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Design Thinking with Children: The Role of Empathy, Creativity and Self-Efficacy


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One of the main challenges in designing learning activities at the intersection of digital fabrication and solving complex problems is creating a motivating context to keep up children's engagement with the problem and going through the iterations of design thinking. Based on a four day out-of-school learning workshop with 18 children, we reflected upon ways to boost chil-dren's agency. The main question of our research relates to the interdependencies of workshop design and children's ability to steer the co-design of activities and outcomes. We present first evidence gained during the workshop series and suggest a framework for scenario-based, digital fabrication workshops.
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Design Thinking with Children:
The Role of Empathy, Creativity and Self-Efficacy
Christian Voigt
Centre for
Social Innovation
Vienna, Austria
E. Unterfrauner
Centre for
Social Innovation
Vienna, Austria
Tamer Aslan
City Games Vienna
Vienna, Austria
Margit Hofer
Centre for
Social Innovation
Vienna, Austria
One of the main challenges in designing learning activities at the
intersection of digital fabrication and solving complex problems
is creating a motivating context to keep up children’s engage-
ment with the problem and going through the iterations of de-
sign thinking. Based on a four day out-of-school learning work-
shop with 18 children, we reflected upon ways to boost chil-
dren’s agency. The main question of our research relates to the
interdependencies of workshop design and children’s ability to
steer the co-design of activities and outcomes. We present first
evidence gained during the workshop series and suggest a
framework for scenario-based, digital fabrication workshops.
Social & Professional Topics User Characteristics Applied
Computing Education
design thinking, digital fabrication, early education, co-design
ACM Reference format:
Christian Voigt, Elisabeth Unterfrauner, Tamer Aslan, and Margit Hofer.
2019. Design Thinking with Children: The Role of Empathy, Creativity
and Self-Efficacy. In Proceedings of FabLearn conference (NEW YORK’19).
ACM, New York, NY, USA, 4 pages.
1 Introduction
The combination of Design Thinking (DT) and digital fabrication
in education can be linked back to Montessori’s quest for more
observation and reflection in pedagogy [6]. Similarly, Papert’s
emphasis on constructing knowledge through experience [7] and
Resnick’s description of how learning can be designed in a more
playful and creative way [11] provide compelling arguments for
the integration of digital fabrication in education [14].
This paper presents an evaluative snapshot from a project (DOIT
-, which aims to address societal
challenges as presented by the UN Sustainable Development
Goals through novel educational designs. Key of this project is a
focus on entrepreneurial skills and attitudes during early educa-
tion, supporting children at the age of 6 up to 16 on their path
from recognizing a problem to creating potential solutions [13].
Envisioned areas of activities range from inclusive living envi-
ronments and promotion of physical activities to environmental
protection. Our workshop was structured around Design Think-
ing principles [12]. In this paper we present the argument that a
main challenge in designing learning activities at the intersec-
tion of digital fabrication and solving complex problems is creat-
ing a motivating context to keep up children’s engagement with
the problem, going through the iterations of design thinking.
2 Research Questions
Our research interest in this paper is the relationship between
the design of our learning workshops and the level of agency
taken on by the children, since we see ‘agency’ to be a crucial
driver for design as well as learning. ‘Taking agency’ is also an
ingredient to self-regulated learning [9], which is a core re-
quirement for problem solving and Design Thinking.
Our educational design had the task to scaffold planned activi-
ties, prepare the resources needed throughout the workshop and
generally prepare facilitators for the orchestration of an event.
Given that our main interest was in seeing as much of the action
run by the children themselves, we aimed at consciously select-
ing a minimum of scaffolds in order to avoid over-scripting the
intended flow of activities [15]. Agency and self-regulation are
preconditions for freely choosing our actions, our ability to act
in sync with the available information, develop personal stand-
ards, maintaining a critical stance towards group pressures (‘how
things are done usually’) and other forms of socio-structural in-
fluences. We were explicitly looking for any activities evidenc-
ing Design Thinking skills and were then reflecting on how
much of that could be attributed to specific workshop design de-
cisions.Therefore, in this paper we aim to respond to the follow-
ing question: How can we facilitate specific Design Thinking skills
and capture their development through observable activities?
