Design Thinking for Student Engagement

Design Thinking is one of the vogue, and sometimes vague, edu-terms being used today. Design Thinking, simply put, is really an approach to an issue or problem that asks one to think like a designer. Using the design process educators and people in other fields are able to develop new and innovative ideas or solutions to existing problems. The design process is broken down into five distinct phases, each with an accompanying key question.


At Handsworth, we’ve been attempting to use Design Thinking and the design process to address challenges and to further enhance student engagement as a principle school goal this year. This is most evident in the introduction of a new timetable for the year that includes a unique block once a week we call ‘innovation time’. Because the ‘innovation time’ block always occurs on Wednesdays, we now refer to them as ‘Innovation Wednesdays’.

So what exactly is ‘Innovation Time’ and what challenges inspired us to embark on the design process?

In recent years we’ve increasingly heard from staff the desire for more time to do creative departmental and cross curricular projects and to have more time simply to connect on projects with colleagues, but lamentations that our current timetable just doesn’t have the flexibility to accommodate it. Our school-based leadership group felt compelled to try and respond to this challenge by designing, prototyping and implementing a solution. A proposal was made to our school district to modify our Wednesday morning timetable to carve out an additional period to provide the flexibility needed to implement the initiative. At the end of last school year the board approved the idea, and for the 2016-17 school year we began to try it out. It was important for us that this new initiative be one that staff wanted and responded to a staff need, and that it wasn’t something pushed down on us from above. Support and earnest enthusiasm from staff for the project would be integral to its success. And if we could increase student engagement in the process it would clearly be of great benefit to everyone.

Some examples of what’s been occurring during innovation time include:

Innovation Wednesday Ballroom Dance

-Guest speakers from the community coming in to give presentations

-New clubs emerging, including chess club, investing club, and debate

-Existing clubs having more time to meet and collaborate

-Less student stress and anxiety as a result of time to work collaboratively in groups or write missing tests or quizzes

-Students learning new skills like ballroom dancing

-Peer mentoring and cross grade tutoring in subjects like math and science

Innovation Wednesday Yoga

-International students tutoring students in languages

-Hands on projects like making chainmail, scrap booking & RC Airplanes

-Grade assemblies

-Yoga, mindfulness & meditation sessions

-Tutorial time for teachers to meet with students who need extra help

This is by no means an exhaustive list. And what we’re seeing more of is students actually leading Innovations Wednesday sessions themselves. This has provided a great opportunity for leadership amongst the students, and a space for students and teachers alike to share and nurture their passions. Finally, this has also freed up some time for teachers who want meet to discuss things like new curriculum and other departmental concerns that are difficult to address when everyone’s prep time falls during different blocks.

Christmas break marks the end of our trial period for Innovation Wednesdays, and I’m pleased to report that it has been enough of a success that we’ll be continuing it throughout the rest of the year. Our barometer for success takes us back to the original impetus for its introduction: cross and inter-departmental collaboration, and increased student engagement. And by most accounts, that is exactly what we are seeing.

The implementation of Innovation Time has not been without its challenges. Like any design process, some element of failure is expected and even welcomed if we are to have our solutions evolve and improve. Innovation Time has required added effort from both our teachers, who now often need to plan for another weekly activity, and our administration, who basically create a new rec guide for students each week. We continue to bounce between step 4 and 5 of the design process, experimenting and evolving what Innovation Wednesday looks like. To this end, as we entered the break, we asked both staff and students to provide their feedback.

student_survey staff_survey

Educators are, inherently, designers. We make choices every day from designing the delivery of curriculum to, as we have seen, the structure of our school timetable. Taking an unconventional approach to challenges we face in education requires a new paradigm – one Design Thinking and the design process can offer. Innovation Wednesday’s at Handsworth, although in their infancy, represent a successful implementation of a Design Thinking solution.

Design Thinking for Student Engagement