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Want To Help Kids Solve Problems? Have Them Design Their Own Solutions

Using their open-source toolkit, frog design helped students identify and tackle an issue they cared about.

Want To Help Kids Solve Problems? Have Them Design Their Own Solutions

The 11 students in the room were nervous. They were about to present their ideas for an Anti-Violence Week to the school principal, Mr. Muhammad. Their journey began with a simple question: What change do you want to see in your community? It ended with their answer, which they created collectively over 12 class periods as part of their marketing class. Would their principal approve their idea, so their event could take place at Alfred E. Beach High School?

Given that America’s educational system expects students to master STEM and other standards-based testing, frog wanted to help them learn the 4Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. (The term STEM refers to America’s academic focus on science, technology, engineering, and math, and our effort to improve our academic competitiveness in those fields.)

We see those skills as accelerants that help people understand how to better explore and relate information across a wide variety of subjects. One of the best ways to teach these essential skills to today’s students is by encouraging student groups to create solutions to issues that impact not only themselves but also their communities.

When students design solutions, they develop skills

At frog, we’ve been exploring how student-led problem solving creates ripple effects felt in the classroom, the school, and the community at large. This work has been in partnership with schools and local community groups that have been using the Collective Action Toolkit (CAT)—our open-source guide to design thinking—in their classrooms and community meetings.

The toolkit encourages problem solving as a form of skill development, with group activities that draw on participants’ strengths and perspectives. The toolkit challenges groups to act on their ideas by defining and clarifying shared goals throughout the process.

While we’d initially created the CAT to provide community leaders with resources and activities for bringing groups together to solve problems and create change in their local communities, we’ve seen it used in a much broader array of use cases. This includes everything from corporate innovation groups and startups to NGOs and governments. But we were intrigued by stories from teachers around the world, who were using many of the CAT’s activities in their schools. In order to better understand the potential value of group problem-solving in the high school classroom, we embarked on a 10-week pilot program with the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Design for Sustainability program, in partnership with Design Ethos, Gatorball Academy, and teachers and classes at Beach, Groves, and Savannah High Schools.

Designers help students identify issues

In Professor Scott Boylston’s 10-week class Sustainable Practices in Design, eight designers worked with 42 students and three teachers in Savannah area high schools. The designers facilitated CAT activities over several weeks, moving from identifying community issues the students were passionate about to proposing implementable solutions using the toolkit’s six categories of activities.

To give you a sense of how this group problem-solving happens in the classroom, let’s travel to Alfred E. Beach High School and see what this process looks like.

For the students at Beach High, the journey began with a simple question: What change do you want to see in your community? For six weeks, the SCAD designers met twice a week with 11 sophomore and junior students in a marketing class for 55-minute class periods. During the class periods, the designers would conduct activities they’d selected from the CAT, then debrief afterward to determine what they had learned and plan out the next class. (This teaching process stands in contrast to a traditional class-planning approach, where class topics, lectures, and activities can be selected weeks or months in advance.)

The first challenge to overcome was getting students to understand that the designers weren’t there to drive the process but to encourage them to voice their own knowledge and creative ideas to the class. The first activity conducted with the students, "Skill Share," was from the "Build Your Group" section of the CAT. The activity encourages group members to share their unique talents and abilities. This activity gave students a taste of what it feels like to be in charge of the classroom—and feel like their voices were being heard. This helped build a stronger collective sense of group identity, which would be important when the students began discussing tough subjects.

The designers also had to be listening closely to understand each student’s unique point of view, as well as the underlying reasons why those points of view are important. This alignment between the world views of the designers and the students would become critical during the following class periods, where the designers facilitated the students through activities from the "Clarify Your Goal" area of the CAT.

These activities were designed to help the students home in on a specific community issue they could change for the better. The designers began activities like "Define Your Problem," "Ripple Effect," and "Find True North" in the hope that the the class would gravitate towards serious issues to discuss and tackle. Improving public transit? Making college more affordable? Creating more local job opportunities?

Superficial issues often have broader significance

It soon became clear that the students’ focus was elsewhere—or so it seemed. "As their skits developed," explains designer Alex Pappalardo, "it became clear that pizza-related issues were a pretty big concern. Yes, they were concerned with going to college, but there also seemed to be a consensus that getting pizza to their door—the way it happened in commercials on TV—was something they could really rally around."

The SCAD designers strategized about how to direct the class to more "important" topics. During the first class periods, this seemed like an appropriate course of action. However, the topic of pizza delivery kept coming up in activity after activity. It took four class periods for the students and designers to collectively "get" the issue they’d been discussing. As one student finally revealed, "We can’t have pizza because every time the pizza delivery guy comes to our house, he gets robbed and his car gets stolen."

