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Elementary Empathy

What happens when you walk into a classroom of fifth graders and ask them, with no constraints, to come up with some ideas for an unused room in their school?

Mass chaos, that’s what.

Recently I did just this, the ideas the students shouted out included laser tag, dance floor, dog park, swimming pool, free food cafe, and a petting zoo. Even the most reasonable ideas included video game stations and a pool table. The goal for the question was to develop a baseline for an upcoming ‘‘Unit,’ when I was jointly teaching at a local elementary school.

Teaching Design-Thinking and Empathy to Elementary Students

At Universal Mind, a handful of coworkers and I have been teaching design thinking to adults, and even high school students, for years. But fifth grade? That was completely new to me. Fifth grade was ambitious. But, I figured the greater the risk, the higher the reward.

The introduction to the unit opened with the simple problem: “There’s an unused room available to fifth graders, what do we do with it next year?” We were asking for random ideas, of course – but without a time limit, things would have gotten out of control.

The two keywords in the problem statement we gave the students were “next year.” This meant that they were solving a problem that affected people other than themselves. Sure, this was close to their reality, but their solution would be something they wouldn’t get to experience first hand. Therein lies the key metric for this experiment – empathy.

As the introduction went on, their faces quickly went from pixel-stick-slappy to brussel-sprout-confused. We expected the high points, but the confused looks were a surprise. This is what we do everyday, what’s not to love?

As we went through, explaining Personas, Context Scenarios, Journey Maps, and interviewing, specific elements surfaced as their preferred style. Personas and Journey Maps resonated really well – with an example of going to Florida during spring break. This is a great example to use if you live in a state that has snow for half the year.

We finished the presentation with their final product: a proposed solution. The students would present a realistic proposal to the superintendent. Now things got serious – their idea could become real! They could be a designer!

Week 1: Research

The first week of the unit was primarily research. The class was broken into groups of three or four and given a set of current fourth graders or administrators to interview. (For what it’s worth, watching fifth graders interview fourth graders is a unique experience – they got incredibly frustrated when the fourth graders weren’t’ taking the project seriously.) But, the kids got what they needed from a sample of six to eight individuals, and were on the right track towards building representative personas and mapping out journey maps.

Context scenarios proved to be a struggle. The students didn’t understand the difference between these and journey maps, seeing journey maps as having more value. (Next time we teach a class this young, we’ll leave that bit out and focus on journey maps.)

Week 2: Ideation of Solutions

The second week started with ideation of their solutions, which was fascinating to watch. Essentially, each group began to construct a mood board for the room. Layouts, colors, textures, and contents were all covered. They went out to interview the same individuals to get feedback on how they had done – some groups hit the nail on the head while others needed some tweaking.

The students continued to ideate as they began building a presentation. During this entire process, we had the students present their findings on a regular basis – whenever it fit in with the schedule. If you ask any designer, the more presentation practice, the better – even in elementary school.

Wrapping Up: Proposal Presentations

Final presentations were done on a Friday – with various people from the school present. Each group got up, presented their process, their struggles, things they learned, and finally their solution. Other students asked them questions, challenged them a bit even – students who presented really needed to know their stuff.

What was most interesting was what they presented. Gone were the ideas of grandeur, replaced with thoughtful insights on calming colors, creative textures, and making sure there was enough room to do homework, work as groups, and use a computer if there isn’t one at home. Sure, there was a board game or ping pong table thrown in here and there, but that was far from the focus.

The Results

At the end, we asked them where all their crazy ideas went.

“That isn’t really what students need.”
“We didn’t hear that kids wanted a petting zoo.”
“We went on what the kids told us.”

Our minds were blown, as were the students. Things clicked for them – sometimes you have to look through someone else’s eyes to solve a problem. Additionally, the sentiment that other people’s problems are important to consider was a common tone.

Will this mean the fifth graders will go home and be perfect kids? Yes. Absolutely. Done.

Kidding. The hope is that they now appreciate what other people go through and try to understand needs beyond their own, that they now display empathy.

If you’d like to use this unit in your classroom, let us know and we’ll send it to you.