Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Empathy Drives Design

One reason I love supporting my students through the design process, both with our new morning procedure and through passion projects, is because my students learn to think and care so far beyond themselves.

When I think about providing design opportunities in my classroom, I think about those moments when my students realize there is a problem they want to address or an opportunity to improve the current situation. When we design for other people, empathy is key to a good design. We recognize that another person or group has a need and we are moved to understand the issue and help in some way.

Two of our latest design projects connected directly to our reading unit focused around diversity. My students grew in empathy after reading a selection from Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper, a story about a young girl with cerebral palsy and her struggle to communicate with her teacher.

A group of students from the high school came to teach us more about the diverse ways they communicate. Upon seeing my students’ genuine curiosity and care about this topic, our high school cadet teacher told us about his brother who is also a fourth-grader. He explained how his brother is very much like each student in my class, except for his inability to communicate through speech. 

I waited quietly, hoping someone would suggest a design, and of course, my students didn’t disappoint. “Mrs. Moore, why don’t we design something so that he can communicate better, like the character in the story?” Her idea was met with excitement and so many initial ideas. My students were motivated by this project because it had the potential to immediately make a positive impact on someone else’s life. I loved watching the process as my students continually came back to considering the specific wants and needs of their new friend.

Eventually, we were able to create a communication board, and my students were so excited. They had created real work for a real-world problem for a real audience...all started by empathy.

A week later, my students began a project focused around researching inclusive playgrounds. When they realized that students with some physical disabilities would not be able to play on parts of our playground, they began designing. From their empathy, they created designs for various playground equipment and wrote letters to convince our principal that we need an inclusive playground.

My students have taught me so much this year as we have incorporated design into our daily schedule. I’ve learned the importance of offering opportunities to create and express new ideas. I’ve also been reminded that our students can solve real problems when given time and resources to do so.

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