A Well-Lit Path: A Blog from Westtown School

Design Thinking…Empathy in Action

Posted by Alicia Zeoli on January 5, 2017

DT - how.jpgEmpathy and action are at the heart of Quaker education. These attributes are also central to design thinking (DT), where students are asked to discover and understand needs, and then collaborate to meet them. They are asked to empathize, to interview, to dig deeper, and to ask Why? or How Might We?

Developed by Tim Brown of Stanford University, design thinking is both a mindset and a process. We begin by modeling the mindsets of design thinking: curiosity, creative confidence, fail up/fail fast/fail often, just make it, embrace ambiguity,empathize, iterate, and optimism, or a “Yes, And” attitude. As students engage in design thinking, they develop these mindsets.

Once we truly empathize with a person, only then canwe start to brainstorm and create out-of-the-box solutions that resolve their needs.  A famous example of DT involves Doug Dietz, an engineer who designed MRI machines. Dietz received awards for his machines because of their efficiency, however, when he went to see them in action at a children's hospital it became apparent that the the patients were afraid of the machines. Dietz knew he had to dig deeper and come up with a better solution. Using  DT principles at Stanford University’s the d.School, he interviewed patients, parents, nurses, MRI technicians, and museum docents. He decided to reframe the experience for the young patients. Dietz worked to have scenes painted around the machines and brought in museum docents to help train the MRI techs and nurses on the different "scripts" to share with the children. When the redesign was finished, patients could walk the plank on a pirate ship or experience an underwater adventure, capturing imaginations and settling fears. By using the DT process, Dietz was able to improve his creation, while simultaneously transforming the experience of patients into a more positive one.

Empathy and action allow us to improve upon a wide range of situations, from daily discomforts to complex problems. We can do this by being creative, innovative thinkers. Children approach problem solving differently than adults, so it is especially important to help them develop these skills while they are young. In order to become big problem solvers, children need to develop mindsets and habits of empathy, inquiry, brainstorming, and inventive thinking. They also need to prototype and get feedback, so they can feel confident with improving upon their ideas. They need to fail often and take risks in order to learn to think originally. We need to help  students expand beyond the “one right answer” way of thinking to counter fixed mindsets and social norms. Design thinking encourages a growth mindset, and cultivates this open-ended thinking, while encouraging empathy as a problem-solving skill.  

To prepare for design thinking we encourage problem finding, practice interviewing and asking “Why?” multiple times.  We brainstorm without judgement and build upon it, until we have multiple ideas. From there we organize, group and categorize our ideas. These ideas are then combined and built upon in order to create a prototype. Prototypes are created quickly so that we can get feedback and make changes.

Westtown is in its third year of using design thinking. Students have created solutions to a wide range of  problems from:

As we continue to use design thinking with students, I am confident that students who have had this experience will be future innovators, equipped to solve the problems of tomorrow. They will move beyond “out of the box” thinking, and instead discover, there is no box.


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Topics: Help with learning, Raising Resilient Lower and Middle Schoolers

Alicia Zeoli

Written by Alicia Zeoli

Alicia Zeoli is a K-12 Innovation & Technology Specialist at Westtown School. Alicia has been working in the field of education for over 18 years. She began her career in K-8 public schools as an elementary school teacher and later moved to training teachers and teaching technology in private education at the middle school level. Since childhood, Her passion has always focused on technology and innovation. This passion lead her to receive her masters in Educational Technology. Her experience ranges the full gamut of settings and locations, from teaching in an autistic program in Rehoboth Beach,Delaware, to teaching at a school for the gifted in Seattle, WA, to training teachers on educational technology in LA and Seattle. Alicia, is also passionate about global education and the idea of connecting classrooms to the larger world. She has lead global field trips, integrating project based learning and technology with trips to Vietnam and Turkey. In 2009, she visited the Nueva School in California. It was there she was introduced to design thinking, and its implications in education. She began to use design thinking in her classroom setting, and as she has developed this skill over the years, her passion for this type of empathetic, critical thinking has exploded. Last year, she was accepted into the Google Certified Innovator program in Mountain View, CA. As part of this program she has been working on a year-long innovation project with other GCIs. Alicia has adopted the mindsets of design thinking in her teaching and her career. She believes in thinking big, taking risks, and not being afraid to learn from failure.