Design Thinking Students Co-designing Their Own School for the Sake of Empathy

06/30/2015 03:11 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2016

The names of the children mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.

In order to inspire, motivate, and engage students in the learning experience, it is necessary to look at the world through their eyes. When adults pause and consider the world through from the students' perspective, we begin to examine their authentic needs, instead of the needs imposed upon them. Educational models that value and incorporate student input are emerging as empathic to students' needs.

In May 2014, students at The Connect Group School in Los Angeles, CA, began using design thinking to fashion an educational model that meets their needs, gathering regularly throughout the summer to develop their school from the ground up. On August 25, The Connect Group School will pilot the program their students are designing.

With a foundation of freedom and democracy drawn from the Sudbury Valley School model, the students participate in every aspect of school management. Students are involved in hiring, admissions, policy, and budgetary decisions. Like a true democracy, each participant will have a vote in the matters that impact their academic lives..

Design thinking is a dynamic pedagogy for co-learning that cultivates empathy. It is a multidisciplinary approach to solving human-centered problems and an empowering way of addressing needs and concerns. The modes of design thinking promote inquiry, iteration, and prototyping along with critical thinking, communication, teamwork, and making/tinkering. Empathy is highlighted as a mode of its own, wherein the design-thinker attempts to infiltrate and truly come to understand the needs of the end-user..

The design thinking process begins with discovery, moves to ideation and rapid prototyping, and ends with testing and execution. As an evolving process of learning, sharing, dialoguing, and problem solving, design thinking inspires adults and students to learn together. Without a lesson plan as a guide, neither teacher nor student knows where the process will lead. This bi-directional educational process is one I have termed "co-learning"--a human interaction that leads to learning for all parties. These are critical components of learning, because we all start in a place of not knowing, and can all learn something new about old topics.

Design thinking facilitates empathy by encouraging the designer to turn his or her attention towards another person, particularly the end-user being served by the process. In K-12 classrooms, design thinking allows students and staff to engage in challenges and activities that hone their ability to turn attention toward another person, with the intention of learning about needs and experiences outside their own. Design thinking cultivates empathy by training students in attentional skills and by emphasizing the need to help solve problems affecting other people.

By promoting students to a level equivalent to their teacher counterparts, design thinking challenges offer students power and voice that are very motivating. It's a methodology that respects their input in solving challenges and problems that matter.

Students Speak:

Sixteen-year-old David, one of three student co-founders/co-designers of the Connect Group School, said the following about using design thinking to build his school: "I am engaged and motivated to design think because I get to have choices and participate in solving problems that matter."

Allowing students a hand in designing their education helps them feel like active and valued participants. It's a qualitatively different experience than showing up to school on the first day and passively receiving instruction. The quality of difference lies in empathy. Students of The Connect Group School have choices and power in regards to what happens in their school. Their viewpoints, values, and perspectives matter in all areas of school that they wish to engage in.

David continued, "Design thinking gives you experience empathizing with an end-user, not just yourself."

Another student who is contributing to the development of The Connect Group School is Ryan, a 15-year-old male. Ryan said: "I am engaged and motivated to design- think because it's a method of carrying out whatever I want and need."

Ryan's comment highlights the level of empowerment, freedom, and agency that design thinking offers students. Everyone, regardless of age, wants to feel like they can contribute something meaningful, solve their own problems, and meet their own needs. These are aspects of self-agency that need to be taught to youngsters as evidence that we value them as free and capable people. Ultimately, including young people in every aspect of school design and management conveys to them that they matter. At the heart of empathy lies the value that someone matters and is worth our time to understand, from their perspective. Children deserve to be included in this homage of respect.

Twelve-year-old Jill enjoys design thinking because it allows her to move about. She talked about moving around during design thinking challenges and also about the field trips she has taken in the community to learn more about education. Empathic education recognizes children's deep need for free play as a method of learning. Incidentally, design thinking often feels like play time, because it is messy, unpredictable, and rapidly changing.

In the process of design thinking their new school, the students at The Connect Group School participate in the creation of a learning model that is relevant to them. It inspires them to work in the summer months to consider their wants and needs and those of other K-12 students.

This is how empathy as a skill is cultivated through design thinking in the K-12 arena. Planning one's own educational framework is a wonderful empathy-building tool. It stimulates students' engagement and intrinsic motivation while encouraging them to practice self-empathy in service of empathy for others.

This piece originally appeared on Ashoka's StartEmpathy​ blog. It is also Part 1 of a 2 Part Series on how this adventure is going.