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March 18, 2021

Design Thinking, Empathy, and Equity – Part 2

Author’s note: This is a continuation of my post Design Thinking, Empathy, and Equity, that was published earlier this year. It feels particularly timely to share after the racially divisive and violent events that marked this past month.

I have no doubt that our students will return to our classrooms in August with questions we’re afraid or unsure how to answer, and possibly with fear and frustration. I want to offer up the following as one possibility for how we can move our collective equity work forward. Building empathy in our students is a beginning step toward the creation of a more loving society, and perhaps design thinking can get us there.

When engaged with fidelity, the design thinking process is a rigorous one that truly engages students in deeper learning. If we’re grounding this work in equity, the process shouldn’t be rushed. In fact, the seemingly fluid process of design thinking should include pauses. Such pauses should take place after students have started building their empathy muscles, and are approaching the stages of prototyping and testing.

As you engage in the intersection of equity and innovation, here are some tips to consider:

Cross The Intersection Carefully

Building Empathy - Jenny Pieratt quote

Dedicate time to sit with your feelings of empathy and then slowly transition from this space to defining the problem. Oftentimes when students experience field work — such as data collection, field observations, and virtual interviews — they’re surprised by what they see or it takes them a while to fully process what they hear. You’ll want to provide time for students to unpack their experiences through structured debriefs, such as the following:

  • A basic “brain dump”: The Stanford suggests: “Get all the information out of your head and onto a wall where you can start to make connections — post pictures of your user, post-its with quotes, maps of journeys or experiences — anything that captures impressions and information about your user.”
  • Further processing: Ask students to begin making connections through a brain doodle or a response to a written prompt.
  • Shareout: Once you’ve allowed students to process their experience individually, facilitate a way for students to share their thinking and learning with peers. You can do this through nonverbal means such as graffiti walls or chalk talks. If students are feeling ready and comfortable to share verbally, you can have them simply drop photos from the field into a shared/class PowerPoint and ask them to stand and share what they captured when their picture comes up on the screen. You could also ask them to engage in a discussion, like a Socratic Seminar, using an essential question that runs through all student experiences in the field.

Reality Check

I want to caution that you may be confronted with some uncomfortable findings or student comments as a result of these processing activities. When I was a novice teacher, I know that the idea of “leaning in to discomfort” was often not something I was ready to do, or facilitate for my students. I remember clearly a painful moment during a field-work debrief when I realized that my students harbored some harmful assumptions about race.

I took on a Socratic seminar that I hadn’t thought through myself, nor had I established the right classroom climate to hold the conversation. It led to a much messier situation than if I’d been more aware of my own skill set and readiness to take up equity work. Had I been a bit more self-aware of where I was on my own equity journey, I would have taken a different approach that would have allowed my students to process, but left room for me to push their thinking. So do what feels right for you and your students — we’re all in different places on our journeys towards equity. The critical point is to be on the journey.

Pause At The Next Roundabout

Most literature and resources on design thinking will tell you to move your students forward to the next stage at this point. However, I want to make a strong case for having your students go back to the “users” for whom they’re designing prior to moving on to the next stages of defining and ideating.

There is great value in sending students back to share with the “users” what they heard and saw, and ask them if their draft definitions and problem statements are in fact accurate. Allow students to experience the power of feedback, as is heavily emphasized in the Deeper Learning Competencies. (Find out more about Deeper Learning.) If getting back into the field or corresponding with members from the same community isn’t possible, you can still facilitate “reality checks” for students. You can do this by by engaging in those early empathy steps outlined in my previous post that push students to consider multiple points of view and check their own assumptions.

When you’re feeling confident that your students have stretched their empathy muscles to a healthy capacity, turn them loose to start developing/designing a possible solution to the problem they’ve identified. Continuing to take these drafts and products back to the community they’re attempting to serve will ground students’ thinking and efforts in a real-world context that is rich in meaning for them. This work is challenging, rewarding, messy, and beautiful, and I applaud you for blazing trails to create compassionate and empathetic innovators and change agents.

Here is a list of additional resources related to this work:


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