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Design Thinking: Lessons for the Classroom

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation
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The Design Thinking Process

While design thinking has its roots in the innovation/design sector, the process itself can be used anywhere. Indeed, it is a great tool for teaching 21st century skills, as participants must solve problems by finding and sorting through information, collaborating with others, and iterating their solutions based on real world, authentic experience and feedback. (It is also a great tool to develop and run a school, but that's a different post for a different day.)

I had the good fortune to participate in a collaborative workshop at the Big Ideas Fest, where we practiced design thinking with about 12 other educators over a three-day period. The idea was to give us a first-hand experience with design thinking, and to demonstrate how the model could work within the classroom.

Practitioners of design thinking have different steps depending on their needs. At BIF2011, we used these steps:

1) Identify Opportunity
2) Design
3) Prototype
4) Get Feedback
5) Scale and Spread
6) Present

In design thinking, you work through the steps together in small groups (or "Collabs" as they were called at BIF2011). Our task was to explore the question: How might we create ways to assess learning geared to making tangible progress toward meaningful goals?

With driving question in hand, each Collab is led by a trained facilitator. There are basic ground rules for working together (like saying "yes, and" rather than "yes, but" when disagreeing with someone), and using elements from improv comedy to help maintain a culture of positivity, risk-taking, support and flexibility.

This is important, as the goal is to break through the negative thinking that plagues the big, thorny issues, and to come up with one prototype idea for solving one aspect of the problem.

This right here is another novel idea! We're not tasked with fixing the whole system. This is an approach positing that small changes in the right places can have big impacts on outcome.

Six Design Thinking Steps

To solve these problems, we follow this six-step format from design thinking:

Step 1: Identify Opportunity

To deepen our understanding of the issues surrounding inadequate assessment of 21st century skills, our cohort split into two groups, each of which interviewed two educators: a public school teacher who wanted to assess soft skills in addition to state standards; and an independent school teacher who wanted a means of assessing kids that didn't interrupt their learning.

These interviews gave our group a specific goal: What system or product could we come up with to meet the needs of these two educators in assessing 21st century skills?

Step 1 in the classroom: Identify a big issue that is plaguing your school or community. Is there a fundraising challenge? A school resource issue? A civic concern or an environmental problem? You can also do a quick community needs assessment, but don't get too bogged down in this. The idea is to pick a need and move through the process. You can always iterate later.

Once you've identified your issue, invite two to three parents or other community members who are personally affected by this issue to share their perspective with your students. You can have them there in person or via Skype. Let students ask lots of questions. These are the people for whom the students will be designing solutions.

Step 2: Design Process

Here, we reviewed the stories in Step 1 and brainstormed solutions. We needed to come up with an assessment idea that was accurate and authentic, and it had to provide meaningful data to real world public school educators. With a "no idea is too stupid" mantra, we wrote brainstorms on sticky notes and posted them on a whiteboard. By the end of this process, we began to see themes emerge: it should give students feedback about where they are lacking and where they need to go; it should also be student-centered, longitudinal, with real time feedback. We organized the sticky notes into these bigger themes to prep for tomorrow.

Step 2 in the classroom: Once students have heard the issues facing their community via Step 1, give them sticky notes and pens and let them brainstorm solutions. Invite them to be inspired by each other and build off each others' ideas. Remember, no idea is too stupid! Once they've finished brainstorming, identify the main themes that have emerged, and break students into small groups to research their initial ideas. Here is where the "guide on the side" can really make a difference. The students may have some wonderfully creative but entirely impossible ideas! At this point, the teacher should guide them with real world experience to help ensure that they have a good start.

Step 3: Prototype Phase

Next, we review the themes and select one to prototype. This prototype need not solve all of the problems, just one aspect of the problem voiced by one of the speakers in Step 1. (Note the incredible discipline intrinsic in this process. At this point, we are focusing on one solution to one aspect of one problem.)

Our idea is an assessment "dashboard" called iGPS. This device would assess student progress much the same way a GPS in the car works; it pinpoints a student's current skill level, identifying target skill level along with specific waypoints to keep the student on the path to achieving the stated goal/skill level.

