infographic that raises environmental awareness within the school community about an important issue.
  • Financial Literacy Project: Are you good at managing money? Pretend you just had a windfall. Some of the money must go into savings. Create a budget and justify your purchasing decisions.
  • Language Arts: Learning how to read is a vital skill. Write and illustrate a story that Grade 1 students will enjoy.
  • Visual Arts: Color, texture, and pattern are used to create interest. Design a piece of clothing such as a shoe, hat, or shirt that is unique and people will want to wear.

If you are stuck for a real-world problem for your PBL project, try these ideas…

Pro Tip 1: Have Students Role Play a Job

The design thinking model provides an excellent opportunity for students to role play. For example, they can pretend to be Egyptologists, game developers, social scientists, environmentalists, entrepreneurs, web designers, or creative directors. Now the problem you assign will be easier to pinpoint. All you need to do is combine a curriculum topic with a job and real-world task.

Pro Tip 2: Start with a Product

If role playing does not trigger any ideas, start with a product instead. Look at the knowledge and skills your students must achieve. Think about a product they can create that will demonstrate learning. It could be a game, digital story, or brochure. Now devise a real-world task that would have the product as part of the solution.

Pro Tip 3: Be Realistic About Time

Before you finalize the real-world task make sure it is feasible. It is important to be realistic when curriculum planning. There is a finite amount of time when teaching. Only so many classes can be slotted for research and idea generation. This is due to the bulk of instructional time often being allocated to the creation of a product. Not only does making a product consolidate student learning, but it also provides a tangible item for teachers to evaluate. For this reason, verify that the real-world problem is age-appropriate and can be resolved in a specific number of classes.

Use a Design Thinking Model as a Framework for a Curriculum Unit

Okay, now you are ready to plan your curriculum using the design thinking model as a framework. Below are ideas you can incorporate into your lessons. You don’t need to include every activity. Instead pick one or two for each of the steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. The others can be done in the next unit you teach. This way students will have lots of exposure to design thinking and creative problem solving.

Just one more thing…

Yes, the goal is to simulate the real world. But, in the workplace a team of experts contribute to projects. Often, members have training in design thinking. As well, everyone in the room will have existing knowledge, skills, and experience. There is a limitation for children, as you are likely teaching the curriculum unit to have students learn content and develop new abilities. For this reason, many suggestions below also include opportunities for students to become experts so that their solutions are well-informed.

Emphasize – How Does a Person Feel?

The first step in a design thinking model is to empathize. Students must consider how the end-user associated with the problem feels or what they value. This is a departure from traditional school assignments.

Typically, teachers identify who the end-user is, not how they feel. In this case, educators provide a legitimate audience for students’ work upon completion of a unit. It might be a peer playing their game, class viewing their poster, or school community accessing their infographic. This is one way to create an authentic learning experience and is a celebration of students’ accomplishments.

However, in design thinking there is a shift in focus. The end-user or audience is the focal point. Solutions must address their needs. Below are ways you can help students develop empathy. They can…

  • Feelings Board: generate a list of feelings a person might have about a situation
  • Observational Checklist: record observations at home, in the classroom, or in the school using a checklist; document who is the person in the situation, what is happening, how they are behaving, why they are involved, and how they feel
  • Video: watch a video or documentary about the topic and take note of how people feel and what they value
  • Personal Reflection: reflect upon personal experiences to identify their own feelings and what they value
  • Venn Diagram: pair up to compare feelings about a situation by placing similarities and differences into a graphic organizer
  • Interview: question peers, end-users, or a target audience using a questionnaire
  • Survey or Poll: conduct a survey to learn about preferences or opinions
  • Story Writing: write a short paragraph that imagines being in another’s shoes
  • Role Play: role play being a stakeholder in a situation to understand another perspective

Define – What Specific Problem Does the Person Face?

The second step in a design thinking model is to define the problem. Now, you might be thinking…but I already picked a real-world problem. Yes, that is true. But now students must take the insights from the Empathize Stage and use them to identify one key problem.

The problem statement should be phrased from the user’s perspective. This keeps them as the primary focus throughout the project. For example, in an environmental unit it could be, Students want to compost but feel confused when they need to sort their lunch waste.

