A while ago I came across a webinar on EdWeb about design thinking in the classroom (check it out - it's free and you get continuing ed credits). I was instantly hooked on the concept; bringing design thinking into my curriculum. I had done a lot of "making" with my students and my own children, but I was missing some critical pieces, one of which was to connect making experiences with real-world problems. The general idea is that learners develop skills and content by observing and identifying problems before them. They then solve these real-world problems by designing and creating solutions.
I am an experiential educator, so every action my students take is a step toward learning experiences that are entirely child-led (look back at some posts from my student-directed learning series for specific details - link in archives). Therefore, I created a "Maker Tool Kit" that combines the principles of self-led design thinking, problem-based learning, and project-based learning. This tool kit is designed to walk learners through a maker project while giving them the freedom to lead the experience. Learners identify a problem and brainstorm innovative solutions. They design and build a prototype, test it, tweak it, and use the refined final outcome to make a positive impact on the community.
So, how to add design thinking to your curriculum? Start by purchasing my maker tool kit . Simply distribute the resource to your students and watch them thrive! This resource has all of the materials to help gradually move students toward self-directed making experiences.
If you and/or your students are new to design thinking as a learning tool, or student-directed learning for that matter, consider starting students off with a specific problem to solve. You present the problem, your students do the rest. Once learners become more comfortable with the process, you can begin to ask them to identify problems around a theme, such as "fall" or "morning routine". If you have the flexibility, students can eventually take the reigns entirely, identifying problems on their own, free from your influence.
OR you can all dive in head first. One of the best things about design thinking, and making in general, is that failure is not only an option, but is encouraged. Let them learn through experience!
How to Add Design Thinking to Your Curriculum
Use the following example, along with my Maker Tool Kit, to help facilitate the experience:
1. Observe and Empathize - In this phase, learners identify a problem and "empathize" with those impacted by the problem. You might present students with a specific problem, or they observe a problem on their own. Either way, this step is intended to help learners better understand the problem by communicating with those directly impacted.
Ex: A student notices decorative pumpkins splattered across roads and sidewalks in her neighborhood.
Check out this free problem identification resource. The purpose is to help beginners observe and identify problems to solve. This is a skill that takes practice and time to develop.
2. Define the Problem - At this point students have discussed the problem with a variety of people, so can hone in on the specifics. They state the problem.
Ex: Squirrels are taking decorative pumpkins from neighbors' doorsteps and eating them.
3. Ideate - This is my favorite part! Students begin to throw out product ideas to solve the problem. They "think outside the box"; they stray from the obvious. Innovative final products are also an important component of project-based learning.
Ex: 1) Create a barrier, 2) Develop a nontoxic, but annoying substance to paint on the pumpkins, 3) Design and create a pumpkin holder or stand that makes it difficult for squirrels to access the pumpkin, etc.
4. Prototype - At this point students draft a design and create their prototype. They go through a series of challenges and obstacles in the design and making phase, work through the issues, and make modifications.
Ex: The student designs a decorative wire pumpkin holder that prevents squirrels from taking off with pumpkins.
5. Test - Now that students have created a prototype, they can test their initial design on a relevant audience. They gather feedback from their test group and refine their product based on suggestions until it effectively solves the problem.
Ex: The student might gather from the test group that their pumpkin holder solves the problem but isn't attractive. They make recommendations and the student makes adjustments.
I highly recommend encouraging students to observe and identify problems on their own, but understand reasons for making a gradual transition to authentic student-directed learning. Some students might feel overwhelmed by this and need a little more scaffolding. I see this often, which is why I have maker project resources in my store that provide specifics and the problem or challenge is outlined for students. You may also be confined to specific topics and/or standards. That is fine. "Making" helps learners visualize abstract concepts.
Consider giving learners a theme to start with. Check out some of the "fall" themed maker project ideas below! Write the problem on the board, distribute the Maker Tool Kit, and watch magic happen!
Fall Inspired Maker Education Activities
This past week my family headed southwest to start our goal of hitting all of the U.S. National Parks before our kids turn 18. It's a lofty goal, I'm discovering. There are many National Parks. But from the viewpoint of an ex-field ecologist and experiential educator, the benefits of providing these opportunities to my children (and students) far outweigh the costs.