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3 Related Work: Design Thinking in Educa-
tional Settings
Broadly speaking, there were two main categories of previous
work to consider: first, studies related to Design Thinking as part
of teacherslesson planning, and second, studies related to the
impact of Design Thinking on learners’ personal development.
At the core of Design Thinking is a pattern of reasoning closely
associated with abduction, i.e. the quest for tools or processes
that can produce a desired outcome in a not entirely specified,
but envisioned, way [4]. The relatively high uncertainty in this
process requires the cyclical approach described in Design
Thinking. Design Thinking is strongly problem driven, suggest-
ing an approach to learning that excels in steering students’ im-
agination and motivation [3]. Carroll at al. [3] define Design
Thinking as a method, primarily developing children’s creative
confidence’ during hands-on projects, where empathy and action
are paramount in order to access the gist of the problem. There
are a plethora of models suggesting different steps such as ‘un-
derstand, observe, ideate, prototype and test’ [12]. Eventually,
children should ask questions such as ‘what if I do ...’ and ‘what
could be done, if ...’ [3], opening up novel opportunities for chil-
dren to develop their creativity in an applied way.
4 Workshop Setup
The mission of the workshop series was to enable children to
find and develop creative designs related to the idea of a ‘smart
home’. The theme of smart homes was introduced as a home that
would react in smart ways to problems the children knew about,
e.g. cooling a house during a heat wave or detecting water in the
basement. The overarching frame for our workshop design was
derived from DT principles as explained in the ‘related works’
section. However, DT related skills had to be integrated with
learning more technical skills such as card board handling, wir-
ing of electronic components and block-programming. It is a
known problem that ‘learning necessary technicalitiese.g.
which wire needs to go where - and ‘developing a DT approach’
e.g. understanding the core of a problem and why it matters
for the people affectedcan be at odds. We also put considera-
ble effort in choosing a micro-board, suitable for children be-
tween 7 and 11 years old. Eventually we decided to use the Calli-
ope board ( The workshops were held on
four consecutive days. Day 1 introduced the facilitator team and
the workshop ideas and started with analogue programming ex-
amples, Day 2 advanced practical examples using the Calliope
micro-board. The objective of day two was to build up confi-
dence with the technology in general and instill a sense about
how technology could support the implementation of potential
solutions. Day 3 provided time for children to continue to work
on their prototypes or address a new challenge. Simultaneously
we started working on presentation materials for the final event
on the next day. Day 4 included discussions about future devel-
opments, the possibility to scale the prototype from an entrepre-
neurial point of view and also a little fair for the relatives and
others, including the city mayor.
5 Methodology and Data Collection
In order to capture specific design details and individual experi-
ences of facilitators, we used structured documentation and fo-
cused interviews [10].
The structured documentation of workshops had a twofold mo-
tivation of (a) stimulating facilitators’ reflections on their work-
shop design in order to identify gaps for further improvement
and (b) revisiting the effectiveness of the Design Thinking ap-
proach. The interviews helped to gain a better understanding of
what the actual activities were, since making comprises a wide
range of foci and technologies e.g. the modelling of a smart
home at the scale of a shoe carton (as we did in our pilot). A sec-
ond objective was the clarification of ‘summary judgments’ [10],
e.g. if the workshop documentation stated that a particular activ-
ity ‘worked well’ or ‘did not work well’.
6 Analytical Perspectives
“Entrepreneurship education is about learners developing the
skills and mind-set to be able to turn creative ideas into entre-
preneurial action[5]. Reading the above definition, creativity
and practical action come to the fore. These are also elements
defining DT together with underlying human characteristics
such as empathy, creativity and self-efficacy [5].
