Design Thinking, Service Learning and Social Entrepreneurship (For 10-Year Olds)

During the 2016-2017 academic year, a small team of elementary educators at NIST International School explored how the confluence of design thinking, service learning and social entrepreneurship could be combined into a powerful learning experience for students. This piloted initiative was offered as a year long inquiry into How We Organize Ourselves under the central idea: People create systems to address issues and support needs.

Early in the pedagogical design process, teachers sought to align the learning experience in the school’s core values: integrity, caring, community and growth. We wanted students to have the opportunity to embody a spirit of compassion, creatively make with needs in mind, collaboratively enrich the lives of others and effect positive change in the world. The goal was to empower students to become more socially active, environmentally responsible, empathetically innovative and solution-oriented visionaries. We designed the experience to be founded in 21st century skills, the five Essential Elements of the PYP Programme, and were inspired by the work of Tony Wagner (Creating Innovators) and Daniel Pink (Drive). What follows is a story of the year-long learning process.


During the first months of the year, students read news articles about young entrepreneurs and innovators around the world during reader’s workshop. They actively engaged with texts that inspired them to begin envisioning themselves as youth change makers capable of effecting change. At the same time, students were learning about the design thinking process by making and tinkering in our school’s Makerspace. They explored the values inherent in making for others and seeking out needs that address real-world issues.

As students became more familiar with safe and sustainable use of age-appropriate tools, they gained a sense of empowerment by witnessing their ideations transform into tangible designs. They applied flexible and resourceful thinking when confronted with limitations and by the end of the first semester, students had built a foundation of hard skills (cutting, hot-gluing, 3-D printing, hammering, wedging, etc) and soft skills (empathy, collaboration, resilience and creativity). A culture of innovative ideation was created.

As the first semester drew to an end, students were finishing a read aloud of the book entitled, “A Long Walk to Water,” which tells the true story of Salva Dut–a Lost Boy of Sudan who escaped from civil war as a child. As an adult, Salva returns to southern Sudan to start a foundation that digs water wells for local communities. Students were very inspired by Salva’s story to bring water to his homeland and wanted to help. A small group of students began to meet and organize during their lunch period to take action and support Water For South Sudan, Salva’s foundation. “We’re going to start a business and raise money for Salva,” they proudly proclaimed one day. “We’re going to sell lemonade and shaved ice.”


Without teachers even mentioning starting a business or the year-long pilot initiative, students had organically started one on their own. It was now the teachers’ goal to re-channel and shift student energy towards a more skill-based and sustainable learning experience by creating the conditions for service and introducing the concept of social entrepreneurship.

After a three-week break, teachers began the second semester by talking to students about raising the bar for how to help others. They encouraged students to think beyond selling sugar water one day a year and explained that they were going to be challenged to do better. At first, it was difficult to ask students to slow down and reflect rather than run with their reactions. Teachers walked a fine line of building up their enthusiasm to serve while tempering hasty and short-sighted actions. It was a delicate dance of passionate patience with long-term learning in mind.

Luckily for teachers, once students learned about social entrepreneurialism and were inspired by others’ efforts around the world, it did not take long for students to have unrestrainable motivation at the prospects of starting their own businesses. They now were about to become social entrepreneurs.

The class reflected together on optimal numbers for members in a business to achieve peak collaborative efficiency. Students put themselves into nine teams, with group sizes ranging from one to five members. Within ten minutes of the teams forming, the majority of the groups had already decided what products they were going to make. It should come as no surprise that their ideas were limited by what they had seen others do.


Teachers challenged students not to be reactive in their decision-making and run wildly with their first thought for a product. They intentionally created a learning pace that took a more measured and slow exposure to conscious decision-making. They asked questions such as: What problem or need might you address and provide a solution for? What innovations or DIY designs already exist in the world that might inspire you to innovate off of? What social cause are you thinking about supporting? What is the alignment between your potential product, your company’s values and the social cause you wish to support? Teachers expected students to engage in a constant process of reflection, refinement and purposeful intentionality rather than being reactively unaware of the reasoning for their business choices.

Once students became more clear and articulate about their decision-making, they began to design a product prototype using many of the hard skills they had developed in the first semester. They continued to visit the Makerspace and were challenged to think about the impact their product might have on the environment. Teachers asked students to think about how could they design in a sustainable manner while still emphasizing aesthetics. Students then presented their prototype idea to their peers and pitched their product to a small panel of teachers, similar to the TV show Dragon’s Den. The feedback they received helped them clarify their thinking and consider next steps for their business.


