Building the Foundation of Learning through Design Thinking

Building the Foundation of Learning through Design Thinking
Gretchen Lee

Every big idea starts with a question. A “why” or a “how” or an “I wonder…” that leads the questioner through a process of brainstorming, testing, evaluating, and revising that will eventually, with effort and a little luck, lead to an answer that solves a problem, improves a process, or discovers something brand new. This process, called design thinking, is embedded into the pedagogy and curriculum of each subject taught at Saddle River Day School, in ways that are often discernible, and occasionally imperceptible. 
Starting with our littlest learners, teachers pose questions from everyday life and guide students through thought exercises that lead them down a path of discovery. Questions as simple as, “Why do you think balls are round?” “How can we figure out how many lunches Chef Mark needs to pack for our field trip?” or, “I wonder how we can find all the words that rhyme with ‘cat’?” become age appropriate lessons in physics, math, and literacy. Students are encouraged to propose creative ideas, experiment courageously, think critically, and evaluate and revise with resilience. All skills that will serve them not only throughout their academic journey but in their careers and lives as well.
Most big ideas aren’t usually the work of just one individual; they’re the product of the best ideas that are posed and tested by a team of individuals, each with their own strengths and abilities. At Saddle River Day School, collaborative projects and project-based, cross-curricular learning lessons (PBLs), are an integral part of each class. From the 1st grade restaurant, where students work as a team to open a cafe, to Middle School Capstone Projects, to the groundbreaking Gateway Diploma track for Upper School students, PBL’s in some form are a feature at every grade level at Saddle River Day School. Students learn respect for their team members, practice cooperation, and hone communication skills as they conceive of, plan, and execute their final projects and presentations. Presentations of their findings and conclusions are essential building blocks for students to polish their public speaking skills.
Students also have the opportunity to present their research at the culmination of the Middle School Capstone Project. Beginning in the 5th grade, SRDS students learn the foundation of research. In 6th grade, they build on their knowledge to develop their own questions they would like to research; often, because of the nature of our student body, these questions are entrepreneurial in nature. In 7th grade, students turn their attention outward, identifying problems or issues in their community and proposing solutions. All of this work leads up to a final research project in 8th grade when students present ideas related to one of the United Nations Sustainability goals. 
So, what about when even the best laid plans go awry? At SRDS, in the words of Anastasia Kelly, Head of the Middle School, that dreaded f- word (failure) isn’t applicable here. Rather, “part of the design thinking process is trying things and eliminating possibilities” which is the best way to arrive at a solution that works. “Running through the design process helps students become better thinkers, collaborators, and innovators”.
Scholars who would like more exposure to the elements of design thinking or who would like to practice their skills are able to attend a Saddle River Day School STEAM Bootcamp where real-world problems are posed and students work to propose solutions. Themed STEAM Boot Camps are offered on six Saturdays throughout the year; the first one, focusing on “Smart Cities” will be held on Saturday, September 30th. 
At Saddle River Day School, we realize that education is evolving, and learning is lifelong. We give students the tools they’ll need not only to be successful in the present but to be the leaders and innovators of their rapidly advancing, ever changing future.