Design Thinking

Design Thinking in Education: Empathy, Challenge, Discovery, and Sharing

As a model for reframing methods and outcomes, design thinking reconnects educators to their creativity and aspirations for helping students develop as deep thinkers and doers.

February 8, 2016
Photo credit: Scott McLeod via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

"Design thinking gave me a process to weave through all of the project–based learning experiences I create with my kiddos."

"As a leader of a #NextGen school, design thinking is our continuous innovation process."

"Design thinking reminds me all the time why I became an educator; it all starts with empathy."

An Oasis for Educators

The quotes above -- full of insight and affirmation -- are just some of the many that I've heard from educators taken by the power of design thinking and moved to bring it into their practice. When we started the @K12lab at Stanford's back in 2007 we began with a hunch that design thinking would be a great tool for educators to deploy in their classrooms and schools, and that ultimately, it would be a useful process for kids working through interdisciplinary challenges. What we found in our initial prototypes -- launching an innovation lab space, creating a design thinking professional development experience, and running student-facing design challenges for middle- and high-school classes -- was that the design thinking process functioned as a kind of oasis for educators, reconnecting them to their creativity and aspirations for helping students develop as deep thinkers and doers, not just as test takers.

In the last few years, the field has witnessed an explosion of interest in design thinking, nationally and internationally. You can literally see its growth mapped on the Design Thinking in Schools map and in the internationally booming Design for Change student challenge platform. The spread of design thinking also shows up in new national efforts like IDEO’s Teacher’s Guild platform and the very active Twitter chat community built around #DTK12chat. Educators are also supporting each other as design thinkers in regional collaborations like Atlanta’s #AK12DC, a collection of 30 public and independent schools working to accelerate design challenges, and Henry Ford Learning Institute's work in Michigan to gather regional enthusiasts and design thinking leaders.

As the movement for design thinking in education broadens and deepens, many practitioners are flexibly customizing the design thinking process in their own contexts. Coming from the, I particularly love seeing the teachers and leaders with whom we work sharing how they moved from the process we taught them (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test) to language that works in their own context. For example, check out Mary Cantwell’s DEEPdt or Urban Montessori's incorporation of design thinking in their core values.

4 Modes for Developing Your Practice

If you're considering how to embrace design thinking in your school culture, I believe you should focus on four critical modes underlying the process:

1. Lead with empathy.

Empathy is, of course, the root of human-centered design. Leading with empathy builds on the classic definition of "walking in someone else's shoes" to get us out of our own heads and into the lived reality of others so that we can understand the implicit needs and root causes of the situations in which we work. Leading with empathy means pushing yourself to get closer to people, and to do so consistently, publicly, and with conviction.

How do you do it? Listen more; talk less. Immerse yourself in how others experience your school or program. Adopt a beginner's mind and use all of your senses to notice what's happening around you. At the, we believe in these practices so much that we're issuing a Shadow a Student challenge from our School Retool project to illuminate the power of leading with empathy. If you want to step into empathy, it will be a great way to get started.

2. Challenge assumptions.

This is the opposite of "keep calm and carry on." Challenging assumptions means that when confronted with a problem, you seize the opportunity to do better than you've done before. Useful phrases to build into your lexicon are "What if. . . ?" and "How might we. . . ?" Just the simple act of introducing the language of possibility can start the shift from how we've always done things to the potential for a reframe. Reframing is critical for innovation, but it's also a way of moving from a deficit point of view to an asset focus. Challenging assumptions lets us see what both children and adults are truly capable of doing. Harnessed for good, challenging assumptions steers you in the direction of more effective policies and practices because you're willing to see things differently.

3. Make experiments happen.

Here's the rub. "Just do it" is more than a pitch for selling sports gear. It means try something and learn from it. We can tangle ourselves in all kinds of knots about "embracing failure," but what really matters is trying something, letting people know that you're trying it, and generating opportunities for feedback. You'll learn the most from what doesn't work.

When you find yourself sitting in one more meeting to make a plan for a plan, just stop and say, "What could we try in order to figure this out?" This sets you on the path to experiment with quick hacks and low-resolution prototypes. Whatever you try will point you in the direction of what's next. At the, we call it a bias toward action: Don't talk -- do. And when you do, then you observe, reflect, and try again to get it right.

4. Share your process.

Design cannot thrive in isolation. As you share your empathy work or your experiments, share what's hard, not just what's shiny and new. You can share those things as well, but we'll all learn more when you share your process, warts and all.

I invite you to investigate how leading with empathy, challenging assumptions, and making experiments happen can deepen your teaching or leadership practices. And as you do, please share what you've learned -- you may have discovered what we've yet to imagine.

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