Design Thinking: Concept Learning Wall

Design thinking is a problem-solving protocol that many businesses have been using to create products and find viable solutions.  Currently, there is a movement among educators to apply this design protocol to education, and even extend it beyond STEM courses to include language arts, social studies, foreign languages and fine arts.  Design thinking, according to Wikipedia, is defined as combining empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality in analyzing and fitting various solutions to the problem context.

The process is realized through several phases as presented by NoTosh, an independent consultant group for design thinking:

  • Immersion – a deep and divergent period of research, observation and understanding issues from different perspectives. 
  • Synthesis – students deduce interesting gaps to explore, problems to solve or opportunities to solve, using the information they have gathered from the collective research of the class, and specific thinking skills, with an emphasis on making their thinking process visible.
  • Ideation – determining possible ideas and solutions for the identified problem.
  • Prototyping – creating and testing solutions with an emphasis on thinking skills and mindsets that allow students to create early and often.
  • Feedback – students adjust their work and learning based on feedback from their peers and their teachers.

Ideation, prototyping, and feedback is a cyclical process which helps students create and test many potential ideas for problem solutions or ways of demonstrating their learning.

  • Implementation / Display – celebrating and sharing not only the finished product and learning achieved, but the process behind it as well.

Our school’s current strategic plan is embracing design thinking throughout all subject areas.  In this school year, our faculty has been working  with NoTosh as they spearhead our school effort.  We have had several in-services for the entire faculty and the philosophy behind design thinking has been introduced.  As part of the school-wide professional development, all teachers were asked to formulate a goal – an initiative – no matter how small, that would in someway embrace the philosophy and implement this before the year’s end.  My language arts and social studies team took the idea of a learning wall and applied it to an integrated unit focusing on courage and refugees.


6th Grade Courage / Refugee Concept Learning Wall

The learning wall is an excellent tool for synthesis and helps students “hone in on a worthy problem to solve.”  It is also an effective means of showing and applying their understanding of the unit concepts.


We began the learning wall early in a unit focusing on the concept of courage and refugees (immersion).  Students explored the idea of courage and used Webspiration to create a mind map of their research.  Their courage mind maps included antonyms and synonyms , song lyrics and poems, photographs, quotes, examples of courageous people.  Following, students explored the concept of refugees including key vocabulary words such as push and pull factors, asylum. and flee.  Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was introduced and students were exposed to the idea of genocide.  This all culminated in a deeper understanding of what it means to be courageous and what it means to be a refugee.

Throughout the process, students were constantly adding key points to their learning wall by posting definitions, photos, post-it notes, and computer print-outs of their writing.

This led to the next phase, which was a research unit.  Students were instructed in how to use our school’s data banks to access information through our library website.  They also were instructed in how to paraphrase and cite sources properly.  The topic of “child refugees” was used as the content for teaching this research unit.  As students researched, they continued to add to the learning wall, and came up with many topics involving child refugees.  As a group, we worked together to narrow the many topics down to five (ideation):  1 – The recruitment of adolescents to become child soldiers is a serious problem.  2- Refugee children are not provided with adequate educational opportunities.  3- More help needs to given to orphaned refugee children or refugee children separated from their families.  4- Children are especially vulnerable as refugees.  5- Malnourishment is one of the most serious health issues for refugee children.  From these five topics, students chose the one which interested them most and then collected further research to support their thesis in a persuasive essay which included an actual call to action. (prototype)  Students collected research and wrote their essays using Google Docs which allowed their peers and teachers to provide specific, timely feedback in the essay writing process.

Top Three Advantages of the Learning Wall:

  1. Visual record of the students’ learning
  2. Directed students’ thinking through each phase  of their learning
  3. Helped students to define their problem or direction for their research

About Jamie

I am currently a middle school Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at The American School in Japan.
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