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Incorporating design thinking in the PYP

Humera Riyaz, Primary Years Programme (PYP) coordinator at Eastern Public School, in India, explains to IB World Magazine how her team refreshed their programme of inquiry with a modern approach, encouraging students to make a positive difference inside and outside of the classroom.

Students using a pulley that they designed themselves
Students using a pulley that they designed themselves

Design thinking brings the IB’s­ mission – to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who create new ideas to solve real world issues – to life, as an IB World School in India discovered.

A dynamic, creative and collaborative approach to problem solving and design thinking, when applied to education focuses on pedagogy and offers a fun and engaging learning experience. “It’s a creative process that helps you design meaningful solutions in the classroom, at your school, and in your community,” according to IDEO, a Palo Alto-based international consulting and design firm, which is at the forefront of design thinking.

The approach nurtures creativity, as well as communication skills and teamwork. Students find and sort through information, collaborate with others and create solutions to problems based on authentic experience and feedback.

Schools can also use design thinking to redesign student spaces and school systems for better learning experiences. However, students and the Primary Years Programme (PYP) team at Eastern Public School, in Bhopal, went one step further. They integrated design thinking principles into the six transdisciplinary PYP themes. PYP coordinator Humera Riyaz shares her school’s story below….

A student posting her idea on the 'I Wonder' wall

Our teaching team had the conviction that design principles would strengthen our student-led inquiry and help develop the Approaches to Teaching and Learning (ATL’s). Our five-stage design thinking process included: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. Beginning with empathy – i.e defining the problem – we decided to integrate design into the following contexts:

Design principles to strengthen student inquiry

1. Who we are

Students identified stress as a major problem when inquiring into beliefs, values, relationships and social health for their PYP Exhibition. As they explored the central idea: ‘Our right choices and actions impact our lives’, students created game zones in the school hall and encouraged students and teachers to use mackey-mackey – an electronic invention tool and toy – as a stress management solution. This allowed users to refocus their attention and offered respite.

2. Where we are in place and time

While exploring how past civilizations shape present day systems and technologies, students looked at the problems experienced by people in a particular civilization. For example, they discussed the people living in Indus Valley – home to one of the world’s first large civilisations – who lived on the banks of the Indus river, the longest river in Pakistan. The Indus people needed river water to drink, wash and for religious ceremonies.

The students looked at how they would improve the river’s cleanliness system. They designed a vacuum cleaner which could filter rubbish from the river, resulting in cleaner water and better farming opportunities. Students also created a hydraulic elevator for Mesopotamian civilizations, which would help them construct huge buildings easily.

3. How we express ourselves

Students explored the central idea: ‘creativity enables us to express our ideas in a variety of ways’ and read books such as Jack and the Beanstalk, The Dot and The Magnificent Thing. They then came up with creative solutions for the characters, choosing issues they really cared about.

For example, one group of students designed parachutes for Jack (from Jack and the Beanstalk) to help rescue him from the giant. Then, they re-designed the story by changing its ending, using Scratch animation, a programme where users can create their own interactive stories, games, and animations.

4. How the world works

As part of an exploration into how machines make our life simple by reducing human effort, students were given a design challenge in their summative assessment.

They surveyed people in school in order to understand any problems they faced and the solutions that they wished for. The student’s task was to design a machine with a purpose. They had to consider the following: What kind of parts will it have? Could there be possible misuse of your machine? Is it safe? Is it environmentally friendly? Is it unique, or does it resemble another machine?’

During the process, they developed their observation and interpersonal skills. Based on their interest, each student chose to work on a different problem. They ideated and came up with amazing prototypes, such as creating a machine to control class noise; a pull along cart to easily share things from one corner of the building to another; a torch pencil that can write in the dark using circuits; and a prototype of a floor-mopping-robot to make a janitor’s work easier.

5. How we organize ourselves

While exploring the concept of disaster management, under the central idea: ‘People and organizations can prepare for and respond to disasters in a variety of ways’, students empathized with the people who live in disaster-prone areas and the problems they face. They designed a shock-proof building structure to reduce the physical impact of natural disasters, after researching and selecting appropriate materials. Students also tested their prototypes.

As part of their independent inquiry, students also re-designed spaces in the school campus and came up with ideas, such as THE PYPX hub for students to gather and socialize, and a school history museum.

6. Sharing the planet

While investigating the central idea: ‘Water is essential to support life on earth’, students inquired into our rights and responsibilities to share finite resources with others. They investigated where water is scarce, and explored different conservation efforts. Students worked collaboratively to come up with ideas for how water can be stored and used in more efficient ways. For example, they designed an efficient irrigation system for reusing and recycling water from fish ponds.

As students unpacked the central idea: ‘Attaining sustainable solutions helps us share the planet more efficiently’, they also created a smart city project to share their imagination of living in a city. They built designs using Sketch Up – a 3D modelling computer programme. When students learned that landfills are a problem, they investigated the way resources are allocated and the best possible ways to manage this. They designed automated garbage cans, using circuits and buzzers that would sound an alert when the bin is full.

Demonstrating positive change

Through this adventure into design thinking, we learned the importance of encouraging an “I can” mindset among our students. Students fully enjoyed the process, and we gained insight into student agency, action-oriented problem solving, empathy, creativity and teamwork.

Students testing the strength of a house they designed wearing the mask of a wolf

There is no perfectly crafted and prescribed path to implement design thinking. But it begins with a paradigm shift, as design thinking in primary school settings should be viewed as a way to teach, and not as a subject. These powerful activities build metacognitive skills and lead to positive change.

Creating design spaces or corners in the classrooms is a great place to start. Planning this kind of learning takes time, so schools will need to provide appropriate professional development opportunities to assist educators.

My last piece of advice is, educators, embrace the process. Give students enough time to think, observe and experiment, test, re-design, reflect and celebrate their innovations.

Students working on a design for their fish pond

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