6.1 Empathy and Ideation
Empathy is a state of mind including mental models, frames of
references and value choices [8]. For us, empathy is an essential
ingredient to the DT process, as it leads to understanding the
importance of a problem. Our central theme was a smart home,
able to react to various forms of natural phenomena such as
flooding while being aware of safety needs and energy efficien-
Figure 1: Envisioning truly clever homes
FabLearn ‘19, March, 2019, New York City, New York USA
C. Voigt et al.
Figure 1 shows a large box where the children could post first
issues and possible reactions of a ‘Schlauhaus’. The first ques-
tions of the interview were related to children’s identification
with social challenges and their awareness of social problems in
general. The facilitators responses indicated that even though
children might know concepts such as ‘climate change’ , there
was not necessarily a corresponding awareness of their im-
portance. Throughout the workshops, global challenges needed
anchoring in children’s individual life worlds and experiences.
6.2 Creativity and Innovation
There are still uncertainties about just what ‘creativity’ is and
whether it can be taught. In general, two types of resources can
support creativity: person-centred resources (e.g. knowledge and
motivation) and contextual resources (e.g. supportive peers). In
terms of knowledge, we attempted to follow the principle of se-
lective exposure, i.e. the conscious decision of “which aspects of
the technology should be foregrounded or backgrounded[2].
Figure 2 (left) shows how a lamp was used on the spot as a
source of heat, to test the temperature sensor. On the right of
Figure 2 we can see how materials were used to display the de-
tails of a room used to wash and dry clothes, whereas a humidity
sensor regulated the fan.
Figure 2: Imagination and emerging uses of resources
6.3 Self-Efficacy and Iteration
Bandura [1] described self-efficacy as the most pervasive mecha-
nism driving people’s agency. People’s believe to be able to in-
fluence events that affect their future is central for the goals they
set, their persistence on pursuing them and their ability to use
existing skills effectively [ibid]. Perceived self-efficacy is influ-
enced by comparing ourselves with others, mastering tasks after
mobilizing some effort or developing cognitive strategies [1].
Scaffolding interaction between children and technologies
seemed essential to us. Figure 3 shows children experimenting
with a humidity sensor in isolation (left) in order to design a
warning mechanism that indicates various degrees of emergency
due to raising levels of water.
Figure 3: From testing sensors to embedded solutions
During the interviews, the facilitators mentioned an interesting
barrier to iterations. First we thought that children could do a
simple prototype on the first day, start re-designing their idea in
a more compact way or using an alternative mechanism in order
to find out which one would work best and have a second proto-
type on the next day. However, children were reluctant to redo
their working solutions, so that during the review stages we
looked for things that could be added rather than replaced.
6.4 The next step: Scenario-led Co-design
The experiences of these four days prompted us to rethink our
workshop design for upcoming events. On the one hand we had
the challenge to orchestrate a process that kept the children mo-
tivated, on the other hand we were also aiming for children to
take as much leadership in the design approach as possible.
A key condition for a successful workshop turned out to be ex-
amples and problem definitions children could directly related
to. Design-driven problem-solving was then a suitable frame-
work to test feasibility and effects of different actions, in line
with local conditions. Figure 4 depicts our consolidate workshop
approach. The co-design process starts with children being
prompted by a high level issue (e.g. how to deal with a heat
wave). As described earlier, such an abstract prompt might not
directly resonate with the children, hence a further dialog is used
to add details from their daily lives (lower circle in Figure 4).
The facilitator’s role is then to provide a corridor for the scenario
to unfold or hint at material restrictions (upper circle in Figure
4). We had also made the experience that core technologies do
not need to be demonstrated in abstract, but included in the sce-
nario discussion. Children would still learn about the sensor in a
separate exercise, but with their own solutions in mind, they are
more engaged since a meaningful transfer of the learned is emi-
The resulting design options for parts of their problem are then
ranked based on three criteria: intrinsic motivation, fitness for
purpose and feasibility. The process described is not meant to be
a fixed sequence of steps.
