Design thinking: reducing and resolving student conflicts

Last month, I wrote a blog post titled What is design thinking?. It outlined the design thinking process generally and offered a brief explanation of each phase. As promised, this blog post is about classroom application and how design thinking enhanced one of our recent units.

Unit context

My Year Three students were learning about conflicts in our Sharing The Planet unit. Specifically, they were inquiring into personal conflicts, the causes of personal conflicts and strategies for resolving them. Here are the details of the unit:

Central Idea: Action and reaction influence conflict and resolution

Lines of Inquiry:

  1. Causes of personal conflict
  2. Strategies to solve personal conflicts
  3. Responsibilities within conflict resolution

It was not my intention to apply design thinking to this unit, but I was teaching it at the same time that I was taking the Designing for Learner Agency online course (with Jennifer Wathall and Marcus Lui). I was keen to apply my learning and so this design project became the summative assessment for the unit. Keep in mind, however, that time was limited. We also had to maintain social distancing, which isn’t ideal for dynamic, collaborative design.

We started with a general discussion about student conflicts at our school. What exactly causes them? How might we design solutions to reduce or resolve them? Before we could solve the problem, we had to ensure that we were solving the right problem. The design process started with the Empathise phase to gather insights about the specific issue(s).


We started by interviewing Tom Woods, one of our deputy principals. As the main person responsible for addressing behavioural incidents and conflicts at our school, he offered valuable expertise and insights. The students prepared thoughtful questions for him. However, during the interview, they were not particularly good at responding to his answers or asking follow-up questions. Their pre-prepared questions became too much like a script and, as a result, they didn’t dig as deep as I would have liked. This is something that we will work on next time. Nevertheless, they learnt a lot from Tom’s experiences.

Most notably, students learnt that bullying was not a focus for this project. As Tom explained, bullying is a specific type of conflict that is malicious and repeated. It is extremely rare at our school and, therefore, not a problem that required our attention. Rather, everyday student conflicts are typically minor and the result of different perspectives.

The children then considered their own experiences of conflicts at school. As students, they are at the centre of this challenge and the end users of whatever solution is designed. They used an empathy map as a tool to dive deeper into what student conflicts look like, sound like, etc. The students’ experiences reflected Tom’s experiences and the insights from both empathy tasks highlighted some key insights.


We gathered so many insights during the Empathise phase that it became a little overwhelming. To focus their attention, we sorted them into insights that were critical, important and just interesting. We also used the 5 Whys routine to dig deeper and identify the roots of the problems. Here are the insights that students identified as critical to their design project:

  • Student conflicts are usually small
  • Student conflicts usually occur on the school buses, at recess and online
  • Student conflicts usually occur when there is no teacher supervision
  • Student conflicts usually occur in loud, crowded places
  • Most student conflicts are caused by different perspectives
  • There are always two sides to every story

Using these insights, we defined the design opportunities in the form of ‘how might we’ questions. Students each chose a HMW question to take forward into the Ideate phase.


As I explained in the previous post, the ideation phase is about generating many ideas – quantity over quality. Some of my favourite strategies for ideation require group work, collaboration and lots of exchanging ideas. Due to COVID and current hygiene restrictions, it had to be a very independent task. Still, we had great fun with the Crazy 8 routine.

The Crazy 8 routine promotes fast and furious creativity and the divergence of ideas. Students folded their paper to prepare for eight different ideas. The aim was to develop eight potential solutions to their HMW question. We set the timer and allowed for only two minutes per idea. In just sixteen minutes, students had a range of ideas. As expected, some ideas had more potential than others, and the better ideas weren’t usually their first ones. Students had some time to share their ideas with their classmates and learn from each other.

Finally, they chose one idea, or a combination of ideas, to take forward into the Prototype phase. These included a student leadership team of conflict mediators, a website to track student conflicts, a mindfulness app and even a wristband that detects raised voices and vibrates to remind the wearer to stay calm.


Due to the unit context, many of the ideas for this design project were systems, rules and routines more than physical products. This worked well because our ability to make complex models was restricted by social distancing and hygiene rules. Nevertheless, students enjoyed creating simple prototypes to demonstrate how their designs would work. Most of their prototypes were quick and easy paper or cardboard mock-ups.

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After finishing their prototypes, students uploaded photos/videos to a collaborative Padlet, ready for user testing. They also added brief text or audio notes to explain what their prototype was and how it would work.


We first called on Year Five students to browse the Padlet, consider the ideas and provide feedback and suggestions. It is students, after all, who would be the end users of the designs. These older students provided constructive, critical and thoughtful responses. These prompted iterations and, in some cases, highlighted some serious design flaws.

I feel strongly that the design process should lead to a real opportunity to make a change, even if the responsibility shifts entirely to the students. I didn’t want to leave it there just because our next unit had started. Some class representatives took their ideas to our principal, Ross Dawson, and shared what they had learnt about student conflicts at our school. Ross also tested their ideas and provided useful feedback. He suggested that students combine the most popular ideas and house them on one central website. That website, he explained, could be fully managed and maintained by the students and the link could be added to the school’s internal platforms for schoolwide student access.

Next steps

In their own time, the students are working on this website and the wide-ranging content that it will include. I won’t say much else at this stage. They are very enthusiastic about it and I’m confident that I will be able to share something substantial very soon. There’s a lot of great learning and cooperation going into it.

Watch this space!

Additional reflections

  • Students quickly became familiar and comfortable with the design vocabulary (define, prototype, test, etc.)
  • The design project was an excellent way to apply the learning from the rest of the unit and allow students to demonstrate their understanding
  • The design experience will be even richer next time by allowing more time and collaborative opportunities.

I hope that you enjoyed learning about this design project. If you have any suggestions on how to improve it for next time, please leave a comment below and let me know. To check in on the students’ website progress, connect with me on Instagram and Twitter so that I can keep you posted!

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