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Design Thinking: Lessons for the Classroom

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation

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

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Director of Programming and Innovation

Jan, Thanks for the links to the Breaker project and Juliette LaMontagne. Do you know what happened with the digital book project they came up with? Fascinating and exciting stuff!

Carol Fineberg's picture
Carol Fineberg
Response to Integrating sculpture with AP Politics class`

Design thinking -- always out there in some guise or other -- is stepping into the foreground once more, and it's about time! It would be useful to check out the materials on design thinking (a/k/a problem solving!) developed some years ago by the Alexander Julian Foundation and an organization in Chapel Hill called The Blue Marble! ASCD published a volume on Design Education which was an effort to turn DT into pedagogical practice. I find too many art teachers spend too much time on the principles of design and not enough time on the process of design. Just as too many history teachers spend too much time on chalk & talk (or whatever they call it when you write on the white board) and not enough time researching real problems by digging into the past via internet and forecasting the future by reading good science fiction! Too much "do as I demonstrate" and not enough time "think how I think" as they demonstrate the process of making the "project." By the way, there is a role for sagacity as well as showmanship as well as design thinking in charettes. Good teaching is all about knowing when to use what in order to enable kids to embrace learning. And leading young people to identify and then try to solve the mysteries of life.

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

I agree with others making comments; it's not what it's called, it's that it is used. Another one to throw out is PROBLEM SOLVING! As I work with Learners of any age, I share my thesis: ANY situation faced will have a better outcome quicker IF it's treated as a problem to be solved. For this to be optimum, the problem solving process must be habitual, must involve repeated self-assessment (how are things going and what should be revised to make it go better), must involve "embracing ambiguity" (better outcomes if willingness to involve new aspects requiring learning), and almost certainly will involve "looping back" to earlier steps (it's highly unlikely that a linear movement through the steps can occur - e.g., steps 1 through 6 in order for Design Thinking). Regardless of what it's called, only then will the process be EFFECTIVE - effective problem solving for me!

Garreth Heidt's picture
Garreth Heidt
High School Liberal Studies teacher, Design-minded educator, Forensics Coach

I'm really glad to see so many people discussing this topic. I've been using design thinking in my own life and classroom for almost a decade. Just thought I'd share this site with you ... to add to those already listed:

The site was designed by Dr. Charles Burnette of Philadelphia's University of the Arts. He's a pretty fascinating guy with a long history of success in bringing design thinking into the classroom.

Eighth graders in the humanities courses in my school are going to be using design thinking to develop artistic props for a parade in April based on bringing underserved/under recognized aspects of our community to the fore. They'll be working with Spiral Q Puppet Theater ( create props for the parade.

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

John, I couldn't agree more, here are few more thoughts...

* beginning with the end in mind - all learning components linked to intended learning outcomes
* focus on what will students "takeaway" from the learning events and experiences

* effective problem solving - worthy of solving with a creative approach and eye towards innovation
* self-assessment - taking responsibility for one's own learning process
* embracing ambiguity - grappling, struggling, to figure out how to figure out
* looping back - continuous feedback loops, midcourse corrections as needed

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

We've been working with schools around the world to take the 30 year old concept of design thinking into environments where senior leadership want to tackle several big education ideas at once - generally formative assessment (ongoing, self- and peer-led assessment), rethinking how timetabling could be done, rethinking physical space. We've written some of it up here:
and stories about one or two of our schools are on the site, too:
e.g. in Taiwan:
and in Australia:

We spend the most time on the first phase of design thinking, which we call the empathy and observation stage. It involves some lengthy observation, primary and secondary research. Then the synthesis stage starts to group those together. It's only on the third stage, after this 'pure' observation, that students get to start coming up with ideas. Earlier, as it appears in your explanation here, and you tend to get people's pre-conceived ideas and inferences coming into play instead of what they could have taken from what their observations and empathetic experiences were telling them.

It's been a great journey for the teachers involved, too - the best teaching experience they've had, they tell us.

As people have pointed out, it's got most of what we call inquiry-based learning and most of the engineering or service design approach in there. The difference in our way of approaching it is that in the observation and empathy stage we let the STUDENTS decide what needs observed, what they problem area might be to explore. That leads to some really interesting content coverage and ideation.

Rob King's picture
Rob King
Author of Inquire: A Guide to 21st Century Learning

Hey, everybody:

I really love the original article on design thinking, and I'm finding the comments equally illuminating. Though we all have different names for this process, we agree that it needs to take center stage in education--as it has in business and science for decades.

I've written a blog post, trying to connect our many views. You can find it at

So where do we go from here? How can we get our divided voices to unite in the push for using the design process in education? I look forward to everyone's comments.

Rob King

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Director of Programming and Innovation

I agree with Rob that the comments and resources that have been added to this thread have been very illuminating. It's heartening to hear there are so many others who are using some form of the process. I have a couple of ideas for furthering momentum.

1) A weekly "real time" Twitter chat where educators can network, share resources & tips for implementing the design process together. I just checked and the hashtags #dtchat (short for "design thinking chat") and #dpchat ("design process chat") are both available.

2) A group on Facebook. Edutopia has a pretty big Facebook presence, and we've been wanting to pilot a group on a specific topic there for a while. Perhaps this is the first one?

3) A design process wiki. Edutopia has a wiki -- I plan on going through this thread and adding resources to a design process page.

4) Maybe this already exists but a Design Thinking in Education Ning might be interesting too.

Would love to hear others' thoughts on this. I am happy to work with anyone who is interested in moving this forward.

Joe Schwartz's picture

As Doris posted here, the spark of this was planted some time ago and will hopefully gain some momentum this year - thanks, Doris -for signing my petition! It will be printed and delivered to Rep. Rush Holt's office soon. I am also proud to announce that this week, the papers were filed to launch the Design-Ed Coalition, a new non-profit advocacy group dedicated to helping K-12 educators bring design into their classes and help existing design educators be better advocates. Founded by Dr. Robin Vande Zande, myself and a designer from Brooklyn, Cristian Fleming, we'll be releasing our policy paper within the next few weeks and a hub website by the end of February. This should be a great year for K-12 Design Education!

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

Betty, there are additional (some very active) discussions occurring within groups on LinkedIn.

Login, go to groups, then type "design thinking" into the search field (use the quotes for targeted hits) - many to choose from. Paula Thornton's group has over 9,000 members, where Clive Roux's, CEO of IDSA, has over 10,000 members.


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