Design Thinking in the Classroom: The Truth About Failure (Part 2)

By Chelsea Leach (@leach_theteach)

Typically, we think of failure as the worst thing in the world. It can be a sure sign that something wasn’t meant to be, or just wasn’t meant to be for you. However, when it comes to design thinking in the classroom, failure is an important learning opportunity, and dare I say critical as through failure, we learn to persevere.  

DT post 2 pic 2

Before, students can use their failures as a part of success, they must erase their old thinking habits about failures. In my classroom, I do this by encouraging students to have a growth mindset, as oppose to a fixed mindset. To explain this concept to my students, I use a Star Wars analogy. When students use a growth mindset, they are using the light side of the force. These students don’t get bogged down my challenges or failures. Instead, they believe their skills and abilities are not fixed, and can be developed or strengthen through hard work and practice. While on the other hand, students in a fixed mindset–or dark side of the force–shut down when faced with a challenge. Through practice and encouragement, students can develop a growth mindset, which helps them better understand how to use failures as a part of success, not the end of it.

In the design thinking process, failure is a large part. Similar to the scientific method, design thinking includes a cycle of various parts. There are many diagrams of design thinking, but for my classroom I am using the one below, which was shared with me by DownCity Design in Providence:

Down City DT Framework

During the evolve cycle, students are consistently creating and testing their solutions. Even after they feel confident about their projects, students may need to change or alter after sharing and receiving feedback. It is easy for students to get discouraged or frustrated during this process, as it is on-going and requires using feedback effectively. With a growth mindset, however, students can power through.

Recently, in my classroom, we practiced the design thinking process and growth mindset, by participating in a paper airplane competition. Before submitting final designs, they needed to test, rebuild, and test again. What I love about this project, is there are no stakes. The students are not being graded on their designs; the project is strictly for them to learn and work together. While I recognize the importance of assessing students’ understanding, I find it equally important to give students opportunities to learn and collaborate free of the pressures and stresses of “will this be graded??” Instead, during the paper airplane competition, my students were practicing collaborating and learning how to fail effectively– using their failures as a part of the process.  

DT post 2 pic 1

My students used Recap to describe their feelings about the competitions, as well as their responses about failure and a growth mindset. Please be warned they are 13 year olds, and love being on camera!

Read last week’s post by Chelsea, Design Thinking in the Classroom (Part 1), here.



Chelsea Leach is a seventh grade social studies teacher at Kickemuit Middle School. If she wasn’t a teacher, she would traveling the world for Nat Geo. Follow her on Twitter @leach_theteach.

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