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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.

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.

Add New Comment


  • Jeff Nagata

    Thanks so much for this article, and for released the Collective Action Toolkit. I'm a recent college graduate, and I felt really lost in terms of what I wanted to do with my life. But this article was a launching point for me, for discovering an entire world of design and social impact that I was completely oblivious before. 

    Now I'm trying to implement both the CAT and the Human-Centered Design toolkit from to kick start my own design project for my local community, and it's really exciting! I'm also trying to use my experience to develop a curriculum for a teaching internship I have in Lucknow, India in a year from now. 

    So, just wanted to say thanks again. If I didn't happen to see this article I might have not found something that I'm so passionate about now. 

  • UrbanStoryteller

    One more C - compassion. If designers, traditionally trained to be God with all the answers, learn to listen, engage and empathize with clients, that strikes me as a laudable outcome from this exercise. It means starting  from a place of believing that local, non-expert knowledge is essential to the design process. SCAD may be teaching this, but it's rare in the design community.

  • Kayladenese

    I loved this article. I don't see why others need to criticize... I love seeing the design world and tools used specifically to enliven these students. I completely agree with David Sherwin's comment above, it is the kids that hold the knowledge and make it happen, but the design tools can really facilitate every race and age to hone in on the knowledge they have and do what they want. And Beach High sounded like a GREAT place to start. Great job Frog.

  • Jeff M.

    Nice story, but you're "piloting" something that has been around for many years: service-learning. In fact, a federal program called "Learn and Serve America," operated by the Corporation for National and Community Service, provided funding to states to support school-based service-learning from 1992 to 2010, when it was eliminated by Congress.

    Although this approach is not new, it isn't widely used because most school districts--especially those that serve low-income, minority students--are so focused on test scores. The kind of teaching and learning described here is never going to become common in public schools until we recognize that standardized tests are only one way to measure what students know and are able to do.

  • David_Sherwin

    Hello Jeff,

    Thank you for your comment. 

    I agree with you that service learning as an approach is not new, and that many of the community outcomes seen from this pilot are in line with what's been accomplished to date in similar programs. 

    In an ideal world, there would be the funding and support for such programs in every school across the United States. Unfortunately, there is not. For this reason, we conducted our pilot program not to try and replicate service learning outcomes, but to see if there was value in open-sourcing a set of tools for group problem solving derived from the techniques that designers use regularly. The test here was around the accessibility of the tools and their efficacy in the hands of high school students.

    It's our hope that tools such as the CAT can be used both within and outside the classroom to support any type of group learning, whether service learning or innovation thinking or learning about science. And we're excited that with more stories like the above, we could help inspire programs that foster things like service learning in more schools.

  • Mike W

    I think its just more like frog trying to sell themselves.  We are frog and this is what we did, hire us.

  • Esmerelda

    Great to see the overlying concepts behind this ambitious project, especially within the US educational sector.  A sector in which we are seeing a strong need and opportunity for a drastic shift in approach and structure.  There is a seat at the table for designers and their skill sets to collaborate and collectively act with communities and other like minded professionals to create a purposeful network to reframe some of  these larger wicked problems looking towards a more desirable future.  We see this here.

    I do question why this article does not provide more of the voice of the students.  Is there a way to share more of the youth's personal voice, experience, and insight; after all from what I read here this is about the youth asking the questions, defining problems+opportunities and developing the solutions?  

    From an outsider looking in it would be great to hear some literal direct quotes from these youth and what they took away from this experience.  How do they see this related to their current education.

    Its an awesome start, keep up the great work, and I look forward to the movement in this direction. 

  • Jeff Nagata

    I definitely agree with you, Esmeralda. It would be so insightful to see this project from the student's perspective. Even the document published by frog, called "We Have a Voice" (http://designmind.frogdesign.c..., ironically is almost all written from the perspective of the designers who facilitated the project. 

    It would be great if we got a perspective purely from the kids' point of view! 

  • David_Sherwin

    Hello Esmerelda—

    Thank you for your comment. To see what the students created in their program and hear what they had to say, take a look at "We Have a Voice: Facilitating Community Action with High School Students," which documented the pilot program and what the students had to say in great depth:

    Regarding your question about how the students felt about the process—here are some of my favorite quotes from the students regarding the impact the program had: “It's not only school. Y'all help us with our home lives, too… It's a time to vent, but also fun.” “Within our school, we’re not heard, so to have a program like this come and actually hear us out… and [let us] have an opinion about things…” “Through this program, I actually get to talk and fit in.”

  • David Sherwin

    Hello Esmerelda—

    Take a look at "We Have a Voice: Facilitating Community Action with High School Students," a 100-page document created by the SCAD graduate students about their collaboration with Beach, Savannah, and Groves High School. What the students created and their problem-solving process was documented there in great detail. It's available here:

    Here's a few quotes from the high school students about how they felt about this process:

    “It's not only school. Y'all help us with our home lives, too… It's a time to vent, but also fun.”

    “Within our school, we’re not heard, so to have a program like this come and actually hear us out… and [let us] have an opinion about things…”

    “Through this program, I actually get to talk and fit in.”

    "We have a voice."

  • Xswiftx2000

    Why is color a factor Stev? If it was all white kids would you have asked....only white kids?