February 19, 2016

How to Use Design Thinking in Schools

How to Use Design Thinking in Schools

IDEO defines design thinking as the belief that all problems, even the intractable ones such as poverty, disease and inequality, are solvable. It hinges on the belief we can make a difference, and gives us an intentional process to search for and design relevant solutions to make in impact.

It's a mindset and process that empowers children with the ability to think critically and creatively.

In many respects, schools have been helping students in elements of design thinking for decades. At the heart of design thinking sits the need for developing strong curiosities, and fostering the desire to understand and solve complex problems. It encourages empathy and optimism and embracing ambiguity. As such, design thinking has come in many forms, from project-based learning, challenge-based learning, to inquiry-based learning. They all have elements of encouraging good research, developing and testing approaches, and presenting findings.


Creative and critical thinking have always been crucial skills in learning how to unpack issues and problems. They are certainly even more important now as we deal with the challenges of rapid change in work, life, and the environment that require different approaches and a re-thinking in how to tackle them - statistics show millennials will go through as many as 15 jobs different jobs before they’re forty, stay at jobs for only 2 years, and have up to 5 or more career changes, showing necessity of adaptability. Schools, like businesses and industries, are also keen on developing innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Without a proper understanding of the mindsets, the skillsets and tools that can be used, innovation and entrepreneurship very quickly become token buzzwords. When students experience the process of design thinking effectively, they learn how to ask better questions, see past perceived constraints, generate and filter ideas, and have multiple attempts at prototyping their solutions to discover what works and what wows. Consider the depth and breadth of learning that comes from years of working this way and you’ll begin to see how adaptable, creative, and knowledgeable students can become.

Once the methodology of design thinking becomes more familiar, it can be applied to almost any challenging task. Many schools see it as the domain of the humanities or sciences, but it works equally well in any field, even mathematics, languages, or physical education. At its core, design thinking needs learners to make connections, so it is when learning is well-integrated that real innovation starts.    

An example of integrating design thinking into everyday subjects include encouraging students to redesign the classroom and classroom flooring as a way of teaching the concepts of perimeter and area. By getting the students to interact with the space, seeing how these mathematical concepts work in real life and how they can apply these concepts in their own redesigns, students not only can grasp these ideas easier, but also remain more engaged throughout the process.

What’s often missed when schools use design thinking approaches, however, is that it becomes another program done to students rather than with them. It's important to nurture learning environments in which students think for themselves and also have a sense of agency, so when teachers look at curriculum they need to ask themselves: could I also undertake this? It makes a significant difference to the depth and impact of design thinking when the school community knows how it feels and what it takes to tackle complex problems. By using design thinking processes to plan and design learning, teachers become better at facilitating and networking this knowledge with their students.

To work well, design thinking needs the support and understanding from school leadership. It may start with a team of teachers using the processes within the curriculum, but it can also be a very effective way to bring the school community together. Instead of design thinking just being an effective way to address curriculum outcomes, it can also be an ideal way to tackle real problems and challenges in the school. This could be about new school buildings, classrooms changes, strategic planning, or enabling a new initiative with others outside the school.

In this regard, design thinking is not a subject. It is certainly not wise to teach it in isolation (much like people realise about technology), and it is not a form of pedagogy. It’s important to understand that when used well, design thinking will help reveal the learning culture. It will often bring to the surface the blockers and challenges that stand in the way of things being done differently. If we want our young people to begin to appreciate how hard and how intelligent we need to be to navigate this, then to work on real-world problems is also important. Often, the curriculum offers up all kinds of large-scale, complex issues, like natural disasters, wars, and immigration. Instead, schools would be best served initially using the processes of design thinking for the very problems that are core to their own community.       

An example of students using design thinking to tackle community issues was when Brisbane primary school teacher, Elisabeth Hales, used design thinking in exploring the impact of climate change and the 2011 floods on their local communities. They created the topic ‘Burning plains and flooding rains’ to frame their thinking and research. Students explored the news, looked at and compared maps, studied data, watched TED Talks, interviewed people affected by floods, and asked lots of tough questions. Students then addressed their core challenge of ‘How might we help our local community to be flood ready?’. Students generated into lots of ideas and quickly began forming sketched prototypes. One group of girls designed a concept for a Flood Evacuation Kit, received early feedback, made a mock-prototype, then ended up pitching it to community members some of whom had been affected by the floods. This made for very memorable learning for everyone.    

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‍First version of the flood evacuation kit

On an even more individual scale, during our Lemonade Stand Program, we ran a simple 1-hour design thinking exercise with our students, asking them to redesign each other's' gift giving experiences and routines. The students were instructed to interview each other and pose probing questions provoking thoughtful and emotional responses, before designing 'magic-wand' solutions and whittling these down and prototyping the most feasible idea.

In the limited time we had, students only had time to draw their solutions, but ideas ranged from apps that automatically pulled data from a user’s Facebook activities to suggest gifts that a person liked, to automated personal shopping services.

Our partners, NoTosh, have also been working with networks of schools. Some of the local projects have included convincing Taronga Zoo to improve one of their animal habitats, changing the school bell, helping parents to be more involved in the life of the school, or educating their peers about local wetlands. These schools have created learning environments where everyone speaks the same language of learning, and everyone grows the ambition to make things better.  

Students’ descriptions of their learning from these types of projects is very articulate. Lauren, a Year 6 student who has been using design thinking for about 3 years, reflected that “my favourite thing about design thinking is that we can be as creative as possible and be free to let our imaginations go wild, while learning and answering the question.” This captures some very powerful insights about how important the process has been to her learning. Likewise Michelle, age 11, said “I think that Design Thinking is fun and educational, and also lets children use their curiosity, creativity, and gives us freedom of choice at the same time. Although a few troubles may happen.”

Design Thinking might at first seem like a nebulous area. However, with the growing success with its application in the K-12 curriculum and the increasing importance for students to be adaptable and have the capacity to think innovatively, design thinking is rapidly playing a more important role in engaging and teaching students.

Through design thinking schools are creating learning communities where everyone speaks the same language of learning, and everyone grows the ambition to make things better.

Our highly popular Lemonade Stand Program is coming online. Our Lemonade Stand Program empowers kids by teaching them entrepreneurial basics, with lessons on business model planning, design thinking and prototyping. To express your interest in beta-testing our new online platform, click here.

Innovate or die.

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Josh Li

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