A Lesson in Problem Solving

Intro to Engineering students gathered around a long table with hot glue guns, pipe cleaners, and stacks of blank paper. The setup of the room was already a contrast to the normal class period. What looked like the beginning of a craft party was actually a session in Design Thinking and problem-solving from drawing and painting teacher Hayes Trotter.

Far from being only an engineering concept, Design Thinking is a widely known process defined as “a systematic approach to generating innovative solutions to human-centered problems.” This approach to problem-solving takes participants through five steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. It acts as a roadmap to help people explore, ask questions, and understand a user who is experiencing a problem before proposing a solution. It also brings human character qualities like empathy, listening, and collaboration into a design process that can otherwise be sterile and solely result-driven.

At first, it may seem odd to see high school students attacking their daily work in this way. It might even seem more fitting for professional projects like technology development and product design, but Valor teachers Hayes Trotter and Kevin Von Qualen believe that there is no discipline that could not benefit from an injection of Design Thinking.

The Birth of Design Thinking

Their passion for the process started several years ago when Valor first launched the Visual Arts Conservatory. Von Qualen, a photography teacher, first introduced Design Thinking to the Arts faculty team when they began planning what the program could look like. “Incorporating empathy and voice was really important to this process because we were looking for a student experience solution. We wouldn’t have the same result if it was just a bunch of adults who got together in a room and came up with something,” Trotter says. 

So, they talked to prospective Conservatory students, current students, alumni and professionals to broaden their perspective, understand needs and desires, and create a solution that reflected them. Now in its second year, the Visual Arts Conservatory continues to grow and adapt each year to accommodate the needs of its students. 

Eventually, Design Thinking trickled down into classroom practices as faculty saw its benefit in their own creative processes. Von Qualen finds that Design Thinking’s bias towards “act quick, fail fast” is challenging for many Valor students. 

“(Design Thinking) promotes failure in the classroom in a healthy way. Many students are so afraid of failing, and fear leads to inaction. Design Thinking is great because it’s an immediate first step where there’s not a risk, but instead immediately can gain empathy and walk away with information and something to start.” When failing is not just allowed but expected, students are free to try new things. 

The Antidote for Specialization

If the education of the past was one of specificity, today’s students and workers are expected to be well-rounded and versed in a variety of experiences. Design Thinking leads toward experience-based learning and collaborative problem-solving that can benefit students inside and outside the classroom. Trotter has seen the benefit of Design Thinking even in his own life. “What am I going to do with painting in life? I might make some great paintings, but I’m probably a better human as a creative problem solver.” 

Instead of only identifying as artists, academics, and athletes, all students are united by the common language of Design Thinking as collaborators and contributors whose experience and passion can provide a unique perspective. 

At the end of the day, Design Thinking is just a process that may inspire some and feel restricting to others. But, by slowly teaching students to build empathy, fail quickly, and uncover problems that need solutions, it’s also a process that gives them tools to succeed in high school and beyond. In workplaces, schools, and homes, problem-solving can often begin with openness to other perspectives. Trotter believes that “all of us are smarter than any of us. I can’t think of a better way to solve problems than by getting different people together in a room.”

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