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This article is part of a longer series on design thinking, a flexible framework for empathy-driven creative work. You might want to check out other articles in the series first. Students begin with a state of awareness in the Look, Listen, and Learn phase. Next, they move into inquiry as they Ask Tons of Questions. Afterward, they engage in ongoing research that helps build their prior knowledge in the Understand the Process or Problem phase. In this article, we’ll explore the next phase of Navigate ideas. This is where students engage in the ideation process of brainstorming and planning. 


Avoiding Recipes in Design Thinking

When I first had students create projects, I created detailed project papers with step-by-step instructions for how to accomplish the project. I set all the deadlines, broke down all the tasks, and created all the concepts. In other words, I engaged in all the ideation for my students. When students got frustrated and said, “I don’t get it,” I would respond by creating clearer instructions. Although I believed my students were artists, I had handed them a paint-by-numbers set of directions.

As we shifted toward design thinking, I began to let go over control and instead trust students to generate their own ideas. Suddenly, we had twelve projects that were different from each other. Students were coming up with concepts I hadn’t even considered.

I love the way Chris Lehmann puts it:

 With design thinking, you are moving away from recipes and toward a place where students are actually generating their own ideas.


Part One: Start with Brainstorming

Brainstorming can be fun. You get together and generate a massive list of ideas. Everyone is shouting all over each other. It’s exciting. It’s passionate. But what if it’s not all it’s cracked up to be? That’s a key argument in “Why Group Brainstorming Is a Waste of Time.”

The traditional approach to brainstorming often leads to groupthink, where everyone remains fixated on one particular approach. Quieter members never get a chance to share ideas and the group jumps to a potential solution way too quickly. It can lead to a breakdown in group productivity and lead to risk-aversion as people worry that their ideas aren’t good enough. In fact, teams tend to give up when they see that their efforts aren’t leading to results.

It’s easy to look at this and say, “I guess we shouldn’t engage in brainstorming.” But what if we fixed it instead? What if we tweaked the ideation process to allow every person to have a voice?

Seven Ways to Fix Brainstorming

  1. Start with quiet ideation before leading to a group brainstorm. This allows every person to have a voice and allows for the group to specifically avoid groupthink. I will often ask students to find trends and then see if they can brainstorm solutions that are opposite of those trends. Here the goal is to purposely think differently than what they already assume to be true.
  2. Use multiple brainstorming prompts that include questions like, “How have you seen someone else solve this problem?” or “Is there someone in _______ area who might solve this differently?” or even “Could you combine two different ideas?”
  3. Try different brainstorming visuals. In other words, use lists but also include webs that work as collective mind maps or allow brainstorming to include visual sketches of ideas.
  4. Experiment with formatting. For example, a round robin brainstorm might allow all students to get a chance to share ideas. Here, each student moves clockwise, one at a time, and shares an idea. Another formatting method might be to have each student copy and paste the ideas into one shared document, followed by a period of reading the ideas and then adding more as a group.
  5. Create breaks for individual reflection. So, if you start with an individual brainstorm and you move to a group brainstorm as a list, end it by having students look at the list and create at least three new ideas based upon what others have written. I use the question, “How can you build on another person’s idea?” or “What is something you might be missing?”
  6. Move students to new groups in order to change up the perspective, avoid groupthink and offer a divergent perspective.
  7. Integrate brainstorming into a larger framework. So, we use brainstorming in the research phase (thinking of possible sub-topics) and in the ideation phase. However, we also use it when students are “stuck” in prototyping and need to step back and list possibilities.

The truth is we often brainstorm in our lives without realizing that we are doing it. It doesn’t have to be a formal activity. Brainstorming is simply the act of generating possible ideas, solutions or products. We do that naturally when we make things. However, I have found success in using a structured brainstorming approach with my students.

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A Different Approach to Brainstorming

Here’s a different approach that I’ve tried in my class. It’s not perfect and it takes a little bit longer, but it’s something that’s worked well for me. Feel free to take it or leave it.

First, students brainstorm alone. Some choose a list while others choose a web. By allowing students to choose the format, I am able to respect student agency. Student hear the implicit message, “This is your mental space. Choose a style that works for you.”

Next, they meet together as a group. We have one rule in this phase: No judgment. This means no criticism or commentary. Students are not analyzing the quality of ideas. The goal is to reduce fear and boost self-efficacy. It’s a chance to take creative risks.

I don’t set a timeframe on these first two stages. Sometimes we even brainstorm on multiple days and students borrow ideas from seemingly unrelated fields. By coming back to a brainstorm after a period way, students avoid some of the tunnel vision that can happen in the moment.

