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Starting with Empathy: The Foundation of Design Thinking in Schools

In Campbell, California, one district is opening a new K-8 school grounded in design thinking.

Design thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand our users’ needs, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify unique and alternative solutions that might not always be initially apparent.

At Campbell’s new School of Innovation, administrators and teachers are embracing this approach as they work to create a new vision, goals, and instructional methods for their classrooms.

With the school located close to downtown Campbell, school staff hope to work more closely with the local community. School leaders and staff envision their students interacting with and having an impact on local businesses and organizations. As a start, school leaders worked with Laura McBain, head of Stanford’s d.school K12 program, to practice design thinking through exploration and needfinding in their downtown community.

As a human-centered, problem-solving process, empathy plays a key role in this new design approach. Part of gaining empathy means immersing, observing, and engaging with your users to uncover hidden needs and gain a better understanding of the world around you.

With this in mind, the Campbell team asked the question: “How might we partner with our community and discover opportunities for innovation that will have a positive impact on our students, our school, and our community?”

School leaders set up five different locations for their teacher teams to visit: the community library, a coffee shop, a local bookstore, a historical site, and the Campbell city offices. Teams prepared for this field work by talking about their norms and roles, doing some quick research on the organizations they planned to visit, and brainstorming questions. They spent an hour at each location, observing the surroundings and actions of the organization’s staff, then interviewing someone who worked there.

Once they returned, team members shared what they heard, what they saw, what surprised them, and what new questions they had. Teams needed to hold back their own beliefs, judgements, and assumptions that might color their observations and focus on specific needs that they identified as meaningful to their user. They needed to remember this is user-centered design, not “you-centered” design.

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After unpacking their findings, each team worked on developing a point of view statement that pointed to a particular need that they identified within each organization they visited.

The group that visited the library, for instance, came away feeling that the library was underutilized. They looked at space design and physical access, and asked questions about transportation and the way information was being communicated to the different demographics of its users. They saw a need to reach out to residents of surrounding neighborhoods to ensure a diverse group of people were utilizing the library. They asked questions about possible barriers and ease of access and wondered if it was a communication issue. They focused on answering questions such as, “How might we increase awareness and participation in programs available at the Campbell library?” The team brainstormed possible solutions and prototyped a creative way for students to support Campbell Library’s programs within all of their neighborhoods.

Each team returned having discovered unique needs for the organizations they visited and understanding how their students could gain empathy and interact with their local community in a meaningful, authentic, and impactful way.

As you look to shape new school programs, think about how incorporating empathy might help your district better-support your local community. Try these ideas:

1. Identify community partners

Look at the neighborhood that surrounds your school. Who’s in your footprint? Are there businesses or neighborhood associations that might be interested in partnering with you? What local agencies do you interact with? What school services do you use? How is your lunch service provided? Do you have transportation services? All of these offer a unique opportunity to gain an empathetic perspective and allow students to connect with a service or business that has become part of their landscape. Needfinding creates opportunity for students to find relevancy in their communities.

2. Start with your student council

While it might take staff members some time to get onboard the design thinking train, your school’s student council group is always looking for ways to create immediate local impact.

One elementary school had their student council team identify needs for change–both globally and in their local community. One student who was passionate about animals discovered that police dogs were often unprotected in the line of duty due to the cost of providing bullet proof vests. After sharing with others on the council, they invited their local law enforcement officer to share more about the issue and discovered that not only did they have a police dog, this one was also in need of protection. The group then interviewed the officer in charge of the dog, learned about training and care, and researched the cost of a bullet proof vest. The entire student body became involved in learning about this issue and raising money to support their local canine hero. They identified a unique community need and worked together to find a solution.

3. Sharpen your observation skills and ask more questions

Sometimes there’s great opportunities in your own backyard. Send your students out to observe recess, the lunchroom, drop-off or pick-up. Have them interview other students and adults about their experiences. What do they see teachers doing? What is the custodian thinking? Students can create empathy maps of what they see and hear. There may be some unique needs that they identify that are unnoticed by the adults. Have them identify a “real world client,” someone who they can design for. Generate a “how might we” statement and then pull that person in to give feedback along the design path.

Empathy through needfinding is the starting point for design thinking. If you don’t take the time to understand others, your ideas and solutions will miss the mark. If you truly want to engage with your community and have meaningful impact, make space for needfinding.

Is your school or district undergoing a new design project? How are you using needfinding and/or empathy to inform your choices? Tell us in the comments.

Alyssa Gallagher and Kami Thordarson are the authors of Design Thinking for School Leaders: Five Roles and Mindsets That Ignite Positive Change.

Alyssa Gallagher is an experienced public school educator, school and district administrator, facilitator, and educational consultant. She has successfully led districtwide blended learning initiatives, helped schools create integrated STEM programs, and launched strategic plans using Design Thinking.

Kami Thordarson has worked in many roles as a public educator—from classroom teacher to professional development and curriculum designer. Thordarson is involved with the design thinking movement in K-12 education and, in her current role as an administrator, works to lead a district in integrating technology into learning and innovating practices that fully move students into more personalized experiences.