We used paper, markers, pipe cleaners and glue to make a prototype of our idea, which looked like a Googlemap from "where I am" to "where I need to be" plotted along a route that intersects specific skills. It was rough, but it communicated the concept.

Step 3 in the classroom: Get a bunch of creative materials together and let the groups flesh out their ideas into physical prototypes. As teams are creating, help them think through their prototypes: How will each feature help the people we interviewed in Step 1? Does this mesh with the research they did? How will the prototype work? Which materials are the best for the job?

Once they're done, tell students they're going be pitching their ideas to experts. Give them a chance to practice and refine their presentations so they're comfortable and confident!

Step 4: Feedback

Over lunch, all groups shared their prototypes to a panel of experts for feedback. All groups got to see everyone's presentations. Most prototypes were digital software tools, though not all.

Two experts from two different stakeholder groups offered their feedback: A) An educator who was looking for ways to make the idea more useful for a real-world classroom setting, and B) a social investor, who was looking to see if there was a viable market, and if the product would make a viable business.

Step 4 in the classroom: Invite people who are experts and/or stakeholders in the field to come to your school and have students present their prototypes to them. Ask each expert to review each pitch and prototype, and give students explicit feedback: what works with this idea, and what can be improved?

Step 5: Scale and Spread

Taking the feedback we received, we hone in even further on our prototype. To do this, our team breaks into four subgroups to address the questions raised. How can this assess both individual and group work? How does a student earn points (their quantifiable score)? What does the product itself look like? And finally, assuming our product is successful as an assessment tool for 21st century skills, what's the best way to market it to district administrators who will make the choice to adopt it? We answer these questions and quickly re-prototype to include these points.

Step 5 in the classroom: This step is yet another excellent opportunity to practice "guide on the side" facilitation. Help each group of students understand the feedback they got, and work with them to understand the best way to implement solutions. If there are multiple feedback points to be addressed, the groups can break into subgroups to address each point for efficiency. You might have students pick a project manager, and have all the subgroups report back to that person.

Step 6: Present

Most of the time, we go to these conferences and get fired up about all the great ideas there, and then we leave and nothing changes. The Big Ideas Fest culminated with a surprise. Three out of nine projects were selected to participate in the Big Ideas Fest in Beta, a new program which offers support to bringing these ideas to fruition. And furthermore, ISKME, the sponsor of the event, received a $50,000 matching grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support three groups with additional design workshops, access to ISKME's networks, services and other resources to help incubate their ideas.

So, after a grand total of six hours' total collaboration time, each of the nine groups had come up with some great prototypes, and three were going to get some support to build their prototypes into working products.

Step 6 in the classroom: Barring a visit from the Billionaire Fairy, you may have to get more creative for this final step. You might invite the community members you engaged in Step 1 of this process, as well as others in your school or community to hear the presentations and brainstorm actionable ways to bring the ideas to fruition in an authentic setting. You could present both in-person and online, or set up Skype calls with local businesses.

Are you using aspects of design thinking now? Or do you feel that design thinking might have a use in your classroom or school? How might it work?

Comments (38)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Doris Wells-Papanek, MEd's picture
Doris Wells-Papanek, MEd
Director at the Design Learning Network

Very glad that you've posted this update and the petition is progressing. Is there time for others to sign?

Please keep me in the loop on the Design-Ed Coalition, would love to link your organization with Design Learning Challenge 2012 (

FYI, Robin and I have submitted a NEA Research Grant Proposal focused on design and 21st learning skills, will know in April if we are funded. More to share as things move forward.

Also, I am attending NAEA's conference in early March. Will you be there?

Doris Wells-Papanek, MEd's picture
Doris Wells-Papanek, MEd
Director at the Design Learning Network

Rob, the inquiry link you've shared is quite useful to our current efforts with Design Learning Challenge 2012. Much appreciated! It seems Joe has provide us with a viable vehicle for a common dialogue. Exciting times ahead!

