4 Ways to Apply Design Thinking in Your School

Design thinking is a process for developing new ideas and solving problems. It is a series of “design-specific cognitive activities that designers apply during the process of designing” (Visser, W. 2006).

It normally involves:

  1. Empathising
  2. Synthesising
  3. Generating and judging ideas
  4. Prototyping
  5. Implementing and testing

A key part of my work over the last 6 years has been to help educators, and those involved with learning, explore the ways they might utilise this process in their organisations. In addition to understand the “thinking like a designer” part.

Commonly we cite the use of design thinking as a problem solving process that students participate in, and regularly see students making and designing products or ideas.

However in the school environment the process and principles of design thinking can be applied to a number of different relevant domains:

  • Inquiry Learning Process (student)
  • School Improvement (leadership/teacher)
  • Practitioner Inquiry (leadership/teacher)
  • Learning Design (teacher)

As an overview I want to share with you in brief some of my own understandings from facilitating design thinking in these four different ways.

Inquiry Learning Process

As a problem solving process design thinking has the structure and potential for scaffolding an inquiry process. After all it is commonly used as a way to tackle complex or wicked problems.

A design thinking inquiry or learning process helps students developempathy for other people who may be at the heart of an issue or topic.Empathy leads to a much deeper more authentic level of connection with what is being explored.

The latter parts of the process, testing and prototyping, emphasise an iterative approach. You may have heard this in relation to product design. The key thing for me is that this is about increasing the opportunities for critique and feedback.

School Improvement

For many school leaders and administration teams design thinking offers a fresh approach to complex school improvement issues.

Appropriately the process puts the learner (old or young) at the heart of everything. How well we understand the learner dictates the efficacy of the process to generate new ideas.

When working with school leadership teams I often start by exploring the assumptions they might have about the school development topic. By challenging assumptions early on in the process we are immediately moving to a more open mode of thinking or mindset.

An additional value when using design thinking is the imperative to release ideas early. Iterative development demands we involve others to gain feedback. A leadership team may develop an interesting solution to a complex problem and share it quickly with colleagues, even in a rough form.

We shouldn’t be locking ourselves away, to build perfectly transitioned slideshows, too soon.

Practitioner Inquiry

This is about educators exploring problem areas within their own practice and working through a formalised process to learn and address them.

These might include a wide range of topics from implementing new technologies, to engaging reluctant writers, to creating an agentic learning space.

The process of design thinking scaffolds this teacher led inquiry extremely well and can be structured to support a variety of school improvement topics.

The opening phase of a practitioner inquiry would include gathering information:

  • Empathy: who is at the heart of this issue and how might I better understand the perspective they have? What assumptions might I have about the key stakeholders?
  • Data: what different forms of data do I have access to? What new data will I need to generate?
  • Observation: how can I directly observe this issue? How can I observe without bias?

This works well if educators are working in teams attached to a similar topic. They may well be teaching different age groups but coalesce for various parts of the process, sharing insights and ideas.

Learning Design

The role of the teacher is being recast as a designer of learning. When using a design thinking process our emphasis, once more, is on how well we understand the learner.

When we are designing a unit of learning, or a sequence of our curriculum, we can utilise the design thinking process to help structure our thinking and planning.

  1. Empathising — What do we know about our students? What data and assessment information do we have that might inform our design? What are our curriculum constraints? What are the key capabilities we need to focus on? What is happening in the world?
  2. Synthesising — narrow the focus of the learning design, identify key priorities and potential inquiry questions to follow. Key resources identified and shortlisted. Strong curriculum connections are forged.
  3. Generating and judging ideas — sequences of learning are explored and developed. New ideas and concepts for lessons and learning experiences are shared and filtered.
  4. Prototyping — learning designs are sketched out so that others can understand them and offer feedback. Different permutations are explored, with possibly multiple prototypes shared. Feedback gained from students and colleagues.
  5. Implementing and testing — new lesson sequences are implemented. Further feedback is sought from observation and planning review. Critique outcomes are shared and fed back into the design process.

An additional application, that is often overlooked, is the use of different phases of the process of design thinking in isolation.

Yes, the process has a mild interdependence to make the most of it. However there has been many occasions when I have facilitated a group to use a single phase along with the associated tools, skills and mindsets.

Adopting a flexible approach to the utility of the design thinking process is an important stance. This also leads to elaborating and extending the phases with what we already know or have been already implementing successfully.

That said when there is a common process shared amongst staff and students you see a powerful shift in practice and in the learning experience.

I recall accompanying a leadership team on an impromptu walk through school to punctuate some facilitated time. We sat with some Kindergarten students participating in a similar activity that we had just explored ourselves. The common language and shared process was an ongoing, tangible, and binding experience for the school community.

  1. Thanks Dave, I love ” teachers as designers of learning”. I would like to add one more, “Developing Problem Solvers”. We have been running a project with more than a 100 schools in Albania where teachers and students are using design thinking to improve things in their school and the community.

  2. “The role of the teacher is being recast as a designer of learning.”

    Really like that. While I get the idea of recasting as ‘facilitator’, ‘designer of learning’ seems a better fit.

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