Tuesday, 7 August 2018

I Used Design Thinking to Transform my Learning Space - Part 2 - Synthesising

I previously wrote about my new understandings of Empathy in the Design Thinking process and in this post I am going to discuss the importance of synthesising information gathered in the Empathy phase, what this means and a practical approach to synthesising that anyone can try.

I’ve come to understand that Synthesis in the Design Thinking process is to organise and analyse collected data so that it can be better understood for information building and problem solving (Kolko, n.d.). It is a vital part of the process as, when done well, can “lead to new, innovative, appropriate, or compelling ideas.” (Kolko, 2010). It’s synthesising the information that allows us to better define the problem and give us that platform to successfully move forward in the process.

For me to better understand the Empathy phase (which included the Empathy Map described in the previous post), I needed to narrow down some of the findings and design some questions that can guide me to solving a problem. To do this, I completed a ‘fishbone diagram’ and created a set of ‘how might we’ questions.

A fishbone diagram is another brainstorming type tool which provides an efficient way to look at the causes and effects of specific problems (Bisk, n.d.).  It works by identifying a problem, it’s major parts, possible causes and then analysing it (Mind Tools, n.d.). It’s a great tool to break apart your problem, helps you to think deeper about the root causes of problems and it encourages divergent thinking. This video by Mind Tools (n.d.) was helpful to me during this process:

When analysing the initial Empathy Map, I uncovered the problem of ‘unengaged students’. It’s not uncommon in the classroom to have these students but I know I could do more to help them learn so I identified five key themes that I believe contribute to this problem; task, tools, space, time and people (see picture below).


From each of the five key themes I could focus my energy on issues I believe related to them. For example, when I unpacked Time, I wondered if I was expecting too much from my students from one hour per week or if I was spending too much time on teacher lead instruction. When I looked at Tasks, I wondered if my tasks were too challenging or was I wrong in assuming the work was appropriate for all types of learner. I can quickly see how one problem can snowball into one or more other problems.

From the fishbone diagram, I was able to see at a glance the problems I perceived in my classroom and could decide from there what would be the biggest driver of these problems. My analysis gave me three specific areas which I need to work on; the learning space, practical use of time and differentiated learning tasks. From this, I created three ‘how might we’ questions:
  1. How might we design the learning space to better engage all students?
  2. How might we use time better to allow students more practical application of new skills?
  3. How might we design learning tasks that cater for different abilities?
‘How might we’ questions are a great way to lead to brainstorming for the Ideation phase of the Design Thinking process. It is important that these questions allow for a number of solutions (Design Kit, n.d.) and that they are not too broad or too narrow. They are also a great way to reflect on my teaching and designing of learning and something that I will keep in mind when planning now and in the future.

The following video from designkit.org (n.d.) gives a good understanding of the importance of ‘how might we’ questions:

As I look ahead to the next phases of the process I am left wondering if the ‘How might we’ questions I have created will lead me to an appropriate solution. Are they too broad? Are they too narrow? Will I get an ideal outcome? The best part of the Design Thinking process is that mistakes are allowed and I will learn from them. I may need to stop and rewind along the way and re-focus and that’s OK.

If you’ve used the Design Thinking process in your classroom, I’d love to know your thoughts on what worked well for you. 


Bisk. (n.d.). What is a Fishbone Diagram? Retrieved July 12, 2018, from University of Notre Dame: https://www.notredameonline.com/resources/business-administration/what-is-a-fishbone-diagram/#.W0lTQtj-hEI
Design Kit. (n.d.). How Might We. Retrieved July 2, 2018, from designkit.org: http://www.designkit.org/methods/3
Kolko, J. (2010). Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: The Drivers of Design Synthesis. Design Issues, 26(1), 15-28.
Kolko, J. (n.d.). Information Architecture and Design Strategy: The Importance of Synthesis during the Process of Design. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from Industrial Designers Society of America: http://www.idsa.org/sites/default/files/Kolko-InfoArchDesignStrategy.pdf
Mind Tools. (n.d.). Cause and Effect Analysis: Identifying the Likely Causes of Problems. Retrieved July 2, 2018, from mindtools.com: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_03.htm

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