Design Thinking Is a Challenge to Teach — and That’s a Good Thing

Jul 31, 2019

In the early 2000s something new appeared on the education scene, adapted from the worlds of innovation and business where it was developed. It was called, simply and descriptively, design thinking.

Unlike some education trends, it didn’t catch on overnight. During the first fifteen years or so, implementation of design thinking in K-12 schools was a slow, steady progression. Yet in the past few years, it’s picked up a lot of steam. Still, certain misconceptions abound—and it’s not always easy to adapt this to a K-12 environment.

Earlier this summer, I traveled to Dallas to participate in a training on design thinking led by staff from Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, better known as the d.school, which pioneered the approach. While at the training, I had a chance to speak with teachers who have been using design thinking in their work for quite some time. They shared many incredible stories of design thinking in action. However, it was the challenges these teachers continue to face—and their ability to recognize them and adapt their design thinking practice—that were even more interesting.

What Is Design Thinking?

In a nutshell, design thinking is a way to define and solve tough challenges. It focuses heavily on rapid prototype solutions and learning from mistakes. In education, a design thinking curriculum immerses students and teachers (i.e., the designers) in real-world problem solving. The journey begins with empathy work—an opportunity for understanding the needs and motivations of a group of people (i.e., the end users).

Using this data as a guide, designers then work collaboratively to define a problem. Problems take the form of a question such as, “How might we design a classroom habitat for plants and animals to co-exist?” Or, “How might we create machines based on historical models?” Or even, “How might we create a playground space for disabled students?”

From there, designers brainstorm solutions, design a prototype and test their product. The process rarely takes a linear approach. At any point in the process, designers may return to different parts of the process to fine-tune their work before eventually moving forward.

(Image courtesy of Stanford d.school)

Breaking Down the Process

Despite a growing number of teachers utilizing this process, those unfamiliar with design thinking often view it as a finite, linear curriculum that must be completed over the course of several weeks (or even longer).

“People think there is a hard, fast rule to the process,” says Jennifer DeBenedetti, a fifth grade teacher at the Gregory School in Tucson, Ariz., who has used the process with her classes. “There are guidelines, but it is meant to be used as a framework. It doesn’t have to be a big, long-term project.” This misconception often results in teachers becoming hesitant to take on design thinking; they view it as a significant investment of instructional time with unknown results.

In her first few years using design thinking, Catherine Scott, a fifth grade science teacher at Good Shepherd Episcopal School in Dallas felt that implementing the entire process in a lengthy project format was overwhelming. As a result, she adapted her teaching by breaking down the process into smaller projects and activities centered on each phase of the design thinking process. She was able to spend more instructional time on each phase. Ultimately, her students were able to understand the process (and the content) in a more meaningful way.

Assessing Student Work

Identifying and implementing quality assessment tools is a constant challenge for educators and assessing design thinking work is no different. Understanding how to articulate mastery and growth as it relates to a design thinking curriculum can be a struggle. Due to the nature of the process, learning outcomes may not be evident at the outset, which can be uncomfortable for some.

“Teachers can become skilled at identifying standards relevant to their student work early on,” says Laura McBain, K-12 lab director of community and implementation at Stanford’s d.school. “It takes time, practice and habitual reflection.” Additionally, once outcomes are identified, many teachers have turned to rubrics as a means to assess student performance—particularly those that relate to so-called “soft” skills, such as the ability to collaborate effectively.

“It gets hard when we attempt to make the shift from rubrics to a more numeric, grade-based system,” says Laura Cole, the director of collaborations and partnerships at Good Shepherd Episcopal. “The good news is that there is a lot of focus on this work within the design thinking community. We are making progress.”

To address this, some teachers have utilized pacing guides to help stay on track with curriculum frameworks. Articulating how long each phase of the process will take and tying the work to student outcomes can help keep the process on track.

Overcoming the Fear of Failure

Ironically, one of the biggest hurdles in utilizing design thinking is something that is integral to the process: accepting failure. The ability to embrace experimentation and to have a bias toward action—i.e., doing things instead of simply discussing them—are key facets of the process. If you are doing and experimenting quickly, failure is merely a part of the experience. It allows you to regroup and try a different, hopefully better, approach. However, this mindset can be hard to embrace for teachers and students alike.

“For many people, failure equals disaster,” says Amy Raney, middle school learning specialist at Good Shepherd Episcopal. “Instead, failure should be celebrated and integral to learning.” Often, teachers and students feel vulnerable when asked to experiment, especially when they are unsure of where the creation process will lead them. To address this, some teachers are creating smaller ways for students to demonstrate mastery in order to reduce emphasis on one end product.

“The reality is that students and teachers are already embracing failure every time new content is taught,” says McBain. ”Building small assessment pieces into the design process can mitigate the fear of failure.”

Is It All Worth It?

Design thinking places empathy at the core of all work. The perspectives and needs of the end-user (the people you are designing for) are at the center of the process. For all the teachers I spoke with, the benefits of engaging students in a process that is guided by consistently reflecting on the needs of others far outweighs the challenges they face.

“Design Thinking has helped me recognize the value of connecting with my students,” says Amie Bergersen, a math teacher at the Gregory School. “I always spent time building relationships with my students, but after understanding the importance of empathy work in design thinking, I spend more time on this work at the beginning of the year. I think that their learning has improved because we are all now connecting on a deeper level.”

But it is not just the emphasis on empathy that makes it worthwhile for many; teachers see design thinking as a way of viewing their own world in a more human-centered way.

“There are challenges to design thinking because the journey is shifting the way one teaches,” says McBain. “Teachers are embracing a new mindset which includes growth, reflection and failure. They become designers.”

This mindset is not limited to the classroom, however. “Design thinking has really changed how I view everything in my life,” says Catherine Scott.

Amy Raney agrees. “I notice that I am thinking differently about how I engage others and how I make decisions in my personal life. It’s really amazing.”


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