Library Redesign and Project Based Learning

It is April 30th and the second day of the Riverdale Lower School 5th Grade library redesign project. At the end of day one, students reflected on the day of design thinking and commented they found the process incredibly liberating. “It is so wonderful not to feel judged!” one student remarked. Students relished in generating out-of-the-box wild ideas within the design thinking framework where accountability for one’s ideas is of high value.

“The why question is essential,” one student said referring to IDEO’s ‘how might we question’ that is an early step of design thinking. Design thinking is a process that has its roots in the design and engineering world. IDEO, a for profit design firm, is most famous for using the method to develop human centered design solutions to problems, or challenges, such as the Keep the Change program for Bank of America or solutions for Acumen Clean Water Fund. The process’s great strength is that it systematically spurs the generation of creative ideas which are then rapidly developed into prototypes, or temporary models, that can be refined, discarded, and reimagined into a final product or solution. The rapid prototyping has built in feedback from colleagues, users and experts before going through all the energy and time of creating a final, perfect product. The brainstorming part of the process is called ideation. The different phases are:


“ UNDERSTAND Understanding is the first phase of the design thinking process. During this phase, students immerse themselves in learning. They talk to experts and conduct research. The goal is to develop background knowledge through these experiences. They use their developing understandings as a springboard as they begin to address design challenges.

OBSERVE Students become keen people watchers in the observation phase of the design thinking process. They watch how people behave and interact and they observe physical spaces and places. They talk to people about what they are doing, ask questions and reflect on what they see. The understanding and observation phases of design thinking help students develop a sense of empathy.

DEFINE In this phase of design thinking, students the focus is on becoming aware of peoples’ needs and developing insights. The phrase “How might we….” is often used to define a point of view, which is a statement of the: user + need + insight This statement ends with a suggestion about how to make changes that will have an impact on peoples’ experiences.

IDEATE Ideating is a critical component of design thinking. Students are challenged to brainstorm a myriad of ideas and to suspend judgment. No idea is to far-fetched and no one’s ideas are rejected. Ideating is all about creativity and fun. In the ideation phase, quantity is encouraged. Students may be asked to generate a hundred ideas in a single session. They become silly, savvy, risk takers, wishful thinkers and dreamers of the impossible…and the possible.

PROTOTYPE Prototyping is a rough and rapid portion of the design process. A prototype can be a sketch, model, or a cardboard box. It is a way to convey an idea quickly. Students learn that it is better to fail early and often as they create prototypes.

TEST Testing is part of an iterative process that provides students with feedback. The purpose of testing is to learn what works and what doesn’t, and then iterate. This means going back to your prototype and modifying it based on feedback. Testing ensures that students learn what works and what doesn’t work for their users.”

Jenna Marks, rethinkED team member, interviewed Duane Bray from IDEO (interview forthcoming). In her discussion he highlighted the flexibility of the design thinking process. Bray said, “There is overlap and sometimes these phases are not sequential.” He does highlights the first phase of research as being essential. The first phase is the understanding or discovery phase as outlined in the diagram above.

In February, IDEO and Riverdale, with the support of Teachers College and KIPP partnered up to host an all day IDEO workshop with over 300 faculty participants from around the world. During this workshop faculty focused are redesigning different parts of schools, such as spaces and curriculum.

Now, the 5th grade students have risen to a design thinking challenge during the a one week project based learning week the Riverdale lower school is piloting to allow teachers to create experiential based learning lessons unfettered by the normal schedule. Students kicked off the week by running through a mini design challenge of redesigning their morning breakfast to become familiar with the design process. By the beginning of day two, the students had already created different areas of change to consider in the library, such as furniture, lighting, space/ appearances, technology/ tools. Then the students were broken up by their interests into different groups to discuss specifically “how might we’s” for each of the given topics. The debates were lively and the students were aided by design thinking experts to help guide their thinking.

Leading up to the week students had done their own spatial discovery to prep themselves for the week. The students went out in search of environments that are analogous to libraries such as parks, playgrounds, coffee shops, libraries, museums, hospitals and the Apple store. They took notes and pictures of the space, environment, lighting, noise, traffic level, people. In those different spaces, the students were prompted to ask: How do people use the space? Who uses this space? What is the noise level? What is the lighting like? The students were also encouraged to look back to their memory and think about how they have used their spaces.

As part of the first day, the students interviewed different library users, i.e. their peers in other grades, to understand the ways people use library spaces. A theme running through the week was think of more and more ways to design and think differently. The student relished in their failure, seeing it as a badge of risk taking and resilience. The rethinkED team was thrilled to be a part of the planning and organization of the week and to join on the library visit trip. We are all excited to see what the 5th graders have designed!

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