Design Thinking in Education – A primer for Schools

Design thinking provides a motivating, engaging, learning experience.

Design thinking fosters the exploration & analysis to establish ideas of value. In contrast, rote learning provides no motivating context of application.

Design thinking emphasizes constructive thinking over factual retention.

How to imbibe the 4Cs (Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration) into every school? Design thinking is the answer.

Can we teach students how to think?  If you believe this is the central question for educators of today and tomorrow, then it is time to pay attention to design thinking. IDEO, in its  design thinking for educators resource website, defines design thinking as

design thinking for educatorsA creative process that helps you design meaningful solutions in the classroom, at your school, and in your community. ” The applicability of the method spans the entire school community – staff, students, parents and students. If implemented well can enable transforming a school’s culture – Be it curriculum innovation for active learning, redesigning learning spaces, improving specific school processes, tools and systems.

Why teach design thinking to students? 

In a world where information is abundant, design thinking provides a motivating, engaging, learning experience. It makes it easy to accommodate varied interests and abilities through project based learning experiences that challenge and focus personal initiative. There are several benefits, well documented in Why Teach Design Thinking?, including

  • Design thinking is multidisciplinary and applicable to any subject, to problems of any scope or scale
  • Integration of imagination and analytical thinking.
    Design thinking fosters the exploration, and analysis of relevant information and its effective organization to establish ideas of value regarding a particular context. In contrast, rote learning is hard to remember and use because it has no motivating context of application.
  • Because a design problem may have many different solutions, Design thinking requires ongoing definition, representation, and assessment. It is a continuous learning experience arising out of a need to obtain and correctly apply knowledge to achieve goals that may change as knowledge of the problem and its context is acquired.
  • Design thinking promotes cooperation, socialization and humanistic understanding. Design thinking in groups encourages the development of different perspectives and social skills, including the ability to negotiate, communicate, follow, and lead.

What does the process entail?

At the core of the design thinking approach to problem solving is a structured combination of divergent and convergent thinking until practical solutions are ready for prototyping and iteration. One framework to describe the process at a high level is by using IDEO’s toolkit

idea-5-steps-design-thinking-frameworkThere are other similar frameworks espoused, with Stanford K12 labs and Frog Design’s collective action toolkit or CAT, being the more famous ones. Irrespective of any framework you chose, they all entail a similar set of steps from defining the problem to iterating the solutions, summarized well in Design Thinking in the Classroom: Free Inspiration as

Define the problem:
Research the problem:
Analyze the situation:
Redefine the problem:

Beyond the hype, does it work for students? Of what age?

In Why ‘Design Thinking’ Doesn’t Work in Education, the notion that design thinking requires a certain base knowledge to be creative is espoused.

Design Thinking requires a breadth of knowledge and experience from  various disciplines, which is not present in most K-12 students given the stage of their cognitive development and education background.  It requires one to think of a problem from unconventional, even unlikely perspectives, that lead to a collection of insights—insights that will ultimately produce a unique solution. Do K-12 students really have the education background to engage in Design Thinking?  I suggest that teaching this process to K-12 students is not only unfeasible, but unnecessary and limiting.

Rather than spending time teaching a structured, cookie-cutter problem-solving process, time might be better spent  teaching, and facilitating learning in a breadth of subjects. Rather than give students more structure, they may benefit from less, yet more learning.

However, practitioners refute this view entirely. Emer Beamer @ Designathons in the article Why you SHOULD use Design thinking approaches in education! says


@onlinelearning! concludes in her article that design thinking with it’s user centered approach can be helpful for instructional designers and teachers to enhance their methods but for children it’s a bridge too far, for their level of knowledge and understanding to be able to use design thinking. With the second part of this conclusion I couldn’t disagree more strongly. To me, if anything design thinking is particularly suited to children’s levels of curiosity, their ability to ask good questions, to help enhance their creative thinking skills and in making  education contextually relevant to them.

Where to start? A resource round-up

Design thinking for educators | Design thinking in education | Design thinking in the classroom | Design thinking education school | Design thinking education | Design thinking schools

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