Teachers and administrators: Even if your school doesn't have a travel program, or you can't afford to take your kids abroad, you can still travel. Keep it simple and do your research. Put together a proposal for a travel program using the benefits I present here today, and present it to your school board. You can also look back at past posts on travel to fortify your proposal.
Homeschool parents: Consider cheaper options such as arranging exchanges between homeschool families or partaking in WWOOF experiences as a family. WWOOF is free lodging (and often food) for a few hours of your help on an organic farm everyday. Stay-tuned for a post on educational travel on the cheap. Seasoned homeschool travelers, feel free to send me suggestions to post!
Never will my children or my students learn more by sitting in a classroom scrolling through a textbook than they would experiencing the world firsthand. There is so much to gain by seeing the world from a different, unfamiliar perspective. It's not always easy, traveling with kids, but nothing that is easy is worth doing, right? Isn't that a saying? They will thank you later. Travel is educational by nature, so whether you’re taking students on a trip, worldschooling, traveling for fun with family, or even traveling solo, the experience is life-changing. Check out the reasons that I make travel a priority in my family life and school life.
Six Reasons To Include Educational Travel in Your Curriculum
1. Relationship Building:
My students walk away from school organized trips with the most unexpected lifelong relationships with peers, teachers, mentors, locals, and more. My family just returned from Zion, which was an opportunity for my children to spend some badly needed time with their dad, strengthen their relationship with each other, and spend their time with me in a unique and interesting capacity, one where I wasn't frantically scrambling them out the door to be on time for a commitment. The bonding that occurs and the friendships that develop in travel cannot compare to many other life experiences. Human connection is vital for children.
2. Develop a Healthy Self-Concept:
Another benefit to traveling as a young person is developing a healthy self-concept; gaining confidence, finding interests, knowing what you want for yourself, discovering ones values and priorities, testing oneself, observing strengths and weaknesses, and more. This is especially important for tweens and teens.
I spent much of my 20's traveling the globe as a field ecologist. Frankely, that was the most difficult time of my life. I was broke, lonely, and I put my health and life at risk everyday. But looking back I realize that those experiences in my young life paved the way for who I am today. I learned to live minimally, I discovered what I wanted for myself, I gained a confidence that I never knew I had in me, I learned to appreciate the simple things, I took pride in my successes. That last one is a difficult thing for a Minnesotan to do! Traveling builds character in a way that few other life experiences could.
3. Content Knowledge:
With travel comes gaining content knowledge through experience rather than from a desk or out of a textbook. Heading to a new environment out of one’s comfort zone leads to wonder, observation, inquiry, exploration and holds the most relevant experts and resources. Since being in Zion, my little ones have asked me a million questions. I often find myself and my husband saying “I wonder...” How did Zion form? Why are the rocks red? Why is it dry? What drives climate in Zion? What species adaptations have emerged to survive the climate? What is the region’s human history? The list goes on and on. Any number of these questions could be turned into an inquiry investigation or a driving question for a project-based learning experience.
Check out these resources for student-directed learning experiences. They are all open-ended for learners to follow their interests and inquiries before, during, or after travel.
Project-Based Learning Tool Kit
Problem-Based Learning Tool Kit
Community Action Projects
Scientific Inquiry Tool Kit
(also available as a bundle)
4. Mental/Physical Health:
There are so many grim statistics out there about the health of our children. Anxiety and depression is at an all time high among teenagers. Regular outdoor time is a luxury for many schools. Some schools have taken recess away from children entirely. I have seen some really cool and creative ways that educators are addressing physical and mental health, but let's face it. As long as the bulk of a child's day is sitting at a desk or cooped up in an indoor work space, they are not getting the physical and mental outlet that they need. An hour of gym class is simply not enough.
Travel gets kids outside. It removes them from social and academic pressures. If you go to the right place, they can disconnect from the social media drama that suffocates them at home. They move their bodies! Whether they are in New York City or on the cliffs of Zion National Park, they have to move around to get from point A to point B. Travel is an all-inclusive mental and physical health overhaul. Take advantage, even if it means taking your own child on a weekend camping trip to a local state park. It doesn't have to be extravagant to make an impact.
5. 21st-Century Skill Building:
I have done an entire post on how travel helps learners develop essential 21st-century skills, so I won't get into it too much here. It's pretty simple. Removing children from their comfort zones puts them in a position to adapt. When traveling with a group they develop communication and collaboration skills. They learn how to work as a team. Children think critically and creatively when they face inevitable obstacles. They learn to be flexible. The list goes on. When children are in an environment, especially one in which their learning experiences are self-led, they develop those skills naturally. It's not something you need to plan. It just happens.
