Design Thinking Inspires Learning Opportunities in an International School Setting

Dr. Johanna Cena | 08.11.17

Project-based learning and maker spaces have surfaced as two of the many recent education buzzwords. As the Director of Teaching and Learning at The American School of Barcelona, Johanna Cena has been grappling with the question of how to truly transform education to make it more relevant, to bring a new level of creativity to the thinking work students are doing, and how to connect students as true global citizens. As a pre school-12th grade international baccalaureate school in the middle of one of the most creative and dynamic cities in Europe, ASB students have access and exposure to creative greats in all academic disciplines. However, using a design thinking approach to find ways to bring project-based learning and maker spaces for students to create and build into the school and our day-to-day day lives presents a new challenge.

When faced with education dilemmas, Cena reaches out to her creative friends in Bend and Portland, OR who work in creative agencies to see what they are doing to bring new levels of innovation and creativity to their process. When faced with a recent challenge, Cena researched what Stanford University’s D. school is doing to bring this work into schools, and she talked with René Mitchell, Director of Bend Design, to get her take on design thinking work. The design thinking process itself helped Cena and her colleagues at ASB identify project-based learning as a way to take teaching and learning to a new level.

Reaching out to creative resources in Barcelona, Cena invited Creator Street, a local Barcelona agency involved in bringing the design thinking process to schools, to engage in the process with them. Working together, they developed a plan for leading a pilot team of 14 kindergarten-12th grade teachers in the design thinking process with the aim of uncovering what project-based learning could look like for students and teachers at ASB.

One resulting project brought Student Medical Translators to Peru. In the summer of 2016, ASB began a partnership with Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine (MSUCOM). The two groups collaborated on a medical mission to Peru, in which ASB students acted as translators for local doctors, thus becoming a vital part of the doctor-patient relationship. Besides the rare chance to work side-by-side with doctors and medical students, the program also provided students with opportunities to socialize and have meaningful conversations with medical professionals – particularly valuable to those students interested in pursuing medicine in the future. Relationships were built between ASB student and patients. Students learned that they are capable of bettering the lives of others and valuable lessons were learned about cultural differences and similarities, gratitude, and generosity through their immersion in a  foreign environment.

A second project inspired by design thinking is SOS Galgos. ASB 3rd graders created a website designed to inspire the ASB community – and the rest of world – to adopt a greyhound from the SOS GALGO animal shelter in Esplugues. Connecting what they were learning in class to real life, the students became writers, journalists and real agents of change.

Design thinking has the potential to transform education, allowing for a traditional system to breathe in a creative process that brings relevancy, connection, and engagement to the classroom in a way education hasn’t seen before.


About Johanna Cena

Johanna Cena has 18 years of experience in education, 10 of those years as an elementary principal, Director of ELL programs and most recently Director of Teaching in Learning at the American School of Barcelona. Johanna is originally from Portland, Oregon where she was a classroom teacher, ELL teacher, instructional coach, staff developer and elementary principal.  She earned her Masters in Teaching from Lewis and Clark College and her Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Oregon. She has been a staff developer and presenter on the topics of teacher leadership, student voice, reading and writing workshop, English language development, and response to instruction and intervention models.