Here is what I can say about my first semester teaching design to 6th and 7th graders: It was not a train wreck. I knew a lot about design, and I knew a lot about leading a group of people through a design process. But I knew next to nothing about inner-city middle school students, or teaching them. Mistakes were inevitable.
The idea that design education could and should start earlier is not mine; designers love to talk about this idea. I had been talking about it for years, but I had been talking to designers—not to teachers or students. To find out what this concept might actually take to achieve, I needed to stop talking and do something. I needed to build some empathy in context, and I needed to build a prototype.
I like to think of a prototype as any action that helps you answer your questions or test an idea. Teaching the class was that for me. A prototype isn’t really research (which can also answer questions) and it isn’t a discussion (which sometimes helps you ask questions); it is an action. It’s out there. A lot of people hate prototyping because this kind of experimentation can make you vulnerable: They often fail or at the very least have the potential to fail, and knowing you’re going to fail is not really in anyone’s comfort zone. But how often and how much do you learn from the safety of your comfort zone?