6. Expand Their Worldview:
In travel children are exposed to new cultures, different ways of doing things, a variety of perspectives and priorities. They develop tolerance and empathy for people from all walks of life. They observe that there is a world outside of their own. This is especially important for teenagers. Children are self-involved by nature. But exposure to the world will not only help them expand their world view, but define it. My travel experiences have absolutely shaped my worldview. This is really important. Ignorance might be bliss, but it is irresponsible. That is blunt, and I apologize if that offends anyone. But above a report card filled with A's, I want my students and own children to be responsible citizens, empathetic and compassionate people, hard-working, and passionate lifelong learners.
What do you want for your children? Of course traveling is not the only way to achieve all of these things. It's one way, but a very powerful way. Take a hard look at how you are providing your students and children with opportunities to expand their worldview, develop a healthy self-concept, gain content knowledge through child-led learning experiences, build deep and meaningful relationships with solid people, and grow up to be healthy, creative and skilled individuals. It's a lot. It's a huge job, I know. But it's worth it.
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Here comes another "C"! Have you noticed that many of the skills I've been covering in my 21st-century skills series start with a "C"? Those are the 4 C's of education; critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. There are many 21st-century skills, but the 4C's lay the foundation for the others, in my opinion.
The focus of this post is collaboration; working with others to achieve a common goal or purpose. It is imperative that students possess collaboration skills that will meet the demands of living and working in the 21st-century. Help them build a strong community network and to take advantage of all that their community has to offer. For partnerships with local citizens, business owners, legislators, city officials, non-profits, educators, town libraries, historical societies, and so on, and promote collaboration between them that work to meet the needs of the community.
Design your curriculum around community collaborations. Rather than learn about government from a textbook, for example, have students work directly with government officials to write a bill. Connect with farmers and conservationists to develop a plan that both protects livestock from wolf predation and wolves from extinction. The relationship between students and community members is mutually beneficial. By bringing community collaboration into your curriculum, students become an asset to the community rather than a fixture, and the community becomes a key player in the education of its children.
Start making student/community collaborations a priority in your curriculum by implementing some of the suggestions below. It's important to note that this cannot fall on the shoulders of teachers alone. For the following student/community collaborations to be successful, everyone will need to pitch in. Collaborate! Pull together principles, administrators, board members, parents, community members, and most importantly, students. Better yet, let your students take the lead. Yes, kids can be the driving force of most of the collaboration opportunities listed below.
10 Ways to Add Collaboration Skill-Building to Your Curriculum
1) Build YOUR Community Network:
If you are a parent or educator interested in including community collaborations in your curriculum, start by joining a town committee, club, or board. This will provide exposure to the needs of the community as well as establish a solid network for future collaborations between your students and the community. A few weeks ago I posted about a project one of my students was doing about horror films. Within minutes, someone in my network responded to the post offering this student the opportunity to work alongside a community member curating a horror film festival. Make some connections and start putting your ideas out there. Assure potential collaborators that students are contributors. They need your students as much as your students need them.
2) Write a Class Newsletter:
A few years ago several of my students noticed some animosity between our student body and some of our direct neighbors. My advisory got together to brainstorm ways to bridge the gap. My students decided that they would write a newsletter about our school with student and project highlights, upcoming events that neighbors could attend, ways for neighbors to get involved, and so on. My students created the newsletter, made the cookies, and personally delivered both to our neighbors. This small gesture helped our students build a stronger network for future collaborations.
3) Start a Community Garden:
Several of my coworkers had the idea of starting a community garden. They connected students with local horticulturists, farmers, and nonprofits to build a produce garden right on school property. Our students collaborated closely with community experts to build a beautiful and prosperous urban garden.
4) Start a Community Club or Committee:
Have students start clubs or groups that extend out to include community members. A few years ago, several of my students started a community cleanup crew for an assigned PBL project (FInd the resource here - Start a Club). Together our students and the local community organized and participated in regular neighborhood cleanup events.
Students might also consider organizing a committee specific to addressing community needs. Students and citizens, local business owners, city officials, non-profits, conservationists, colleges and universities, etc. would come together to tackle community issues and needs. Check out my Community Action Projects on TpT for guidance.