Figure 4: Scenario-led Co-design
8 Conclusion
We established a number of elements being critical for the ac-
tion- and creativity focused definition of entrepreneurial educa-
tion such as (a) empathy to thoroughly understand a problem, (b)
creativity to ideate solutions that work considering constraints
that can’t be solved quickly and (c) iterative prototyping to learn
from past experience and test hypothetically better designs. Em-
pathy was strongly dependent on children’s ability to connect
with the problem definition on a personal level. Creativity was
very much an emergent phenomenon enabled by the sustained
dialog with peers and facilitators. Iterations were bound to dif-
ferent levels of personal identification with the problem. Here
again, empathy can be renewed by finding ways to provide feed-
back to current designs, not from the facilitators but from out-
side people with a natural interest in children’s solution.
All in all, we found that the overarching benefit from having de-
sign driven and digital-fabrication enabled learning was the ac-
cessibility of the format for all children, since by constructing
material objects, children could use different epistemologies in
forming their understanding
DOIT has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon
2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement
No 770063.
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This study aimed at understanding how physiotherapy students perceive a modern board game experience as an opportunity to train socioemotional skills. Twenty physiotherapy students participated in a learning experience using the Telestration game and were assessed in terms of: game-based self-perceived experience; game's serious dimension. The facilitator's perceptions were also accounted for. Students learned creative expression skills (85% students characterized a true/strong creative experience; 90% expressed a strong feeling of "freedom of experimentation") and were considered immersed and emotionally involved (significant association between understanding game's serious purposes and emotional relationship with experience, p-value=0.01). Telestration was classified as a relevant learning method for other serious purposes (>50% students revealed inttention to use Telestration for other serious purposes). Therefore, physiotherapy students self-rated this experience with the Telestration game as significant for learning relevant socioemotional skills. Additionally, facilitator's perceptions confirmed that they were perfectly immersed and emotionally involved in this learning experience. Future studies in this topic are needed, including larger samples and students from different health courses. Future studies in this topic are needed, including larger samples and students from different health courses.
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FabLabs and makerspaces offer unprecedented opportunities for digital empowerment, especially for children and adolescents. However, reviews on making with regard to empowerment are lacking. We identified n = 180 publications on digital making with children and adolescents and, after categorizing them regarding formal criteria and formality of settings, identified the main topics in publications on digital making in non-formal settings. Results revealed a great demand for empirical studies with experimental designs. Three main topics emerged: domain-specific determinants of participation, equity, and skills and competencies. Implications for further research and limitations as well as implications for digital empowerment processes are discussed.
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This paper explores the use of maker technologies as activities embedded in a wider educational ecosystem. Innovations are generally described as the exploitation of new ideas; hence novel technologies and processes need to be adopted by the relevant user groups. The paper starts with a conceptual overview of maker technologies, innovation types and highlights the special situation of educational quasi-markets, where innovation management is different to fully competitive markets, such as the hardware and software industry. At the core of the paper are teachers' perceptions of barriers and enablers to using novel technologies. Assuming a systemic perspective on innovations, the paper also discusses topics such as appropriate funding, national regulations, curricular flexibility, technologies ready to use and adequate training opportunities for teachers. Hence, first findings of a re-search project on making and innovation management in schools are presented on the basis of 25 interviews from nine European countries.
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Neil Gershenfeld called the Maker movement the next digital revolution as it placed the means of fabrication on people's desks. This paper looks at makers' ambition to do socially valuable things and critically reflects on their potential impact, whether makers' societal impact can be recognised on micro-, meso-or macro-level. Paraphrasing Schumpeter, who explained innovation as a 'new combination of production factors', social innovation can be defined as a new combination of social practices. To add an empirical dimension, via qualitative research we have explored the expectations and values of makers. We chose to proceed from the concrete to the abstract by approaching 30 Makers with very specific issues they knew from their day-today work and asked them regarding their social ambitions in terms of inclusion, education and environmentalism. Eventually these questions led then to insights on the threads we outlined above.
