Monday 28 Jul, 2014

A School Built on the Foundation of Design Thinking

EF’s Global Student Leaders Summit series encourages students to tackle global and local challenges by honing their sense of empathy, and asking them to prototype innovative potential solutions. These are essential steps of the design thinking process, a creative problem-solving technique taught to students at the Summit. Design thinking is thoroughly integrated into the experience to help students improve their communication skills, gain self-confidence, and become more adaptable to their surroundings.

Over the last few decades, companies like Apple and Google have successfully integrated design thinking into their business philosophies and cultures. While this process is still largely unfamiliar to many students, parents and teachers, it is beginning to make its way into the education realm. School administrators from Texas, David and Kristy are prime examples of this. Built around design thinking and experiential, challenge-based learning, their school’s mission is to provide students with teachers who cultivate character, and to establish a learning community that incorporates authentic challenges into the curriculum. So, when David and Kristy, learned about the EF Summit in Shanghai this past March, they instantly knew it was a perfect opportunity for their students.

Not only did the Summit align with their school’s educational values, but it also offered students the opportunity to travel the world and experience a new culture in an immersive learning environment. Recently I had the opportunity to speak with both David and Kristy and learn a little bit more about their school’s design thinking curriculum, as well as their experience at this past year’s Summit.

EF Tours Global Student Leaders Summit in Shanghai, China

How would you describe design thinking to a parent of a prospective student?
To us design thinking is a vehicle for helping students become better problem solvers and develop 21st century skills such as creativity, collaboration, and communication – all skills necessary for success (in any century really). Not only that, but it gives students the tools and skills needed to look at problems and challenges in a new way. At the heart of our school is character, so through design thinking, students develop empathy and compassion. Both of these ingredients are essential to any successful leader. Integrity and empathy are the foundation of an authentic design process.

Can you share an example of how teachers have created innovative design thinking curriculums that challenge students to be successful critical thinkers and problem solvers?
Our teachers regularly look to merge classroom content with an issue that pertains to our local community. A great example of this was when our 4th graders embarked on a year-long challenge to clean up the creek behind our school. The overall goal was to help improve the preservation of the natural environment surrounding our campus. This project not only had them suiting up in rubber gloves and boots, but they also visited our government center on Earth Day and reported on their experience and research. In addition to that, some of our 5th graders who previously created a 3D scale model of our campus constructed a topographic map of the creek’s area and demonstrated the effect of pollution caused by runoff. Experiences like this introduce real world issues, but it also shows them they can easily make a difference and help solve problems that affect us all.

From your experience how has international travel helped students become better and more experienced problem solvers?
Traveling creates a perspective all its own. Seeing the world from a traveler’s lens provides new connections and experiences that help students identify problems and solutions. In our experience, students who travel have a stronger sense of understanding and humility, but they also become more self-confident. Navigating their way through new cities and airports teaches students to quickly process and absorb their surroundings. In addition, student travel is a group experience. As a result students learn to work together.

In March, you and some of your students attended the Global Student Leaders Summit in Shanghai. Tell us about it…Was there anything that really stood out for you and the students?
The Summit was amazing! The conference was a professional, fun, and well-designed event, but it was also just really special. Our students knew that they were a part of something big. Having the opportunity to interact with other young people and discuss issues that really matter made them realize you are never too young to make a difference. The keynote speakers and the innovation village were fantastic. Students were definitely inspired by the keynotes. They really helped keep the 2-day experience dynamic. Many of our students made sure to meet them afterwards and ask questions. Also, the personal connections with other educators, students, and EF staff from around the world made the Summit experience very memorable.

As an educator, what aspects of Chinese cultural exchange and immersion do you think connected the most with your students?
Our students picked up on the fact that the average Chinese citizen shares similar challenges, dreams, hopes and fears; yet, that’s not what we always hear about back home. Our students learned that politics and newspaper headlines don’t define who people are. They also saw China as a country in transition which promises both opportunity and tension. Every chance we had to interact personally with locals created a significant learning opportunity.

Do you have a long-term vision/strategy for integrating student travel into your school’s mission and curriculum?
We want to see all of our students go on at least one international tour by the time they graduate. While this isn’t a requirement, we strongly encourage it. We want to connect classroom challenges with international experiences and have students collaborate with different cultures and people. Our school has three trips planned for this coming school year, and we’d also like to provide a Language Immersion tour for students to earn language credit.

What advice would you give to educators looking to use global travel as a tool for helping students improve their critical thinking and problem solving skills?
To put it simply – just go! Hold a meeting, meet with your administration, inspire your students and parents, plan for the experience and just go. The first one won’t be perfect, but it will be memorable and it will change students’ lives. Once you have a feel for it, you can make deeper connections with your curriculum.

These extraordinary events combine educational tours and a two–day leadership conference, tackling significant global issues in places where they come to life. You and your students learn from experts such as Al Gore, Jane Goodall and Sir Ken Robinson, and U.S. and local students work together to design and present their own solutions to the issue. Each Summit empowers your students today to start becoming the leaders of tomorrow. Upcoming Summits will tackle the Future of Energy in Iceland, and Human Rights in Europe.