IDP 116 was an introduction to many about the process of design thinking, the ideas of problem framing and the concept of empathy. During this one week course, we were tasked with framing a problem and creating just one solution. Our team (Bella Chou, Amanda Lavond and Farah Samawi) focused on fostering creativity in elementary school classrooms, and through observations, brainstorming, prototypes and rapid iterations, we created a desk that we believe can help encourage creative thinking in the classroom.
The classroom we observed was a 4th grade class from Smith’s Campus School. When brainstorming interview questions, we wanted to keep the queries more general to understand the life of a 4th grader in the class and less specific to form leading questions; this was challenging because it was very natural to jump to conclusions and make up various problems we imagined the class could have. During the interview with the teacher, we discovered that allowing students to exercise their creativity was already a focal point in their lessons and assignments. This de-railed an earlier assumption we had made about the classroom lacking creativity; this revelation was important because it illustrated the importance of really understanding the user and their problem instead of guessing what they need.
The interviews with the students revealed an engaging insight into the world of a 4th grader. Many of the kids were pleased with the classroom and lessons and felt that there wasn’t a need for any drastic improvements. One common point the students mentioned was the significance of their desks and the space it allowed for them to call their own. One student even compared her desk to her room, “The desk is like my room. Sometimes it’s messy, sometimes it’s clean.” The theme of space within the classroom was something that was discussed from several viewpoints. The teacher mentioned the challenges she faced due to the constraints the size of the room created when teaching. When prompted to list their favorite spots in the classroom, several students cited spaces where they were comfortable and had emotional attachment to. For example, the carpet that was used for large class discussion was cited as a favorite spot, “I like the rug because there’s a place for me to lean back and not hit my head against the chalkboard.” In our in-class observation, we also noted that students were more engaged and focused when on the carpet compared to students in the desks.
After gathering all of our observations, we sat down and debriefed our visit to the campus school. Through the help of the empathy map, we were able to sort our observations into what we heard from the interviewees, what we saw the interviewees do, what we thought the interviewees thought and what we thought the interviewees felt. This exercise allowed us to see common themes in what we observed and create insights from the themes. Our insights took into account both the students and the teacher’s perspective. They ranged from simple statements like “students like to have spots in the classroom where they are comfortable,” to “the teacher has difficulties finding a balance between using creative perspectives and technical learning.”
After creating an empathy map, the next step in our process was to create point of view statements. Using the post-its we made in the last step, we created “user-need-insight” statements, where we created specific user, found needs of the user, and why we thought the user had the need. We felt it important to create an ideal user. For our project, our user was a 9-10 year old elementary school student who enjoyed art classes and activities such as playing with clay and chatting with friends. This student attended an unorthodox school that catered to the creative needs of its students and provided a comfortable environment for students to express themselves. We then created three different point of view statements and combined them to make one POV, which was “4th grade students who love to express themselves through hands-on activities need spaces that foster their creativity because it motivates them to find part of a topic that they enjoy.” After making our statement, we created a problem frame by posing the question, “How might we foster creativity within a topic or lesson?”
This question led us into the brainstorming part of the process. It took us a while to get comfortable pitching crazy ideas to one another, but once we were given design constraints like “your ideas have to cost over $1,000,000,” we really got our creative juices flowing. Some of our ideas ranged from the relatively mellow (create a classroom entirely out of chalkboards), to outrageous (steal the Mona Lisa for a class discussion on artist techniques). After looking at all of our ideas, we noticed a common theme of changing the environment in which students learn. We decided that messing with the classroom setting would be the best way to encourage more students to be creative.
Our team started off excited and ambitious, deciding to prototype an entire classroom. We took inspiration from Carolina Friends School in Durham, North Carolina, where elementary teachers team teach in a shared, open space and then break off into smaller classrooms for more individualized learning. This became our model for the campus school. As seen in the picture on the right, we converted the existing space to hold both 4th grade classes and gave them a large classroom and two smaller classrooms for their year long topics. The two smaller classrooms were to have desks- lab desks for the classroom meant for the human body study and a u-shaped table for the roleplay-based Ancient Rome study- and the large group space would have no desks or chairs, just carpet. While we liked the idea of creating a classroom, we just didn’t have enough time, space or budget to prototype an entire classroom.
Gathering information from our observations and the brainstorming process, we decided to focus in on redesigning desks. Seeing how well students behaved sitting on the carpet as well as hearing how much they liked their desks, we decided to make a portable desk. This would maximize the amount of space in the classroom (both the current classroom and the concept we made) as well as keep students engaged in learning. We created a desk that would be carried and one that would be rolled, and after having a user test it we decided the best option was to reiterate the rolling prototype. The rolling prototype had two wheels on the back side, and a handle on the front for students to pull. There was a latch, and when opened there was a cubby with space for books and pencils. We redesigned the inside “cubby” of the desk and also thought about ways that the desk could be a creative project for students, such as giving them time in class to decorate and personalize their desks.
Final and Moving Forward
Our final desk was painted and decorated as though it was a 4th grade student’s desk. Although the wheels didn’t work, the desk was able to slide around enough to give the illusion that it was on wheels. It had a hard writing surface on top, and could be opened or closed with a latch. Inside, we added an extra spot for a student’s waterbottle, as well as spots for their folders, books, and writing utensils. If we were to prototype again, we would add a lid to the section designed for pencils so that pencils wouldn’t fall out when students moved their desk around. We also considered the materials we would use for a more polished prototype. We liked the idea of using the hard shell suitcase for the cubby because of it’s light and durable consistency. Although we designed this desk with an ideal classroom in mind, the portable desk can still be used in existing classrooms, giving teachers more space and children more time at the rug. Giving students a versatile, personal desk will allow them to spend less time fidgeting in a desk and more time staying engaged in the lesson, allowing them to reach their full academic and creative potential.