5 Ways to Use Design Thinking in Your Classroom


Design thinking is a user-focused way to solve problems that are being implemented in many economic sectors. Read on to learn how to incorporate design thinking in your classroom, as well as resources to get you started.

Design Thinking

Design thinking sounds like it might be complicated, but at its core, it's simply a way to solve problems. The main aspect of design thinking that sets it apart from any other problem-solving methodologies is that it focuses on the user, or the person having the problem. The designer solves the problem by empathizing with the user trying to get into their shoes.

This type of thinking can be applied to many situations. While the concept is rooted in design, many businesses are incorporating design thinking as well. As it is applicable to many situations, you can incorporate it into your classroom, regardless of the subject or age that you teach. Read on to learn the principles of design thinking, examples of projects and resources for your next design thinking venture.

How to Incorporate Design Thinking in the Classroom

The Problem

The first step of design thinking is establishing the problem. It can be a small problem that applies only to your students, or a large-scale problem like immigration or the environment. Students can get involved in determining the problem they will solve. For example, maybe the problem will be related to the school. Ask the students what problems they see and write them all on the board. They might note that students are throwing away cans instead of using recycling bins, or that one of the swings is broken on the playground. The students can vote on the problem that they will all be working to solve. Make sure that students have a clear idea of the user.

As the teacher, you will need to establish the length of this project: it might be a two-hour project, or it might last the entire semester. Also determine if students will be working alone, in pairs, in groups, or any number of possible formats.

The Brainstorming

Now that the problem has been established, the brainstorming can begin. Let's take the recycling example from earlier. The user of the recycling bins would be the students. Students might start the brainstorming process by conducting interviews with other students.

Based on the answers to the interviews, they can start brainstorming solutions. If the interviews revealed that there are not enough recycling bins, the students would brainstorm how to solve this problem. Design thinking is positive, and there are no wrong answers during brainstorming. You or the students should write down all ideas; some teachers like to use sticky notes and let the ideas flow freely.


The Designing

Now that the students have brainstormed solutions, they can start designing. The way that they design can be tailored to fit your age group. Small children can draw, while older ones might be able to create a visual digital presentation or design a 3-D object.

If the results from the interviews were that there are not enough recycling bins, the brainstormed solution might be to increase the number of bins or make them more visible. In the design phase, some students might use a layout of the school and mark where new bins would be added. Other students might advocate for changing the shape of the bins or altering their color to make them more noticeable.

Taken a step further, how would these ideas be implemented? If more bins are needed, who will pay for the bins? If there isn't an answer, maybe the students should also consider fundraising or sponsorship ideas as part of their design phase.

The Presentation

Once a design is established, students should present their designs, either to their peers, other groups, the classroom or the users that were interviewed at the start of the design thinking process. The presentation portion is critical as it results in feedback, which leads to further improvement.

The Redesign

Based on feedback, some parts of the design might need to be changed. Design thinking is cyclical, always incorporating user feedback to continue to improve the solution. Good design doesn't exist in a vacuum, and there is often more than one answer - that's why we don't still drive Model A cars or use black and white televisions. As Kaan Turnali writes in a Forbes article about design thinking, consider Edison's quote about failure and inventing the light bulb: ''I have not failed, not once. I've discovered ten thousand ways that don't work.''


With the recycling example, maybe the audience didn't like the locations of the new bins for a certain reason, or thought the new bin shape would make them look too much like trash cans. If time permits, students would take this feedback and return to the brainstorming phase.

Examples of Projects

While the example given here is very general, design thinking can be applied in the number of ways. Many teachers, including Tricia Whenham in a nureva article, suggests that students help design their own classroom. Tracy Evans went through this with her primary school students, outlined in an Edutopia blogpost.

For teachers who teach a specific subject, design thinking curriculum might seem impossible. However, one of the teachers at Design Tech High School in Redwood City, Galen McAndrew, explained to EdSurge that this process can also apply to more academic subjects. EdSurge notes, ''McAndrew used an example of a student writing an essay in an English class. The pupil would identify the 'user' as the audience, and the 'problem' as the message that the student is trying to send by writing the essay.''


For a history teacher, instead of having high school students write a paper on the industrial revolution, they might instead create a comic book for middle schoolers. Getting Smart outlines some real classroom projects.


There are many resources available for educators. Teachthought has a list of 45 design thinking resources for educators. There is also a free Design Thinking Toolkit for Educators that was co-created by IDEO, the design firm that helped pioneer the concept.

Have you used design thinking in your classroom? Do you have any other ideas of how design thinking can be implemented?

By Michelle Garrigan-Durant
February 2018
teachers classroom management

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