Students were then introduced to the social entrepreneurship expectations, which were a set of parameters put in place to reflect an experience as close to real-life as possible. Since all materials have a cost, student social enterprises were responsible for those costs—parents could not buy or gift them anything students needed for their business. With the expectation of financial independence in place, the only alternative for students to start their business was to seek out an investment from someone willing to help them get their social enterprise off the ground. However, to keep in line with working within limitations, there was a financial cap placed on their start-up investment which could not exceed $60 USD. Another agreement was that could not be their homeroom teacher nor a parent of anyone in their business. Students would have to go out and pitch their products to someone they knew might not say ‘yes.’ They were put in a position to ask for a financial investment from someone they were not immediately close to ensure they were accountable. In order for of this to happen, students would need to create a business plan for their investor–which is where the next phase of the student learning experience shifted.

The parameters put in place to require an investor ensured that students earned their business start-up money rather than simply being given it without proving themselves worthy of such entrusted responsibility. In their business plan, students had to think of a catchy business name, design a logo, create a slogan, write a mission statement, explain the problem their product was going to address, highlight the cost and quantity of materials needed to begin producing, identify the social cause they were supporting and consider any potential problems their business might encounter. They also had to calculate how large of a business loan they were going to request from a potential investor and compose an introductory email explaining their business aims.


Nine social enterprises sent out nine emails to members of staff and the parent body and they received nine positive responses in support of their cause. The social entrepreneurs now had the money they needed to start their businesses. With their investments in hand, student teams began to order and buy the materials they needed to turn their visions into reality.

Over the following weeks, resources started filling the classroom and the entrepreneurial teams began to plan out what to do next. Many social enterprises knew the products they wanted to design, but did not have the skills or knowledge for how to do so. Students had to teach themselves the skills they needed to make the products or reach out to experts in the community to coach them. It was an opportunity for students to self-direct their own learning and not be held back by a lack of skills–but rather be empowered to overcome authentic obstacles with the right mindset.

With only two months remaining, the social entrepreneurship teams began to organize into systems that would enhance mass production. Iterations were refined as teams evaluated their products and collected feedback from their peers. Some groups met with secondary design technology teachers to help apply more complex elements to their products, while others stayed in the classroom to assume individual roles within their business organization. Students began to market their product and create advertisements to expose their company to a wider community. Mathematical thinking was deeply embedded in projecting price-points, repaying their investor and estimating potential profit margins. Students set goals for how much they would be satisfied giving to their social cause and worked to find the balance of how much customers would be willing to pay with how many products they were striving to sell. Coupled with profit allocation, potential reinvestment in their business after the school year and the basics of supply and demand, it became an inquiry into introductory economics and financial management. Students learned about efficiency, accountability, time management and collaborative compromise with a deadline fast approaching on the horizon.


Finally, after weeks of students using their 20% time to work towards their entrepreneurial goals and creating a minimum of 20 products to sell at the Maker Faire, students were ready. The learning process that ran as an experiential thread throughout the entire school year had finally come to an end and student energy was at its highest point.

Social entrepreneurship—referred to as ‘socent’ by now–had become students’ favorite part of the day. They had blended the lines between learning and play, with several teams asking daily whether they could come in during their free time to work on their socent project. Students organized playdates and sleepovers on weekends to “work” on their social enterprise. And at the end of the year, when students were asked to have a reflective learning conversation on whatever aspect of their learning they wanted to talk about, almost 90% of them chose to talk about socent. When asked why they chose to reflect on this, nearly all of them started the conversation with, “Because it’s fun.”

During the three days students sold their products at the Maker Faire, almost every single one of their products sold out. Students were able to pay back their investor after the first day, and then devoted the rest of their profits to making the world a better place.

  • Coasters For Lives donated 8,183 Thai Baht to SFODA, an orphanage in Cambodia that aims to help children and youth have a better future.
  • Crafty Cacti donated 6,607 Thai Baht to Mushie Mushie, a NIST student-run service group that raises awareness on the complex issue of poaching by supporting sustainable solutions that aim to tackle it.
  • DP Speakers donated 4,722 Thai Baht to Action Against Hunger, a global humanitarian organization committed to ending world hunger.
  • Fashion For Care (FFC) donated 3,293 Thai Baht to The Mercy Center, an organization that helps children and communities of the many slums of Bangkok.


