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Design Thinking in the 3rd Grade Classroom

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In my experience teaching 3rd grade, many students have positive energy and enthusiasm around learning. Many 3rd graders are often eager for their “next learning adventure” (Responsive Classroom).

Because of these characteristics, I enjoy incorporating Design Thinking, a five-step problem-solving approach, into my 3rd grade curriculum.

And if you’re a regular blog reader, you know that I love Design Thinking at every grade level!

3rd grade students can use the entire Design Thinking process and structure as an approach to identifying and solving real-world problems.

In today’s blog post, I’m going to share tips and strategies for implementing Design Thinking into your 3rd grade classroom.

First, we’ll define Design Thinking. Then, I’ll share some tips for getting started with Design Thinking, followed by a project example. Lastly, I’ll share some additional project ideas to spark some extra inspiration.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is an iterative, human-centered, problem-solving process that involves five key steps: (1) empathize, (2) define, (3) ideate, (4) prototype, and (5) test.

Design Thinking sparks innovation, encouraging students to explore “wildly radical” ideas.

I don’t want to spend too much time defining “Design Thinking” in this blog post, so if you are looking for a complete breakdown on all 5 stages, you can check out another blog post here.

You can also view all my posts on Design Thinking here.

Getting Started with Design Thinking in 3rd Grade

Tip #1: Provide Structure Upfront

3rd grade is the youngest grade level that I really like to dive deeply with Design Thinking.

In younger grades, particularly Kindergarten and 1st, I might focus my teaching on one or two stages of Design Thinking, whereas with 3rd grade, I will utilize all five stages – Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test – in my teaching.

To introduce our project effectively, I will show my 3rd graders all 5 stages of Design Thinking upfront.

I might start off our Design Thinking project by saying something like, “Today we are beginning a Design Thinking project. Our project has five different steps. Step 1: Empathize. Step 2: Define. Step 3: Ideate. Step 4: Prototype. And Step 5: Test.”

By outlining these steps at the start, I’m able to provide students with structure and predictability, as well as set up clear expectations for our entire project.

Tip #2: Encourage Collaboration

Third graders can also benefit from collaboration during the Design Thinking process.

One strategy for incorporating collaboration during a project is to have students work in small groups. While this is the most obvious example of encouraging collaboration, it is still an effective strategy.

If you would prefer for students to work independently (and each produce their own final product), then you can have students collaborate through feedback.

For example, you might have students share their prototypes with a partner to receive feedback and additional ideas on how to improve their designs.

I like to model for students, especially third graders, what effective, collaborative feedback looks like. Students can use “I like…” and “I wonder…” feedback when checking in with their partners.

Tip #3: Consider Extending the Timeline

Design Thinking can happen in short 60min “sprints,” where students complete all five stages in a short amount of time.

But Design Thinking can also happen over an extended timeline, allowing students to dig more deeply and lean into the process.

Design Thinking works really nicely with project-based learning, so instead of having students complete the entire process in one class period, consider extending a project over the course of several days or weeks.

For example, you could follow a timeline like this one:

  • Monday: Empathize
  • Tuesday: Define
  • Wednesday: Ideate
  • Thursday: Prototype
  • Friday: Test

Design Thinking Project Example: Redesign the School Lunchroom

Now that we’ve covered some important tips for trying out Design Thinking with third grade, let’s take a look at an in-depth project example.

Our essential question is…

How might we redesign the school lunchroom experience?

For this project, I might extend our learning over the course of an entire week (or, five classes) to really dive deeply into our project.

Empathize and Define Stages

I might spend two days (or two class periods) on the Empathize and Define stages of this Design Thinking project.

Before we can begin building a solution, we need to better understand how our school lunchroom functions and how it is designed. I might have students explore the following questions:

  • What works in our school lunchroom? What doesn’t?
  • How is our school lunchroom designed? Who uses the space?
  • Who might we interview to learn more about their experience in the school lunchroom?

I might also encourage students to come up with additional questions to research.

Are students interested in where food comes from? Are students interested in food waste? Are they interested in how many lunch periods our school has? What problems do they notice?

Then, once students have collected enough information, I would have them come up with a “needs statement.” I might even write a sentence stem on the board:

“A problem in our school lunchroom is ______. I know that this is a problem because ______.”

Or,

“Our school lunchroom needs a way to ________ (need) because (or ‘but…’ or ‘surprisingly…’) __________ (insight).”

Ideate and Prototype

I might spend another two days (or two class periods) to focus on the Ideate and Prototype stages of our project.

We would begin these stages by referring back to our needs statements. What problems have we identified? How might we brainstorm solutions to those problems?

Students would spend a good amount of time brainstorming, or ideating. I like to have students come up with at least 3 ideas on how to solve the problem.

I might have students brainstorm their ideas by drawing detailed diagrams and labeling any important features.

Next, students would choose their favorite solution and build a prototype using recyclable materials.

Students might use cardboard, paper, color pencils, tape, scissors, cups, paper towel tubes, etc. to build their prototypes.

Test and Reflect

On the final day, students would test their prototypes.

To test their ideas, I would have students get feedback from someone – either another student in the class or someone in our school community.

Students would be encouraged to use “I like…” and “I wonder…” language to give feedback.

Then, based on that feedback, students would then make adjustments to their prototypes.

You could even incorporate 3rd grade writing and presentation standards by having students share their ideas with the class or greater community – there are so many ways to make this project standards-aligned!

Lastly, students would have structured time to reflect on the entire Design Thinking process (not just their final products!).

Design Thinking Project Ideas for 3rd Grade

If you are looking for additional Design Thinking ideas to use in your 3rd grade classroom, check out the ideas below:

Design Thinking Read Alouds for 3rd Grade

I love using read alouds as a method to teach Design Thinking. That’s another great tip for teaching 3rd graders!

By using read alouds to launch a Design Thinking project, I’m able to teach students valuable listening and reading skills, alongside problem-solving and critical thinking. 

Here is a list of books you might use for a project:

Additional Design Thinking Ideas

Much like the School Lunchroom project example, you can also have students explore a Design Thinking project connected to their interests or your community. You can also align a Design Thinking project to your curriculum!

Here are some additional open-ended project ideas:

  • The Backpack Project: How might we design a thoughtful and helpful backpack for a friend?
  • Walk In Someone Else’s Shoes Project: How might we design a new pair of sneakers for a friend?
  • Cardboard Arcade Project: How might we design a brand new cardboard arcade game?
  • Food Waste Project: How might we design a new system to improve food waste at home or at school?
  • Lost-And-Found Project: How might we improve the lost-and-found system at our school?

Thank You!

Thank you for reading this blog post about Design Thinking in the 3rd grade classroom. I’d love to hear from you! What other ideas do you have? Leave a comment down below, DM me on Instagram @edtechclass, or email me at myedtechclassroom@gmail.com.

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