Monday, 7 April 2014

Design Thinking in the Classroom

Success in the 21st century is not just about what you know – it's about what you can do with that knowledge. Leslie McBeth explains how her Green Industries course encourages students to be resourceful, resilient problem solvers who are ready to take on any challenge. 

In a recent New York Times article, Learning to Think Outside the Box, Laura Pappano demonstrates a growing need in the workplace for creative thinkers  individuals who can develop innovative solutions to problems that others might not even recognize as a problem. Similarly, in another New York Times article, Tony Wagner, Expert In Residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab, argues:

Building a working farm – in the middle of
Canadian winter – requires Green Industries
students to be independent thinkers, while
working collaboratively to overcome obstacles.
“The capacity to innovate  the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge. As one executive told me, ‘We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think  to ask the right questions  and to take initiative.’ ”

These articles caught my attention as they speak to one of my primary goals as a teacher of Green Industries: To develop students who are resourceful, resilient problem solvers, confident in their own personal strengths and intelligence. I hope to create a classroom where learning becomes not only about what the students know, but what they can do with that knowledge.

Teaching Transferrable Skills


As part of the project-based focus of the Grade 11 Green Industries course, students undertake a challenge that teaches transferrable design thinking skills while simultaneously requiring them to apply their knowledge about the environmental impact of the agricultural industry, the importance of local food sources and food security.

The project starts with a challenge: In order to address food security and sustainability, students must build a working farm to grow their own food  in the dead of the Canadian winter. The process then unfolds over several weeks as follows:

  • The project starts with several small design-thinking and problem-solving challenges as warm-up activities at the start of each class. 
  • Next, the students complete research into various soil-based and hydroponic gardening systems, factors that affect plant growth, the specific needs of different plants, lighting and watering techniques and appropriate fertilizers. 
  • Then, with the help of an Industrial Designer who visits the classroom, they learn about various problem-solving approaches and start designing their gardens. 
  • From here, students build their designs. This prototyping phase of the design process requires on-the-spot quick thinking, innovation and resourcefulness to complete. From cutting up recycled hockey sticks to drip systems that flood the classroom, this phase is often busy, noisy and messy!
  • When they have a working farm, students create a marketing campaign to sell their farm system during a “Dragon’s Den” style competition.This requires them to explain why consumers should want to grow their own food, recalling information they learned about sustainability and food security earlier in the year. 
  • Finally, students round out the design process by reflecting on their work. This part is very important as it allows students to understand and explain why they were successful or where they failed, synthesizing information and making recommendations for future changes to their prototypes. 

This project challenges the students to be independent thinkers, while also working collaboratively to overcome obstacles, and no two solutions to the problem are ever the same. Students are required to view the problem from many angles and to place themselves in the shoes of various professions, from designer to builder to farmer to businessperson. I also encourage students to make mistakes – there is no “right” answer and no prescribed method for solving the problem. Students are graded on their process, not just the product, so if all of their plants die they can still be successful by reflecting on the process.

Developing a Culture of Creative Thinking


Although it is unlikely that many of my students will go on to be farmers later in life, the goal of this project is to develop a culture of creative thinking in the students. According to Bloom’s Taxonomy, “creating” is the highest order of intellectual behaviour in student learning. Through a focus on problem solving and design thinking in the Green Industries classroom, students are able to move beyond remembering, understanding and even analyzing to create their own ideas and solutions. In the 21st century, young people need to be able to transform information in the face of ambiguity and create disruptive innovations in addition to knowing the “right” answer.

To follow the Green Industries students in their quests to grow organic food indoors, visit the Green Industries Blog, Greenwood Green

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