  • Kitty Paws donated 11,230 Thai Baht to PAWS, an organization in Bangkok that aims to create a smaller and healthier street animal population through spay/neuter and low-cost veterinary services.
  • Modelz4Cancer donated 4,840 Thai Baht to UK Cancer Research, a cancer research and awareness charity in the United Kingdom.
  • Lots of Colour donated 5,263 Thai Baht to The Mercy Center, an organization that helps children and communities of the many slums of Bangkok.
  • Power Golf donated 2,579 Thai Baht to The Mercy Center, an organization that helps children and communities of the many slums of Bangkok.
  • T-Wood donated 21,557 Thai Baht to Access Education, an organization that purchases bikes for Cambodian children and adolescents to ride to school in order to access educational opportunities.    


After adding all the money earned from these young social entrepreneurs, students were able to raise over over 68,000 Thai Baht ($2,000 USD), with 75% coming from entrepreneurial efforts and 25% coming from inspired donors.

In the grand scheme of things, their financial contributions might seem small to adults. But to a ten-year old, they are anything but. Students gave a lot more than just a donation to an organization during this learning experience–they gave a part of themselves.

And perhaps for the next generation, the small seeds that were planted today might grow into something big and fruit-bearing tomorrow.


It would not be fair for this story to be only told by the teachers involved, so we’ll let some student reflections put a cap on a powerful, 21st century learning experience.

  • I am learning that doing something that is enjoyable for yourself can also help make the Earth enjoyable for other people. I think it’s important to learn that not everyone is born equal in the world and there are some people that need our help. It is important to help make a change since we are sharing this planet and each and every one of us is effecting it. We adore being able to help out people while doing something we love.  -Helly
  • The thought of it (social entrepreneurship) makes me really happy and excited about life. You learn how to make things aesthetically pleasing, donate to other people and help the world. You get to be responsible. We have our own investors, we make our own products and we do the things by ourselves.  -Reiko
  • I love socent because it is an opportunity to learn more about the skills we will need to know for the future. This was only the first day and already I feel like the fun factor can’t go up anymore. This is my letter to my future self to know that this was the most awesome and amazing thing I have ever done in my life span.  -Benny
  • Social entrepreneurship. Wow. This totally changed me as a person. In a good way. To help others, care more, help our social cause, and think about the unfortunate. It improved my communication skills, cooperation skills, and teamwork skills. Being creative leads to designing and that leads to collaboration and that leads to problem solving and that leads to helping others. We (Kitty Paws) faced many challenges and arguments but we got through all of them with everyone happy.  -Shahar
  • Socent is like what makes students like school. It lights up the class. Today, Modelz4Cancer has achieved the best accomplished ever, THE MAKER FAIRE! Modelz4Cancer sold out in 30 minutes, which made us (me and Poom) surprised. I’m really excited. It’s one of the best thing in my life, thanks to our investor.  -Summer
  • I feel like I really changed through this experience! I learned how to work with others and listen to everyone, and I’m pretty sure that I’m gonna use this skill in the future. I feel like it has really helped me become more confident around others, and encourage others to help PAWS. I also learned that things can’t come to you and you have to work for them, and no matter what traffic jam lies ahead, you can always get through it!  -Sara
  • I think other students should try socent because it’s a great learning experience and they get to help a social cause. They get to have the joy of people liking their products and the joy of helping others.  -Billie
  • I think what was most important in socent was that we could educate other students about PAWS, SFODA, Butts on Bikes etc. I also thought helping people and animals who aren’t as lucky as us is very nice and caring.  -Ella
  • I liked socent because you develop new skills that you haven’t developed before that could really help you in the future. I also liked it because after all the hard work you feel proud of yourself because you have done something that lots of other people haven’t done.  -Harry
  • Social entrepreneurship was my favorite period in year five. I think it should be something children all around the world do because it is saving our planet and helping the global goals.  -Marley


To find out more about how to try something similar in your class, please check out this this website which documents my wonderful colleague Moira Litchfield’s experience as well. A huge thank you to Tosca Killoran for all her guidance, inspiration and vision along the way. Tosca is also responsible for documenting of our pilot for other educators, so a big shout out to her for being so selflessly serving to the greater educational community.

To find out more about the 21st century skills and PYP Attitudes evidenced through this experience, please check out this blog post.