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In this paper, we argue that digital fabrication in education may benefit from design thinking, to foster a more profound understanding of digital fabrication processes among students. Two related studies of digital fabrication in education are presented in the paper. In an observational study we found that students (eleven to fifteen) lacked an understanding of the complexity of the digital fabrication process impeding on the potentials of digital fabrication in education. In a second explorative research through design study, we investigated how a focus on design thinking affected the students’ performance in digital fabrication processes. Our findings indicate that design thinking can provide students with a general understanding of the creative and complex process through which artifacts and futures emerge in processes of digital fabrication.
Conference Paper
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Microcontroller-based toolkits and physical computing devices have been used in educational settings for many years for robotics, environmental sensing, scientific experimentation, and interactive art. Based on a historical analysis of the development of these devices, this study examines the design principles underlying the several available platforms for physical computing and presents a framework to analyze various platforms and their use in education. Given the now widespread use of these devices among children and their long history in the field, a historical review and analysis of this technology would be useful for interaction designers.
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The conception and theory of agency as self-regulation that is contained within Bandura's social cognitive theory is examined and elaborated in the context of the relevant philosophical history of ideas and through consideration of recent work in theoretical developmental psychology. Implications for self-regulated learning in classrooms are considered. In particular, it is suggested that the understanding of agency contained within social cognitive theory as elaborated herein might be developed as an alternative to conceptions of self-regulation and agency within constructivist and socioculturalist theorizing in educational psychology. However, the classroom application of such an alternative would require a much less dualistic and teacher-directed form of teaching than suggested in much past and current social cognitive work on self-regulation.
Technical Report
The report consists of both a comparative overview and national descriptions. The short comparative overview, covering EU Member States, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Turkey, shows that the great majority of European countries address entrepreneurship education through national strategies or initiatives. At primary education level, two thirds of European countries explicitly acknowledge entrepreneurship in central steering documents while in secondary education virtually all countries integrate entrepreneurship into the curriculum, either as part of the general objectives of the overall curriculum, or within subject curricula or through a combination of these approaches. Thus the importance of entrepreneurship education is widely recognised. Moreover, many European countries define specific learning outcomes for entrepreneurship education covering entrepreneurial attitudes, knowledge and skills. Finally, the report also presents those countries where concrete guidelines and teaching materials give support to teachers, as well as a picture of current initiatives and ongoing reforms.
1. Exercise of personal and collective efficacy in changing societies Albert Bandura 2. Life trajectories in changing societies Glen Elder 3. Developmental analysis of control beliefs August Flammer 4. Impact of family processes on self-efficacy Klaus A. Schneewind 5. Cross-cultural perspectives on self-efficacy beliefs Gabriele Oettingen 6. Self-efficacy in educational development Barry Zimmerman 7. Self-efficacy in career choice and development Gail Hackett 8. Self efficacy and health Ralf Schwarzer and Reinhard Fuchs 9. Self-efficacy and alcohol and drug abuse Alan Marlatt, John S. Baer and Lori A. Quigley.
An essential resource for all students and scholars of early childhood education, this book offers a rich array of material about Maria Montessori and the Montessori Method. Distinguished education scholar Gerald Gutek begins with an in-depth biography of Montessori, exploring how a determined young woman overcame the obstacles that blocked her educational and career opportunities in Italy during the late Victorian age. The author then analyzes the sources and influences that shaped the Montessori philosophy of education. After laying the foundation for Montessori's development, Gutek presents an annotated and abridged edition of The Montessori Method (1912), the seminal work that introduced her educational innovations to a U.S. audience. The book concludes with key historical documents, including disciple Anne E. George's notes on the Montessori lectures and William H. Kilpatrick's critique of the Montessori method. Preserving the historical context of Montessori's contribution, Gutek also shows the continuing relevance of her thought to educational reform in the twenty-first century. After the Editor's Note, and Introduction: A Biography of Montessori and an Analysis of the Montessori Method, the book is divided into two parts. Part I, An Annotated Edition of Maria Montessori's The Montessori Method; and Part II, Related Documents: (1) Interpretation of Montessori's Lecture Translated (Anne E. George); and (2) Excerpts from "The Montessori System Examined" (William H. Kilpatrick).