5) Host Community Events:
Start networking with community members by not only hosting events open to the public, but also including students and community members in the planning and organizing of the events. Our students have organized movie nights, spaghetti dinners, cook-offs, chess tournaments, exhibition nights, a gallery for local artists, and more. Collaboration with the community was integral in the success of these events.
6) Host a Speaker Series at Your School:
One of my coworkers and a group of students organize a speaker series at our school every year. The student committee observes and identifies important community topics and issues, they reach out to experts on those topics, they invite them to speak at our school, and open the doors to the public. The student committee collaborates with local citizens to narrow in on interests and needs, and organizes speakers to meet those needs. Students also collaborate with community experts to speak.
7) Transition to Project-Based Learning:
PBL is community centered by nature. It requires collaboration on many levels. PBL emphasises authentic learning experiences. Students are expected to collaborate with community experts, have real-world learning experiences beyond the walls of the classroom, create a final product that makes a positive impact on the community as a whole, and share their work with an authentic audience. Collaboration is an integral part of PBL. Collaboration skill-building is especially effective when the experience is student-led. Check out past posts on PBL right here, and head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for PBL resources to get you started.
8) Start a Mentorship Program:
One of my coworkers has been hard at work for years developing a mentorship program between our students and members of the community. The students and community members not only develop a friendship, but the mentors get involved in our students' projects, bringing their network and their collaborators to the table.
9) Start an Internship Program:
There are so many reasons to encourage student internships, and building collaboration skills is on the top of that list. The same coworker that works diligently on our mentorship program is also heavily involved in opening up internship possibilities to our students. Several of our students apprentice at Urban Boat Builders where a diverse array of collaborations are at play. Students can further strengthen collaboration skills by finding and arranging their own internship opportunities.
10) Organize Legislative Days:
Encourage learners to collaborate with their local representatives to make positive change in the community. Every year MAAP organizes "Legislative Day" where students from all over the state travel to Capitol building in St. Paul to discuss community issues with their legislators. These conversations often turn into long-term collaborations. One of my students, for example, worked closely with her legislator to create a bill that would help ex-convicts be productive citizens by making job opportunities more accessible.
Of course there are many more ways to help learners develop collaboration skills including problem-based learning, place-based education, hosting exhibition nights, educational travel, service-learning, etc. It can be as simple as taking what you are ALREADY doing with your students and adding community partnerships to the mix.
Next week I'm heading to Zion National Park with my family. I'm unsure at this point if I will have a post ready for next week. Keep an eye out. At a minimum, I'll post when I get home. Stay-tuned for a post on all of the ways to enhance learning while traveling.
Good luck to you, and as always, feel free to reach out for questions or comments. Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Last night my three-old tried to climb out of the bathtub by herself. I helped her back in the tub and explained to her that the bathtub ledge is smooth and wet, and therefore, slippery. She then removed the bathmat from the tub floor and swung it over the ledge, and again, began to climb out. She explained that the rough texture of the bathmat made the edge of the tub less slippery so that she could climb out safely by herself. My 3-year-old did this. Toddlers have the capacity to problem-solve, as do preschoolers, elementary students, middle schoolers, teenagers, and so on. With a little guidance, they can be problem-solving champs!
Every facet of life necessitates the ability to recognize problems and come to solutions, such as building and nurturing healthy relationships, raising children, home maintenance, success in careers and college, personal health, and more complex global issues like pandemics and natural disasters. The world around us continues to evolve in profound and unprecedented ways. Educators have an imperative responsibility to help nurture and strengthen that skill. Twenty first-century humans, regardless of age, regardless of context, must know how to face problems, how to work through the unexpected in a world of perpetual uncertainty, and come to logical and effective resolutions.
As I've said in my other posts on 21st-century skills, content and skill development are not mutually exclusive. You do not need to put your content to the side while you work with learners on problem-solving. Check out the following learning activities that incorporate problem-solving by design. There are other options not listed here, but the ones mentioned below are those that I've spent time fine-tuning because I've seen powerful results.
If you happen to be interested in helping learners develop a variety of skills, check out 21st-Century Skills Portfolio in my TpT store. Otherwise, give some of the learning activities below a shot.
Learning Activities That Build Problem-Solving Skills
I choose experiential learning activities for my students as often as humanly possible, which means learning is student-directed, learners are actively involved, and reflection is built into every experience. The following activities, include each of these elements, which is why I turn to them to help learners practice problem-solving.