21st Century Skill Development Through Social Entrepreneurship

During the 2016-2017 academic year, a small team of elementary educators at NIST International School explored how the confluence of design thinking, service learning and social entrepreneurship could be combined into a powerful learning experience for students. This piloted initiative was offered as a year long inquiry into How We Organize Ourselves under the central idea: People create systems to address issues and support needs.

The social entrepreneurship learning experience was created to expose students to the 21st century skills experts predict students will need in a dynamic future. Although one could choose whatever set of 21st century skills that exist, in this case we will use Tony Wagner’s 7 Survival Skills of the 21st Century. What follows are some examples of how students engaged in social entrepreneurship demonstrated those skills through this learning experience:

Curiosity and Imagination:

  • Students identified problems that existed in their world and innovated solutions to those problems.
  • Students were challenged to ideate something new, or innovate off something that already existed.
  • Students followed their passions and set out to learn and develop the skills they needed to achieve their goals.

Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving:

  • When designing their prototype, students were challenged to negotiate a balance between sustainable material use, environmental impact and the costs of material investment.
  • Collaborative and communicative skills were evidenced throughout, as groups needed to think through problems that arose in planning, prototyping, budgeting, making, marketing and selling.
  • Mathematical thinking and problem-solving were embedded when students had to think about taking on debt, product price points, income generation and profit allocation.

Agility and Adaptability:

  • Students evidenced adaptability through a constant process of failing and changing their thinking to create a more successful business model.
  • Through budgetary limitations, skill deficiencies, time-management pragmatics, access to materials and safety, students were forced to employ growth mindsets and let go of initial ideas.
  • The learning process encouraged students to identify problems their team currently faced, recognize the mindset necessary to overcome that challenge and upskill themselves to the point of meeting their needs.

Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence:

  • Students connected with experts in social entrepreneurialism on a local level, such as Tanya Accone and Ms. Tosca, who both provided inspiration and practical skills in how to put a plan into action.
  • Student business teams offered many leadership opportunities to emerge on a variety of levels–influencing those within their team and inspiring other teams through a cross-pollination of ideas.
  • In some cases, student teams connected with material providers in languages they did not speak, therefore working with translators who could assist them in ascertaining their resources.

Effective Oral and Written Communication:

  • Students practiced their oral communication skills by pitching their ideas to teachers in front of an audience of their peers–gathering feedback about what their vision had considered and what was missing.
  • Students collaboratively wrote professional business plans and introductory emails to potential investors–writing that ended up evolving into another mini-unit on writing.
  • Within teams, students had to respectfully negotiate roles and responsibilities in order to ensure that individual and team goals were achieved through compromise and inclusion.

Initiative and Entrepreneurship:

  • Students became more self-directed and initiative while inside this learning experience, with several teams viewing it more as a form of structured play. Some business teams have even initiated play-dates outside of school to get together and “work.”
  • An overall emphasis on quality and craftsmanship was valued, with students transferring craft and aesthetics to other areas of their learning.
  • Students learned that in a business, time and work equate to money. The real-life approximations they experienced caused students to think about number as a malleable concept (time, cost, work, effort).

Accessing and Analyzing Information:

  • Students had to research what products already exist, what skills they could teach themselves and to what degree there was a market for their product ideas.
  • The collaborative process required a constant cycle of divergent thinking in the ideation phases, and convergent thinking to synthesize a collective vision.  
  • Technology and mathematical thinking played a large role in tracking and managing budgets, repaying investors and price-pointing their products to ensure they were meeting their monetary goals for social support.

In addition to the 21st century skills mentioned above, student learning was also rooted in the PYP approaches to learning (transdisciplinary skills). Based on data collected after the experience, students indicated the top skills they developed most were:

Thinking Skills: synthesis, application, comprehension and acquisition of knowledge

Social Skills: accepting responsibility, group-decision making, cooperating and respecting others

Self-Management Skills: organization, fine-motor skills, time-management and safety

Research Skills: observing, planning, organizing data and recording data

Communication Skills: listening, speaking, viewing and presenting

They also indicated the PYP attitudes they developed the most were: commitment, cooperation, creativity, confidence and empathy.

When students were asked to rate on a scale of 1-10 how they felt about their social entrepreneurship experience, all but one rated it a ten out of ten. And when students were asked how they would assess their learning during this experience on a scale of 1-10, the class average was 9.0.

