Start With Empathy

Tony Wagner’s book “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World” is a brilliant read. Instead of hoping kids will develop 21st Century skills by accident or as an ‘aside’ to their school career, Tony believes we need to explicitly look for ways to equip students with skills needed for what he describes as “an increasingly flat world”.  He calls these the Seven Survival Skills:

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving
  2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  3. Agility and adaptability
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurship
  5. Accessing and analyzing information
  6. Effective oral and written communication
  7. Curiosity and imagination

He published this list of skills in his previous book, The Global Achievement Gap but has since conversed with people across different fields and discovered that there are other skills that needed to be added to this list of ‘essentials’.  These include:

  • perseverance
  • a willingness to experiment
  • taking calculated risks
  • tolerating failure
  • a capacity for “design thinking”

The last skill, ‘design thinking’, is a concept employed at IDEO . (If you don’t know a lot about this company, take a look here or go straight to this greatFast Company Design piece on what schools can learn from IDEO, Google and Pixar – brilliant!).  Wagner shares IDEO’s design thinking concept as an example of a way of viewing the world that is fundamental to any process of innovation. (Wagner, pp13).  The CEO of IDEO, Tim Brown, goes on to describe five characteristics of ‘design thinkers’:

  1. empathetic – looking at the world from multiple perspectives and putting others first
  2. integrative thinkers – being able to see all aspects of a problem and possible breakthrough solutions
  3. optimistic – believing that no matter how challenging a problem, a solution can be found
  4. experimental – being willing to use trial and error to explore possible solutions in creative ways
  5. collaborative – this above all!

Wagner goes on to list further studies, more conversations and addition research that provide similar lists of requirements and criteria for innovative thinkers, ultimately summarizing them as follows:

  • curiosity – being in the habit of asking good questions with a desire to understand more deeply
  • collaboration – listening to and learning from others who have perspectives and expertise different to your own
  • associative or integrative thinking
  • a bias toward action and experimentation

What he then wrote should have us all leaping for joy:

As an educator and a parent, what I find most significant in this list is that they represent a set of skills and habits of mind that can be nurtured, taught and mentored!​


All of this is not new. The article I referenced above about schools learning from innovative idea-based companies was published in 2011. And what was first on the list of characteristics of a Design Thinker?



Related reading:

How Empathy Paves the Way for Innovation

Building a Culture of Empathy



Fast-forward to 2016 and an article by Susie Wise on Edutopia on Design Thinking in Education: Empathy, Challenge, Discovery and Sharing. A brilliant read which I summarized below:

FullSizeRender (1)

I just love how succinctly Susie explains this process. And it is a process, a journey, a new way of thinking about learning. As a PYP educator for the past 15 years and an IB Workshop Leader, I have been ‘schooled’ in inquiry based education. Also ‘formulaic’ in approach, the biggest difference I see is that Design Thinking is all about the students in a more immediate way than the PYP approach. What do I mean?

  1. EMPATHY: This is the core beginning and one which I think we forget sometimes. Without empathy, students are  without context or a framework for thinking. We often will say, “They’re just not interested in ‘xyz'” or “Some of my students are so off-task or disruptive to their group.” Perhaps it is because they are not invested in what you are doing? Empathy is about looking at others but it is also about the individual too. What can I do for another person/place/situation to make it better? How can I contribute? We know our students are egocentric so how can we harness this and ask them, “What can you do?  How can you make a difference?”. And really value what they have to say.
  2. CHALLENGE: Many parents and teachers and administrators are looking for rigour in the classroom. This can sometimes be misinterpreted as ‘harder work’. But what if it was rephrased as ‘appropriate challenge’?  As teachers, it is time for us to make a shift in the way we frame our questions: “How might we….?” indicates immediately that there is more than one way of doing and invites a challenge to students. John Medina, author of Brain Rules and Brain Rules for Babies, writes about the rapid decline of questions asked by students as they age from 4 to 6 years old. 4 year olds are curious, thoughtful, and ask a lot of questions.  6 year olds have figured out that the teacher already knows the answer and that their questions are less important than having the right answer.  Flip this on its head and ask “What if…?” and see what happens.
  3. DISCOVERY: The emphasis here is on doing. Do more! Do more! Do more! Think, create, tinker, prototype, construct, build, paint, act, record….the list goes on! This is all about iteration and the trial and error of doing and learning from what doesn’t work. This part I love because so often the big focus is on the product and kids get one shot at it. This gives students the chance to try and try again – and again! And think of the learning that occurs with each iteration! I can see an app like Book Creator coming in handy within this process as a way for students to journal their process with photos, videos, text, and voice. It all becomes part of the learning.
  4. SHARING: Note, it doesn’t say “PERFORMING” or “PRESENTING” or “POLISHED PERFORMANCE”.  Susie says it all with her quote: “Design can not thrive in isolation”. Making sharing of the journey a regular part of your classroom routine will help kids be more open to listening to and learning from each other. It will spark new ideas, help students solve problems they weren’t able to tackle on their own, and provide an opportunity applaud success authentically.

Having read and doodled, I then moved on to Thomas Riddle‘s article: Improving Schools Through Design Thinking.  I didn’t doodle this one (yet!) but it is a great read on the ‘how to’ of Design Thinking with an emphasis on a bias toward action  and the willingness on the part of teachers to embrace the notion of failing forward  in that we learn from mistakes. In following Thomas on Twitter, I was directed to this WEALTH of information: The Beginners Guide to K-12 Design Thinking. A massive undertaking which will answer questions you didn’t know you had about everything D-T related!
Click here to open this binder in a new window.


Then, I came across another brilliant resource – one which I would definitely share with students – in the form of this great animated video from John Spencer.  I can’t believe it has only had just over 1000 views on YouTube (I’ve watched it about 20 times already myself!) because it is clear, innovative, and explains the Design Thinking process as something to “L.A.U.N.C.H” in your classroom. He also has a free course, “The Ultimate Guide to Design Thinking” which I have signed up for and looks pretty interesting.

Finally, I went back through this blog to see what I had previously posted on Design Thinking.

  • This post has a great slide show presentation (very Presentation Zen) about the main components of design thinking. It also has an innovation lab project (video) that provides a real example of Design Thinking in action.
  • This post is another intro to the concept of Design Thinking. In the comments is a link to a great TED talk that further highlights the ideas in the post.
  • This post links to the Design Thinking Kit for Educators and again breaks down this concept into chunks to help you figure out how it might look in your classroom.

Quite enough to keep you busy for some time as you delve more into Design Thinking, for sure! Just remember to keep EMPATHY in mind as you explore. More than kindness, more than thinking of others, empathy is, as far as I can tell, the best way to ensure we build a culture of thinking amongst students that is solution oriented, inclusive, and will engage them in meaningful inquiries on their path to greater learning.


4 thoughts on “Start With Empathy”

  1. Sonya, thank you for this post, and the resources, several of which are new to me. We’re knee deep in design thinking in my middle school makerspace, a.k.a. “Digital Shop,” and we are having the time of our lives. I, too, see the connection between Wagner’s seven survival skills and design thinking / making ideology, and make that point all the time. Fortunately, I have a classroom (we call them studios), a program, and a visionary princpal / lead learner (Glenn Robbins) to guide me on the way. I’ll be watching your blog for future writings. Thanks again! -kj-

    1. Thanks Kevin! Lots of the resources were new to me to – I love the wealth of creative thinkers out there! I think your ‘visionary leader’ is so key in the success of implementing Design Thinking. It is in many ways a slower approach to education and one that takes time for some to get their heads around but so worth it for all involved.

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