Below are ways you can help students narrow their focus. They can…

  • Research – read articles or watch videos to learn more about the topic in general
  • Demonstration – analyze a model or example of a completed project to notice components, as well as strengths and weaknesses
  • Questions – generate a list of closed and open ended questions that relate to how the person feels or what they value
  • Planning Sheet – answer guiding questions to organize initial ideas
  • Fill-in-the-Blank – complete a fill-in-the-blank sentence as a starting point to writing a problem-statement

[End-users] want [desire] and feel [emotion] because [problem].

Ideate – What are Some Solutions to the Problem?

The third step in a design thinking model is to brainstorm a variety of solutions to a problem. The goal is to come up with a number of ideas fairly quickly. Ideating in the workplace draws on a teams’ vast expertise and experience. However, in a school environment, often students need facts about a topic to produce a meaningful list.

Brainstorming can often be more productive when there are multiple people working together. You may wish to have students begin ideating independently or in pairs. Afterwards, they can then shift to working in a small or large group. This gradual transition will meet the needs of diverse learners and give everyone a chance to contribute.

Try these suggestions to promote creative thinking in students. They can…

  • Research Organizer – locate reliable resources to discover possible solutions to the issue, then record findings
  • Exploration – experiment with software or materials to increase skill set and identify creative possibilities
  • Expert – communicate with a person working in the field to highlight the current situation and identify existing efforts
  • Mind-Map – place the problem-statement in the center of a diagram and connect solutions with branches to visualize how ideas connect
  • Word Association – make a list of words associated with the topic to trigger ideas
  • Post-It Notes – write ideas onto post-it notes and stick to a whiteboard or large surface

Prototype – What Could the Solution Look Like or How Will it Work?

The fourth step in a design thinking model is to create a prototype. A prototype is a mock-up, draft, or outline that shows what a solution might look like and how it could work. It does not need to be perfect. It is only meant to trigger and refine ideas. In fact, symbols, stick figures, arrows, and lines, are excellent ways to express a concept.

This stage is about experimentation and can go through many revisions – often returning to previous steps. Typically, in a school setting there is not much time to start over. It is best if teachers assist students that are struggling to consolidate their ideas.

In a curriculum unit the prototype can take many forms, depending on the task. A prototype can be a…

  • sketch
  • diagram
  • storyboard
  • flowchart
  • graphic organizer
  • outline
  • planning sheet
  • proposal
  • descriptive paragraph
  • list
  • two-dimensional model
  • three-dimensional sculpture
  • diorama
  • floor plan
  • map
  • verbal explanation

Determine If the Prototype Is the Final Project or Plan

Some educators may decide to evaluate the prototype as the culminating project. However, often a prototype will become the “plan”. Students follow it to create a product they submit for evaluation, such as an interactive map, poster, graphic story, game, brochure, or presentation.

When teaching the curriculum unit, if your students will be transforming their prototype or “plan” into a product, the teacher should:

  • allocate instructional time for the production phase
  • teach skills that will support production
  • provide a checklist to track progress
  • post the marking sheet or rubric used for product evaluation

Test – Does the Solution Work?

The final step of the design thinking model is to share the prototype with a group of peers or end-users for feedback. In the workplace, this stage often determines if a solution is implemented. It can also be a means for gaining investors that will support the concept. In a school setting, the “test” often becomes part of assessment and evaluation. It is most commonly the stage where teachers grade student work.

In a curriculum unit students will shift to and from the prototype and test stages depending on the task. The test stage can take multiple forms. Students can…

  • Refine Plan: show the prototype to the teacher to determine if the idea is feasible based on the resources, instructional time, and skill set; then gain final approval before starting production (e.g., report, video, animation)
  • Peer Conference: explain the idea to a friend and have them offer suggestions; then refine the plan based on feedback
  • Debug: run a program or proofread a draft to find and fix errors
  • Comments: share the prototype or product with end-users and have them post comments using digital tools
  • Product: submit the product and include the prototype to show how the idea evolved
  • Presentation: explain concept to others and answer audience questions
  • Product Pitch: highlight advantages of the solution to a small group and gauge their reaction
  • Experiment: trial the prototype and recording findings
  • Reflection Journal: reflect upon the experience to identify design flaws, suggest next steps, and recognize personal growth