Not only was this learning experience highly enjoyable for students, but they also were exposed to valuable 21st century skills, attitudes and dispositions they can further develop moving forward. 

Self-Directed Learning: Action Research

Throughout the 2015-16 school year, I conducted some action research on how self-directed learning (20% time, genius hour, etc.) affects students’ attitudes and dispositions. This website tells the story of the quantitative and qualitative data that emerged from the research, identifies improvements and reflections based on this experiment, provides student learning examples and explains how to start self-directed learning in your classroom.

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Course 5 Final Project: Minecrafting Opportunities

For my final project, I created a learning experience through MinecraftEdu. This was my second time using MCEdu as a learning tool, and I felt that overall, it was a very powerful engagement for my students.

The videos I created to document the process will speak for themselves, so I will not repeat what can be viewed here.  The first one is the learning engagement overview, which summarizes the set-up and the story I created within the virtual world. The second video is a compilation of student reflections and thoughts about their experience after learning through MinecraftEdu.

What wasn’t fully covered in the videos above were some of the comments, quotes and dialogue that came out of the engagement. MinecraftEdu is where the experience happens, but most of the learning comes from student-centered reflection and dialogue that occurs offline and in-between the virtual sessions.

Before students even entered the world, and right after they were notified of their country of citizenship and socioeconomic standing, there were many questions about what was permissible. I tried to remain ambivalent and neutral about many of the concepts that came out of the initial conversations, so as to allow students to navigate the morality or need-based nature of these actions. Though not in their exact language, the questions, concepts, solutions or ideas that were generated before even stepping inside the virtual world centered around:

  • illegal migration
  • war
  • human trafficking and slavery
  • overthrowing governments
  • government leaders living abroad
  • escaping prison sentences
  • socioeconomic mobility
  • secession
  • coalition forces
  • accidental migration
  • government ascendancy

During the two week period students were interacting within the virtual world, there were many quotes and concepts that emanated from student-centered discussion groups. Some example quotes and concepts can be read here. Though not always exactly quoted, they are paraphrased to make them clear and concise:

  • “Can we change the government?” (poor citizen)
  • “Our country needs an army. I know where to get the money.” (wealthy citizen)
  • “Middle class should be in charge of law enforcement.” (middle-class citizen)
  • “Why don’t we just create our own economic free trade zone, since we can’t use the wealthy’s?” (poor citizen)
  • “We should look at MinecraftEdu as a place to increase opportunities and make it better for everyone, just like the real world.” (wealthy citizen)
  • “Sneaky thieves and those who illegally cross borders need to be publicly identified.” (middle-class citizen)
  • “I’m not sitting next to my countrymen because I’m doing a business deal. I felt it was better to do it face-to-face.” (poor citizen)
  • “We should build hotels for the middle-class and wealthy who travel here, and then tax them.” (very poor citizen)
  • “You are not allowed to trade until you have x amount of blocks.” (middle-class citizen)
  • “We can build a gift shop for wealthy travelers, like they have in airports, and then use the money to increase public services for all of us.” (very poor citizen)
  • “Anyone who tries to steal more than once will go to jail and won’t be allowed to cross borders.” (middle-class citizen)

The number of concepts that emerged from this engagement were so numerous that the leaning could have been taken in many different directions. However, we always brought our focus back to the central idea, lines of inquiry and related concepts. Here is the Understanding by Design unit overview. Any and all feedback is welcome.

Minecrafting Opportunities

These are two videos I created to document the learning that occurred during out last unit of inquiry, Where We Are in Place and Time. These will be a part of my COETAIL final project.

MinecraftEdu Experience Overview (The Story Behind the Space)

Student Reflections On Their Learning (Evaluating the Learning Tool)

Evolving Library Concepts

School library spaces are changing, as is the language we intentionally use to open these conceptual shifts. Despite the evolution of concepts and vocabulary, the one thing that remains constant is a school library’s focus on optimizing learning. The graphic above does not seek to be mutually exclusive in language, but rather situationally inclusive as we reframe and redefine the potential that can exist within school libraries in the 21st century.

Evolving Library Concepts


Evolving Library Concepts (Printable PDF)

A Digital Learning Unit Overview: Course 4 Final Project

This is a unit that I plan on teaching in the upcoming 5-6 weeks. This unit caters to the use of a variety of digital literacies and skills taught throughout it. It is admittedly heavy in digital learning, but can be managed by keeping the length of the engagements short and starting on them early in the unit.