By Greg Roth

Design thinking comes to high school

In Boise, Idaho, a group of high school students were given the chance to do that many consulting companies and facilitators such as myself spend their days trying to do — lead a design thinking session to solve problems for company looking for fresh ideas.

OneStone, an independent, tuition-free magnet school, gave a few dozen students the chance to lead a “CrashUP” session for RedBuilt, a local building materials manufacturing company. It’s an interesting approach to what has traditionally been called “vocational” learning or “vo-tech”, but the emphasis is more on white collar coaching than it is on learning a specific trade skill.

It’s a shame that this particular story is riddled with too many of the cliches we’ve come to know and roll our eyes at when it comes to design thinking:

Students and coaches had to get the group in the collective frame of mind to talk about the problems honestly and openly with supervisors and with colleagues they didn’t in some cases know well.

Students led teams of RedBuilt employees through quick one-on-one interviews with colleagues, with guiding questions intended to tease out the collaboration challenges the company faces.

Then, each interviewer wrote on sticky notes what they observed during the interview, what the subject did — fidget, cross arms and legs, etc. — and what the interviewer could infer about what the subject was thinking and feeling during the interview.

The idea was to build an “empathy map,” because fostering empathy is a key component of design thinking.

The rest of the day was spent devising solutions by crafting problem statements, “how might we” statements to “spark ideation,” then design physical prototypes to test ideas (a physical model, a storyboard, a wireframe, or a role play). After feedback, prototypes were revised.

Two extraordinary facts stood out to someone observing the process unfold. First, the RedBuilt employees’ skepticism melted away within minutes, and they became fully absorbed in the activities. Second, the students led groups with a self-assurance that belied their years and lack of experience. They had been well prepared by their coaches.

Don’t jump ahead to ideation yet. We need to find some common themes first,” junior Tessa Simonds gently admonished her group when they started rushing through a key part of the process. They quickly fell in line.

A big part of understanding the design thinking process is explaining it in relatable, real world terminology. This is simply not how most companies think, so the concept itself is going to sound alien to them and, worse, too much flowery, inside jargon means the process comes across as a bit trendy.

That aside, writing style alone should not dampen the appreciation for what OneStone is doing. It’s impressive to see a high school pursuing such an explicit curriculum of creative problem-solving in today’s parlance, mirroring what is happening at some major universities outside just the design school.