Joe Schwartz's picture

I will be there for Friday, at least. Robin and I have arranged for a meeting, but I want to hear John Maeda's presentation as well.

Doris Wells-Papanek, MEd's picture
Doris Wells-Papanek, MEd
Director at the Design Learning Network

Great! I'll be there for the duration, looking forward to John's talk as well. Perhaps there will be time for a cup of tea with Robin?

Doris Wells-Papanek, MEd's picture
Doris Wells-Papanek, MEd
Director at the Design Learning Network

Garreth, I've explored Dr. Burnette's website a bit. Love the constructive approach to teaching and learning. In regards to Gardner's Multiple Intelligences, so much more has been discovered over the past 15 years pertaining to how we take in, process, and retain information. An exciting time that we live!

If it okay with you, I'd like to share your Spiral Q Puppet Theater project with IDSA regarding including a description within the Teaching Design to K12 page:

Looking forward to your thoughts!

Ewan McIntosh's picture
Ewan McIntosh
CEO of NoTosh learning | technology | design thinking

and concentrated more on the beginning of the design thinking process - FINDING good problems to start with. My challenge to many of the design thinking movements in education thus far is two-fold (and are discussed in a forthcoming book):

1. Many have a focus on design education (putting the process, in the minds of administrators, firmly within a distinct subject area rather than as a whole-school, whole new way of learning).
2. Nearly every problem-solving based approach I've seen has revolved around problems created by teachers. This doesn't engage learners half as much than when they seek the problems they wish to solve. It's a lot harder to teach this way, but a lot more beneficial in the long run.

I've summed them up in an 8 minute TEDxLondon talk, from last year:

Allen Berg's picture
Allen Berg
curriculum and projects learning centers

Dear Designers of Education and Education Designers etc.

This is my wikispace for Arts and Education Adventure:

There are 150 pages of Arts Fun and student-engaging activities K-12...
It is a Play-in-Progress looking for Collaborators in Classrooms and Publishing...

"If it ain't fun I won't do it."

"Caretaker of Wonder", Teacher/Learner:
Allen Berg

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

I might put it slightly differently: "You need to identify the problem to be solved first. It is as important as any other component of problem solving." If the objective is provided OR if the individual or the team jumps at the first thing that comes to mind, at best, the wrong problem will be addressed. At worst, as you note in the TED Talk, the Learners have missed a key part skills development.

What I seek to do in my efforts to promote effective learning and effective problem solving is to provide a context for the student effort without ever providing the defining or leading question. For example, I'd suggest the student team develop a proposal in sustainable energy rather than even give them a list of processes that contribute to the sustainable energy effort. The reason for the announcement on sustainable energy is that it relates to the class involved and yet is do broad that (a) I'm still asking for effort at the objective step and (b) there is no way I can do justice to the topic through homework or class discussions AND (c) it is a currently relevant topic that is being discussed in the media.

You are absolutely correct in noting how much students expect from faculty; while they don't say it directly, their wish or even expectation is "Tell us what we need to know or do and we'll do it ..." They absolutely need to be able to identify / develop the objective; it will determine their worth probably as much (or more) than any subsequent solution.

An example from my academic career: When facilitating a Fluid Mechanics course, I asked teams to investigate and document the importance a fluid (gas or liquid remember) played in a situation they could encounter. That's all I gave them. A few days later, one team (college Juniors!) came to my office. They told me they couldn't think of any situation they could encounter that involved a fluid! After successfully resisting my inclination to laugh at that point, I told them that I refused to accept that statement; I went on to tell them, I'd entertain questions and concerns once they had more than one situation of interest (as all teams were instructed to develop).

Without the ability to develop objectives, any person or group becomes nothing more than a hired hand. I don't care what the career field is, there are very few opportunities for such people - certainly no satisfying and rewarding options ...

Mike Morgan's picture

In order for teachers to be able to do this effectively they need to have their time management and organization systems down. If you want to do this collaboratively, interdisciplinary approach you need to have the patience and resources to commit. Then, this can be extremely powerful.

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