Next, we have a member of another group join the brainstorm and add any fresh ideas they hadn’t considered. This helps reduce the groupthink that can occur within a team. Sometimes we run this as a jigsaw.

The group then meets together again. They add ideas to the existing brainstorm and combine similar ideas. It’s a final chance to engage in flexible, divergent thinking.

Finally, they will analyze, evaluate, and narrow down ideas until they have a single, coherent concept. This phase can sometimes be tense and contentious, but it is also a vital moment for each group to engage in healthy conflict resolution.

This entire brainstorming process reduces groupthink and while ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard.


Part Two: Planning for a Prototype

In the LAUNCH Process, we use the acronym PARTS to describe each part that students need to plan for:

  • Product Concept: This could be an annotated sketch, a detailed project plan, or a short elevator pitch.
  • Audience: Here, they have a clarification of who their audience is. In some cases, they might do an empathy exercise (like a Day in the Life, an interview, or a Needs/Wants activity) to get a better sense of who their audience is and what they need.
  • Role: In this part, they clarify their roles.
  • Tasks: They break down the larger product idea into tasks with specific deadlines.
  • Solution: Here, they clarify their solutions.

This is also a chance for students to learn the vital, transferrable skill of project management.

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Four Approaches to Project Management

Here are four approaches I’ve used in teaching project management:

#1: Visualize the Project

This is a structure I saw with a special education teacher who worked with students on visualizing their project tasks in order to build up task analysis skills and improve executive function skills. She began by giving each student butcher paper and having them create a large calendar. Then, using sticky notes, they practiced visualizing each sub-task for the project and sketching it out on the sticky notes. They then had to predict how long each sub-task would take. As they negotiated these timeframes, she walked around the class saying things like, “maybe we need to give this a little more time” or “actually, you should be able to get this done a little faster.” Then, each day, students would unroll their butcher paper and check their progress.

#2: Trello

Trello works well for older students, because of issues around CIPA and COPPA compliance. With Trello, students can share a project management board and then move tasks from one location to a new location (such as to-do, doing, finished). They make it easy to archive lists and add resources and links to things like Google Docs. Often, students will break down their projects into a set of task cards with the sub-tasks on a to-do list. Here, they can check to see how close they are to completing the task by checking the progress bar.

If you are working with younger students, you might use this same strategy with notecards. They can then move the task cards from location to location as they work toward finishing their project.

#3: Check-In Forms

With check-in forms, students use surveys to help monitor their daily or weekly progress on a project. Students might create an area for goals or for tasks and then use the checkmark option to monitor their progress and see trends. However, they can also use this structure to self-reflect and keep themselves accountable.

#4: Spreadsheets

This requires students to set goals, break down tasks, and set deadlines. They can then use a spreadsheet to categorize the larger task, sub-task, materials, and people responsible. When using a spreadsheet, they can easily sort their tasks by date, people responsible, materials, etc. This option is less visual than other options. However, it allows for deeper analysis.

If you look at this spreadsheet, you can see that students have to negotiate roles, clarify tasks, and actively monitor and adjust their progress for a documentary project (note that this is a fictionalized version of the type we used when I taught eighth grade).

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Inge says:

    Hi John,

    I have a question for you. Do you feel the open-ended passion projects are feasible and important in elementary school? We have been doing passion projects (or a variant of it) for the last three years. We have gone from a free for all, to a more monitored and check-in system, to it becoming a menu item to choose from. Through it all, we have used the LAUNCH cycle. Right now we are at a crossroad and are rethinking passion projects in elementary school. First of all, having a passion at the age of 9 or 10 seems hard to identify. Second, sometimes students lose their interest or change their mind. I believe there is value anyway, I would like to hear your and other people’s opinion on this.

    • John Spencer says:

      I’ve seen it work in the elementary age. However, there are a few things I would consider:

      1. Keep it developmentally appropriate. Make sure the passion projects last 2-3 weeks, tops. If you go beyond that, you are dealing with students who keep time differently, from an executive function perspective.

      2. Make sure that you are using structures to guide them along, so they can focus.

      3. Start with a shorter interest-based project. I would do a Wonder Day (what do you want to learn about) where they can pursue a single question for 1-2 days. Then repeat it again. Then move to a passion project that lasts 2-3 weeks.

      4. With younger students, it helps to have the whole class brainstorm topics together (individually brainstorm, then move to whole class) and have students rank their interests in a list. Let them know that they need to stick with one topic for their first passion project but they’ll have a chance to change it up later.

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