This is one of my favorite learning experiences for building problem-solving skills. In problem-based learning, students observe real-world, complex, open-ended issues and develop a plan to solve the problem. Learners come to solutions by researching different perspectives, conducting experiments, talking with experts, analyzing the variables, determining several options to solve the problem, and weighing the pros and cons of each option. The results is a powerful combination of content knowledge and many 21st-century skills, including problem-solving. It also crosses disciplines; always a plus.
For example, buckthorn is an invasive species that is devastating forest communities around Minnesota. As a problem-based learning activity, students would research the natural history of buckthorn as well as the structural and behavioral adaptations that have allowed them to be so successful. Learners would look into solutions currently in place. They would research ways to eradicate and prevent the problem. They might even develop original solutions to the problem. They would then weigh their options and develop a comprehensive plan to solve the problem of buckthorn takeover in MN. That is problem-based learning at it's finest.
Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for my problem-based learning resource on invasive species and other problem-based learning resources.
Inquiry-based learning is when students make observations about the world around them, ask questions, and come to their own conclusions through experimentation and/or investigation. Inquiry-based learning starts and ends with the students. When educators rely on lecture and other forms of teacher-centered relaying of information, learners aren't problem-solving. Open inquiry often results in dead ends, unanticipated results, uncooperative sources, etc. that demand that learners take a step back, reflect, analyze the problem, and try something else. For more posts on inquiry, click the inquiry-based learning link to your right.
You can also check out a variety of inquiry-based learning resourcesat my TpT store.
Project-based learning is a wonderful tool for developing problem-solving skills. Innovation, authenticity, and community impact all set PBL apart from other styles of teaching. Learners are immersed in the community by default, so have many opportunities to observe and identify problems that are relevant and close to home. This is especially true when projects are designed to impact the community. My community action projects on TpT ask students to identify problems/issues in their own communities and take action. Click here for other PBL resources on TpT, and here for most posts on project-based learning.
Design thinking is a great way to practice problem-solving skills, and "making" is one way to utilize design thinking. The best maker activities that incorporate problem-solving are those that ask students to design and create something that literally solves a problem. I had a student in my environmental science class that designed and created an entire line of clothing from upcycled materials to reduce clothing waste, for example. Making also naturally leads to problem-solving. Prototypes rarely match final outcomes. Students start with a vision, they try some things out, use materials that they think will do the trick, inevitably run into obstacles, reflect, try something else, and so on and so on, until they have created a working final product.
A few days ago I asked my kindergartener to build a contraption that could rescue a "monster" from lava. His goal was to make something using household items that could pull his monster toy to safety without stepping in the lava (crossing the line). I have had my high schoolers do a similar activity, but it was related to natural selection. They learned content while practicing problem-solving through trial and error.
Check out some of my maker PBL challenges that combine elements of project-based learning and design thinking.
Play, especially when unstructured, is highly influential when it comes to skill development. In play, children themselves create rules, they make-believe, work together, and work through their own dilemmas. Social emotional skills emerge such as empathy, compassion, self-control, and expression of feelings. Twenty-first century skills come onto the scene as well including team-work, communication, flexibility, creativity, and problem-solving.
My oldest child started kindergarten this year. I have had doubts about sending him to a play-based preschool. The transition from two diametrically opposed learning environments has been jarring for everyone. Then I remind myself that his ability to cope with this new experience, to persevere through the transition, to express his fears and worries, to communicate with his teacher, and problem-solve can in part be credited to his preschool experience. I urge you! Let them play!
There are of course many other ways for children to practice problem-solving such as travel, service learning, STEM and STEAM, nature-based learning, team-building activities, current events discussions, analyzing case studies, and even casual conversation. Not all learning experiences are organized and structured. We learn about the world around us by living in it. What will NOT boost problem-solving skills are lectures, drill worksheets, and textbook readings. Those methods of instruction involve very little independent thinking. I understand that they have their place on occasion, but not when it comes to fostering generations of problem-solvers.
Ask yourself what you are doing with your students to help them build problem-solving skills. If your answer is "not much", consider trying out some of the activities here, or asking yourself another question; why not? If you need convincing, head back to some of my other posts about 21st-century skills. If your answer to the first question is a resounding "so many things!" I would love to hear about your experiences! Happy problem-solving!
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To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.