Neighborhood violence was an inescapable part of their daily lives. This was a pivotal moment for both the students and the designer-facilitators, and it galvanized the group’s focus. The group agreed to focus—for the remaining class periods—on reducing violence in the community.

Now that a community issue had been identified, the designers let the students loose with an activity called "Jam Session," where they created a range of ideas to solve that issue without any reality constraints. After only half a class, they had tons of ideas on sticky notes, ranging from designing T-shirts to a week-long campaign for reducing violence in downtown Savannah, and from public spanking for criminals and suspects to lobbying the government for a better version of the Second Amendment.

Refining ideas is the hard part

Generating ideas wasn’t tough for the students. The hard part was helping the students understand as a group which ideas balanced feasibility with potential community impact. The second half of the activity required them to work together as a group to evaluate what they’d generated, identifying ideas they could make real as part of their class. As the designers listened to the student-led discussion, they realized that the issue of neighborhood violence was too big to tackle head on with any single idea.

So they reframed the issue in a way that helped focus the students, by asking the following question: How can we reduce violence at our high school?

In discussions over a series of classes, the class unanimously gravitated toward the idea of an Anti-Violence Week at their school, where each day of the week would have a different activity for the student body that focused on reducing violence on the high-school campus.

Now that the class had agreed on an idea, they needed to plan exactly how they’d make it real. In an earlier class, the students had mentioned that they wanted to speak with the principal, Mr. Muhammad, about their ideas. And they wanted the material support necessary to make the event happen.

The designers saw this as an opportunity to focus the class’s efforts, and secured a meeting with the principal. This became powerful motivation for planning and making activities in the following classes. The students created storyboards that explained their ideas in greater depth ("Storyboarding 101"), split up into teams to plan out the daily Anti-Violence Week activities ("Divide and Conquer"), and generate a class-wide proposal presentation.

After almost two months of collective work, the time had come for their meeting with Mr. Muhammad. Each student rehearsed and presented a portion of their Anti-Violence Week proposal, providing both the vision and the plan of how it would be implemented with school support. The class’s visual record of their work over the life of the class proved to be a crucial component of the presentation, as the students walked the principal through the work that had been done.

A smart presentation reveals your ability to think critically

Without a visual record of the group conversations, much of what was discussed would literally vanish. When diligently captured, a visual record of questions, insights, reflections, ideas, stories, and plans of action becomes a "visual resume" that students were able to build upon from class to class. It served as evidence of critical thinking about tough subjects.

One month later, Anti-Violence Week was produced by Ms. Wilson’s class at Beach High for students in the 9th grade. (Ms. Wilson also used the CAT in another class, independent of the pilot, to inspire similar results.) Each day focused on a different facet of what violence meant, both in the community at large and within the school. The students organized a series of speakers, activities, and posters addressing gun violence, domestic violence, cyber bulling, and gang violence. The event was considered a big success by the administration, teachers, and students; student participants signed an anti-violence pledge to close out the week.

Now that they’ve successfully produced Anti-Violence Week, the students now want to go back and address one of the issues they’d discussed at the start of the pilot: what college they want to go to, and how to best afford it. Working on their own, they’ll be using activities from the CAT to help them through the process.

Collaborating with others always improves you

This isn’t the end of the story—it’s just the beginning for the designers, teachers, and the students involved in the local community. "Personal empowerment rarely comes with big, dramatic splashes," says Scott Boylston, "but instead usually sneaks up on us in the most unexpected ways, and through the most unlikely of individuals."

This held true for the students at Beach, who, through the structure and activities provided by the CAT, honed their 4Cs. In facilitating use of the CAT, the designers practiced greater compassion, improved their listening skills, learned how to facilitate and build teams, collaborate in unfamiliar environments, and became aware of different tools and processes beyond their traditional design training. (The findings from the other schools echo this.)

We observed that one of the most important outcomes from this pilot program was discovering how students could create stronger social relationships with each other. They did so around community issues that they cared about changing for the better.

This makes me think that there has been a fifth C missing from our learning objectives in today’s high schools. And if we foster that objective in high schools across America, we might have a big influence on both the quality of our education and on the issues our students struggle with beyond the walls of the classroom.

That fifth C? Community. As designer Alex Pappalardo put it:

I realized in a very fundamental way why these students—these fourteen to seventeen year old kids—are the best individuals to be designing solutions to their problems. The three of us ‘designers’ can facilitate with design tools, but they are the experts in this arena. These students are the people who own the knowledge and foster the legacy of their communities. They are the ones to lead the way for the change they want to see.

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