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Design Thinking in the 4th Grade Classroom

Design Thinking is a five-step problem-solving approach that consists of: (1) empathizing, (2) defining, (3) ideating, (4) prototyping, and (5) testing.

In the 4th grade classroom, Design Thinking can be integrated into curriculum to help deepen students’ learning and understanding of core concepts and standards.

In today’s blog post, I’m going to share some tips for getting started with Design Thinking in 4th grade, followed by an in-depth project example. Lastly, I’ll share some additional project examples to spark some extra inspiration.

Getting Started with Design Thinking in 4th Grade

Tip #1: Create and Share Project Planners

Design Thinking works best in the 4th grade classroom when a project is highly organized and well-structured.

To do this, I like to create and share project planners with students, so they can track their progress throughout the Design Thinking process.

A project planner might consist of 5 different sections – one for each stage – where students document their thinking.

For example, in the “Ideate” section, students might draw 3-5 different ideas and then circle their top choice before moving onto “Prototype.”

A project planner helps hold students accountable, and also acts as a physical representation of their problem-solving. Plus, a project planner is useful for you to review as the teacher for grading and providing feedback.

Tip #2: Encourage Collaboration

Fourth 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 fourth 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

In the following section, I’ll be sharing an idea for a project that was extended over the course of many weeks.

Design Thinking Project Example: Protect the Oceans Project

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

Our essential question is…

How might we build solutions to better protect our oceans?

For this project, I might extend our learning over the course of several weeks.

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 the problems connected to our ocean system. I might have students explore the following questions:

  • What are some of the biggest problems that affect our oceans? How are these problems impacting our oceans?
  • What are some current solutions to those problems? How might we improve those solutions?
  • How are these problems connected to each other?

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

To conduct research, I recommend providing students with articles from Newsela. Newsela is my go-to resource for teaching 4th grade students research skills.

I have been able to find high-quality Newsela articles on the following topics and problems:

  • Overfishing
  • Plastic
  • Pollution
  • Endangered species
  • Dying coral reefs
Example of a Newsela article

After reading some articles, you could also have students explore another research medium: podcasts!

By using different mediums to conduct research, students are able to practice different types of research skills, as well as learn about the importance of cross-checking with multiple sources.

I really love Tumble Science Podcast for Kids, and when I have done this project with students, I have shared the episode titled, “The Voyage of the Ocean Trash with Jenni Brandon.

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 ocean is ______. I know that this is a problem because ______.”

Or,

“Our ocean needs help with ________ (need) because (or ‘but…’ or ‘surprisingly…’) __________ (insight).”

Ideate

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

You might consider having students work in small groups of 4 students for the remainder of the project. Or, you might prefer to have students work independently.

We would begin the Ideate stage by referring back to our needs statements. This is a crucial step that I would emphasize a number of times with students:

What problems have we identified? How might we brainstorm solutions to those problems?

Students would then spend a good amount of time brainstorming, or ideating. I like to have groups come up with at least 3-5 ideas on how to solve the problem they have identified.

In order to have students really spend their time with ideating, I might have them brainstorm their ideas by drawing detailed diagrams and labeling any important features. I would also regularly check-in with them and ask, “What problem have you identified? How do your ideas help solve that problem?”

Prototype

Before we can start the Prototype stage, students need to select their favorite idea. Remind students to choose the idea that best meets the needs they identified during the Define stage.

Once students have selected their favorite idea, task them with drawing a larger detailed diagram on a piece of 8.5x14in paper (if you have it). Students can make final adjustments and changes. Then, I like to have student ideas get approved by the teacher.

Next, students can begin building prototypes of their solutions. I like to use Model Magic for this portion of the activity.

Students may need a couple of class periods to really build high-quality, detailed prototypes.

Prototype (Part 2)

If you want to extend this project even further, consider having students use a 3D modeling software like Tinkercad to build digital prototypes.

If you have access to a 3D printer, you could even have their prototypes 3D printed! Of course, this isn’t a necessary step – just another idea for extending the project.

Examples of student prototypes in Tinkercad
Example of 3D printed prototypes

Test and Reflect

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.

You could even incorporate 4th 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!

With our project, students presented their ideas in front of our entire community during our Friday All School Meeting time.

Lastly, you can provide students with structured time to reflect on the entire Design Thinking process (not just their final products!).

Design Thinking Project Ideas for 4th Grade

If you are looking for additional Design Thinking ideas to use in your 4th grade classroom, check out the ideas below:

  • School Lunchroom Redesign Project: How might we redesign the school lunchroom experience?
  • 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 4th 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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