Design for Change USA Blog

My Favorite Activity for the First Week of Middle School and High School

“We learn more from people who challenge our thought process than those who affirm our conclusions. Strong leaders engage their critics and make themselves stronger.”

― Adam M. Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know



My son loves dinosaurs. Dinosaur books, posters, and surprisingly-sharp, miniature plastic dinosaurs are all over his room. So when we went to the Field Museum in Chicago this summer, his eyes grew several sizes as he stood underneath the famous Titanosaurus, the largest dinosaur ever found by archeologists. Standing under the nearly three-story tall dinosaur gave me an idea for how I can use design-thinking in the first week of school.



What is Design-Thinking, and What Does It Look Like in the Classroom?


Design-thinking has been used in a number of contexts but is essentially a framework that asks the problem solver to take time to understand the problem fully and the audience most impacted. Then using this information to brainstorm possible solutions, test these ideas, retool and modify based on results until reaching a solution. Design for Change’s unique spin on this is taking the framework and adapting it for teachers to use in their classrooms so that students can be the change agents for positive social change in their schools and local communities.


Useful Skills Students Learn from Design-Thinking



Getting and receiving feedback is a difficult but necessary life lesson that we’re all still learning. As a teacher, I can recall some student evaluations that gave me perspective on how I taught and led me to change my habits as a teacher. There is value in learning more from the feedback we receive each year, and if we can teach that same dedication to improvement to our students, they are well on their way to being strong leaders and design-thinkers.


Here is how I plan to bring design-thinking and the importance of peer feedback into my classes, using an adapted idea from Adam Grant’s book Think Again:


Before beginning the lesson...


  1. I’ll give a brief introduction to design-thinking like the previous paragraph.

  2. Then I will introduce my son, who as mentioned before loves dinosaurs and like any other seven year old, he loves getting gifts. I plan on telling my students they have the chance to make a few versions of a dinosaur drawing that could make the day of a seven-year-old (please sub my son with anyone, child or adult, real or fiction, that isn’t in the classroom).

Then follow these steps for a classroom design-thinking activity:


  1. Take a piece of paper and divide it into four sections by drawing a line through the middle horizontally and vertically. Then number the spaces in the corners 1, 2, 3 and 4.

  2. In space #1 draw your dinosaur. No pictures for reference either. Tap into your inner first grader and go.

  3. After everyone has drawn for a few minutes, reveal a bit more information about who they’re drawing for, a favorite color, size or type of dinosaur (also feel free to sub out dinosaurs for your muse).

  4. Then tell students to take the information they just learned and begin drawing a second version in space #2

  5. After some more time to draw, ask each student to turn to a partner or a small group and ask ‘What do you like about my drawing?’ and “How do you think I can make it better?”

  6. Once everyone has had a chance to take some feedback, have them create another drawing in space #3 based on what they learned from the feedback they just received.

  7. Repeat step 4 and create a third drawing in space #3 with what they’ve learned so far.

  8. Repeat step 5 one final time. Before having students create a fourth drawing.

  9. When finished, give students the chance to show off their work to their group of peer editors.



Now it's time to debrief. Ask students:

  • Which drawing are you most proud of? Why?

  • How did the information I revealed after the first draft help you make revisions?

  • What role did feedback play in which drawing you were most proud of?

  • Which helped you more in creating a better drawing, the positive feedback or the constructive criticism?


My goal is to have students take two important lessons from design-thinking with them: 1) understanding the problem and the community impacted by it is vital to an effective solution (did anyone completely change their type of dinosaur after step three?) and 2) that feedback serves as a positive challenge to an original solution in order to modify and make it stronger.


If we can teach our students to dig deeper to understand a problem, even when they think they know enough, they will design brilliant solutions. If they can receive feedback and modify their vision for a solution, they’ll be able to harness their empathy for a community and truly meet their needs and not just what they assume those needs to be.


In the last few years our students have marched, sometimes out of our classrooms, for issues like gun violence, racial injustice and climate action. They are more than ready to play an important role in improving our world. With design-thinking introduced so early in the school year, teachers can watch students develop these skills and apply them in a difficult physics proof or to meet the needs of those facing homelessness in their local community. If teachers are dedicated, and build on these skills, their students will continue to surprise them in what they are able to solve and create.


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