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Students embrace systems and human-centered design thinking

Examples of teachers using systems and human-centered design thinking in the classroom
August 06, 2021


Teachers across the globe are the superheroes of our time: molding young minds, sparking curiosity, and inspiring students to redraw the boundary lines of their imagination. While traditional curriculums have sufficed in educating students in a broad scope of subjects, many educators are now nodding in agreement that there might be more practical approaches for untangling today’s global issues.

We sat down with two educators who are cultivating new models of thinking in the classroom by applying the principles of human centered design and systems thinking
Alabama educator Theresa Shadrix enrolled her Advertising and Design Tech Career class in our Human Centered Design course to encourage student-led changes to her school system. Canadian high school teacher Allen Gunderson borrowed lessons from Systems Practice to expand his students’ mindset beyond an A to B approach. 
Here’s a quick glimpse at three ways these two teachers applied a new way of  thinking to the challenges facing their school communities and the greater globe. 

1. Identifying the challenge

Theresa’s class started with a ‘gripe session:’ a meeting where people who are unsatisfied about a situation get together to discuss a problem. As a class, Theresa’s students drafted a list of issues in need of improvement within their school system. They came up with two challenges: integrating design thinking into all of their classes (which they called ‘classroom culture expansion’) and launching a school talent show. 
Theresa then split her class into six student-led teams, and gave them access to our global platform to engage with other students solving communal problems ocean’s away.  
Allen adopted a different approach by applying a new framework to his current curriculum. “We were looking at UN peacekeeping missions, and I broke the kids into teams and used systems practice to map out the current situation in each country.”
Allen emphasized the importance of applying a systems lens to the study of history to identify how certain problems — such as racial injustice — aren’t the result of any one event, but are deeply embedded in our society’s social fabric and systemic structures. “Systems mapping gives my students a way to understand the interconnections and interrelations between the complex events happening around them – their connection to events of the past, how they affect us presently, and how to move forward in the future.”


2. Getting out of the building

In the research phase, Theresa’s students looked to identify whether the problem they saw was also an issue experienced by their fellow classmates. “We had powerpoint and we had different classes come in to see both [ideas] and give us feedback,” added Theresa. 
The class also launched online surveys and in-person interviews — a key element of human-centered design thinking — which encourages entrepreneurs to “get out of the building” and speak with potential consumers to determine whether their product is solving a real customer problem. This iterative process of feedback collection was met with moments that surprised Theresa, placing her in the shoes of her students. “Most of the students reported they wanted lesson plans to be improved, to be more student-friendly and hands-on through games or activities,” she said.
An important tip to remember when gathering any type of feedback is to enter into your interviews with a clear and open mind. In other words, don’t try to sell your idea. Persuading customers to agree with you will only cloud your judgement of what needs to be improved.

3. Translating feedback into action

Feedback can usually tell us if we’re on the right track, or whether we’ve missed the mark entirely. Either way, identifying patterns and themes, and translating them into actionable next steps can be a challenge when you’re working in a system that seems stagnant or change-resistant. Theresa and her students were determined to avoid being sidelined by these fears. “The plan was to have design thinking meetings with teachers and faculty first, to teach them how to implement design thinking into their learning environment to improve student engagement.”
By integrating human-centered design (HCD) principles into her classroom, Theresa and students were able to slowly push progress within their school system. “The teachers were very open to it. They were very interested; they were intrigued. It takes time though, for them to actually learn it and display it in the classroom,” Theresa said. Her students also saw the benefit of the modules in their ability to move beyond linear thinking.
One student added, “I had no idea what design thinking was until this class. I really was struggling but it’s helped me in every class because it has opened my thinking — expanded it a lot. HCD also helped us come together as a team to work on an idea and face our challenges together.”
There are also examples of the HCD course opening up new ideas for independent projects. “In our school we have laptops, and we have special laptop bags. A bunch of people complain about how there’s not enough room to put other things in there, and so we designed a bag that is better and easier to carry around,” one student added.

Balancing it all

Theresa and Allen acknowledge that experimenting with a new course while maintaining their regular workload wasn’t always easy for them or their students. Depending on your students’ workload, you may find that you can only engage with a few modules, or that you wish to modify certain elements, and that’s alright. 
Allen encourages educators to use Acumen Academy’s courses as a foundation to build upon, by shaping it to your specific discipline. “The Acumen course videos are helpful in understanding the concepts, but a challenge I had with my students was that they’re looking for something geared towards their lives. Supplementing videos and weaving in your own material such as Linda Booth Sweeney’s work or the Waters Center can help,” Allen said. 
Whether you’re looking to enroll your entire class in an immersive experience, or train yourself on new teaching practices, Acumen Academy’s courses are flexible, and there’s no better time to start building with us.
“One thing I learned through this process was that students have a lot of important things to say but they still don’t feel like people are listening to them. We as adults have the power, we have to be willing to listen,” Theresa says.  
More About Theresa Shadrix:
Theresa currently teaches English and Journalism in Alabama and continues to teach her students Human-Centered Design. She recently graduated with an Educational Specialist in Teacher Leadership degree and is one of 2017/2018’s 10 IDEO Teachers Guild Fellows. 
In 2018, Theresa and one of her students took part in a 2-hour Acumen Academy (then +Acumen) challenge that had a profound impact on both of them. Alongside participants from around the world, they were tasked by SNHU's Global Education Movement and their partners at the Scalabrini Center, with ideating solutions to provide access to education and US-accredited degrees to refugees.
More About Allen Gunderson:
In addition to the examples shared in this article, Allen has integrated elements of Acumen Academy’s courses in several classrooms. Grade 11 international relations / political science students learned from both Systems Practice and Designing for Environmental Sustainability and Social Impact courses, and grade 9/10 business students used Systems Practice to examine the sustainability impacts of a local company’s supply chain.
Emily Close

Emily Close

Emily is a Content Creator at Acumen Academy, where she works alongside social entrepreneurs tackling the toughest issues of inequality, to bring their stories to the forefront and share their solutions with other individuals aspiring to affect social change. You can find Emily building content with her colleagues, bouldering with friends, or buried in a book in one of London’s oldest bookstores.