Design Thinking as a Back to School Activity

I am a procrastinator–to say the least–so as school was quickly approaching, I began to scramble to put together our first few days. I combed Pinterest, retweeted ideas, organized my Pocket with a BTS category. But still nothing stuck out for me. Thankfully, in mid-July I was part of a grant process that included two days of design thinking. My friends and I loved the process so much, that we thought “Why don’t we start the school year with design thinking?”

So we did.

And it was the best first days I have had in twelve years.  I’m not even exaggerating.

In the last few months, I have had three opportunities to be part of design thinking.  If you are not really familiar with this term, watch this quick [less than 2 minute] video from Sean VanGenderen.  At the most basic level, it is a way to solve problems…and I’ll let the video explain it to you because I won’t do it justice.

In the Spring, I was lucky enough to be involved in our school’s Google Think Tank, which was the fourth (I think) day of design thinking the team did last year. This summer I was part of a grant process presented by our school district’s foundation. The grant, called the SeedLAB, is more like a process.  We sent in an application, and once selected, we were part of a two day design thinking process.  Since then, we’ve had time to work on our proposal and design an 8 minute pitch, which we give this Thursday! (Eeek!) Most recently, I was part of a one-day design thinking with members of our two high schools and our alternative school to design and pitch ideas for a new building our district acquired.

Okay, all that to say, I LOVE design thinking and I am SO glad I started the school year this way.

design thinking

Design Thinking for the First Days of School

Once we decided we would start school with design thinking, we had to map out what it would look like with our students. Thankfully, there are a lot of resources out there, such as The Launch Cycle from A.J. Juliani and John Spencer, to help us make a plan (we also read and LOVED Empower this summer). We weren’t really sure how would it look, to be honest, so we had to let go of our control to some extent.

Here is how it played out in my English class.

(You can see the slides I used each day here)

Day One


This was the first day of school and we spent it interviewing each other and sharing our findings.This was a good start to the year. Kids were talking to each other, to me, moving around. I had students discuss their best and worst learning experiences. Then, after discussing in their groups, they wrote down the things that stood out to them the most and placed them on sticky notes. We discussed these as a class with the time remaining.

Day Two

Discovery, Asking Questions, and Solutions.

Today, we reviewed what we found out the day before. Then, I presented the challenge: what should learning look like in the ideal classroom? Kids then had to come up with “how might we” questions. This helps them narrow down their specific area of interest. After sharing in their groups, they chose their how might we question, and then they moved on to solving the problem.

Y’all, I can’t even express how hard it was not to help them with their questions. Some of them, honestly, were terrible! But I sucked it up, smiled, nodded, and encouraged them to keep going. In the end, they came up with decent questions.

Next, students made lists of moonshot solutions. This was really hard for them because they truly are not used to thinking outside of the box. Again, I kept my ideas out of their heads. Again, it was really hard. It was fun to hear them sharing their ideas in their groups and then discussing what they wanted to focus on.

At the end of this day, I felt so energized! I couldn’t wait to talk to my two friends who were doing the same (or similar) things.

Day Three

Prototype Planning.

Before we got started, we watched two pitches from Shark Tank (links in presentation above). We discussed the prototypes and the pitches. We talked about literal and symbolic prototypes, since most of our ideas would be more symbolic than literal.  And then the kids got down to it. I loved listening to them discuss which ideas they should pitch, how they could represent their ideas, and what they would use to create the prototype. (Play-dough was a big hit, by the way!)

prototype materials

Play-dough, pipe cleaners, construction paper, large paper, markers, tape 

Day Four

Pitch day.

Using the play-dough, paper, and other supplies, students created their prototype, and then pitched their ideas to the class.

I was a bit nervous about how the pitches would go. I mean, it was the fourth day of school, right? We talked about being a good audience, how the Shark Tank sharks asked questions, and how they were answered. I must say, they blew me away. Don’t get me wrong, their pitches weren’t perfect by any means, but dang, they got up their and tried to sell their ideas! Some groups even got creative and grabbed our attention. The best part? The audience! They asked questions like they were really being asked to fund these ideas. Sometimes they got a bit harsh, but for the most part, everyone did SO. WELL.

Thoughts from Teachers and Students

This is the most thinking I have ever done before!” -Grace, 10th Grade

“Overall, the process was great, the thinking was great, and the pitching […]was great. It was a great process.” -Jailen, 11th Grade

I have gone through the design thinking process once and tried it with my students once.  What I love about it is that it forces whoever is participating to THINK and think outside of the box!  There are so many wonderful, relevant skills involved, such as problem-solving, questioning, discussing, listening, collaborating, designing, and offering constructive criticism.  When my students used it in class to design their ideal learning environment, it truly was the best first few days of school that I have ever had!!” -Kristen W., 9th and 10th grade Pre-AP English Teacher

“For me, the beauty of design thinking in the classroom is the ‘how might we’ approach.  It’s not, how might YOU or how might I but how might we.  Focusing on encouraging my students to create doesn’t make the curriculum the center of the classroom but their thinking.  It’s not about memorization but problem solving.” -Amy T., 10th grade English Teacher

The Effects of Design Thinking

Three of my goals for this year include empowering kids, innovating, and taking risks. Let me just say, that these four days got me started on these goals right away!

In addition, I was able to learn a lot about my kids in those four days. I learned who my strongest thinkers are, who my creative kids are, my collaborators, my introverts.  It was a great way to take a pulse of the class while they were involved in a process that they enjoyed.

Most of all what I’ve realized, not only from design thinking but also from what my students shared during the process, is that I can’t do things the way I used to. I can’t fall back into my old routines.

On the one hand, this is a great realization, of course. On the other hand, it’s causing a lot of stress for me because I want to change all the things! But, y’all, that’s impossible. What is possible though, is thinking more carefully about everything I plan for my English 11 students. What is possible is constantly asking myself is this relevant? Does this empower students? Will this help prepare them for anything (not simply college or a career)?

These questions now guide me, and I have my experiences with design thinking to thank for these changes.



Want to learn more about design thinking? Below are some of my favorite resources! (The books are affiliate links, just FYI).

Additional Resources


On the Web:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s