Why Design Thinking Might Not Work in Every Classroom


Design thinking is an approach to learning that is taking education by storm. However, while it has become a buzzword in education, it is necessarily suitable as a mindset to revamp every classroom.

The New Buzz of 'Design Thinking' in Classrooms

You are sitting in a large room at a professional development conference for your subject. Two middle-aged teachers are there to share with the audience their amazing story of a project they did with their students. On the Jumbotron-sized projector, they enchant the audience with videos and pictures showing happy children engaged in solving a problem. In their presentation, they take you through student research and show you how they worked through the challenges and created multiple prototypes. Part of the pitch includes how the process is flexible and will instill creativity and higher order thinking skills with your students. The process they are pitching is design thinking, and while it has its merits, it may not work in every classroom.

Understanding the Concepts Behind Design Thinking

Like any new buzzword in education, sometimes the definition gets skewed a bit as people try to implement. As a result, we end up with lots of different versions of design thinking floating around in education. One well-known proponent of design thinking is A.J. Juliani, author of Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring out the Maker in Every Student. She uses the term 'launch' to describe the process of using 'design thinking' in classrooms.


Launch is an acronym. The 'L' stands for look, listen, and learn. This first step is about building student empathy or awareness of the problem you are going to be tackling with design thinking. In the next phase, the 'A', students spend time asking as many questions as they can about the problem. Asking questions prepares them for the next phase, which she represents with 'U' for understanding the problem through authentic research. When students reach the 'N' phase, they begin to navigate ideas to solve the problem they were initially presented with. In the 'C' phase, they create a prototype of their solution. Finally, students spend the 'H' part of the cycle highlighting what works and fixing what doesn't in their design. Seems simple enough, right?

Implementing Design Thinking in a Standards Driven Education System

As teachers, we are ultimately held accountable for teaching mandated standards through evaluations, observations, and state testing. Sometimes the sheer volume and diversity of the standards we are expected to teach are overwhelming. Teaching the standards involves identifying the critical concepts and skills you are being asked to teach, as well as identifying the best way to assess student learning. While sometimes those concepts can be taught through design thinking, in other cases it may just not be a good fit.

For example, let's consider a science classroom. In general, regardless of what science you teach, it is built around the scientific method. The scientific method in many ways parallels design thinking in that student research, hypothesize, test, and reevaluate. So for a science teacher, revamping curriculum to structure it around design thinking is not a huge stretch from what the standards may already be asking them to do. Math teachers may also have an easy time incorporating design thinking into their classrooms because as part of design and prototyping they can include the math standards they are expected to teach.

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On the other hand, consider the standards a social studies teacher might teach. If they are teaching government, they may be able to incorporate design thinking by creating new models of government, or working through the process to revise mock bills in the classroom. However, let's say you are expected to teach about significant wars in history, such as the French Revolution, including the causes and key players. Or imagine you are an English teacher expected to teach the works of Shakespeare. In these situations, trying to teach your content with a design thinking approach may not be practical or appropriate to your student population.

Changing the Culture of Grading versus Growth

One of the key concepts behind design thinking is growth mindset. This idea is an easy sell in lots of areas. For example, if a child is learning to play soccer, a parent is focused on how much they improve game to game and practice to practice. That is what design learning is about at its core: improving on what you have done before, especially failures. However, when it comes to school and grades, a lot of students and parents are stuck in a fixed mindset. While they want students to learn and grow, they have anchored themselves to the old grading system. Their brains in many ways are 'fixed' to believe that learning is measured by A's, B's, and C's.


In some classrooms, when you or your school states they are moving to 'design learning,' you may inadvertently be waving a red flag at your parents. You see, design thinking isn't grade driven. Instead, it is product driven with the learning being part of the process rather than a letter assigned at the end of a project. As a result, if students and parents are stuck in the fixed mindset, they become more obsessed with finding what they perceive as the 'right' solution. If the students and parents are stuck in the fixed mindset of grades being the ultimate measure of learning, you may not want to throw yourself full throttle into transforming your classroom into an epicenter of design thinking. It may be wiser, and less stressful, to try design thinking on a smaller scale or not at all.

Is 'Design Thinking' Practical in Every Classroom?

The reality is that there are lots of models of teaching, and design thinking in some ways is just another one on the menu. Depending on your content and classroom, aspects of design thinking may be applicable. However, trying to transform your entire curriculum into design thinking may not be a good fit for many reasons. Some standards (such as social studies or history) just aren't best taught following a model of developing prototypes. The reality is that for design thinking to truly be effective, it needs to have the support of students and parents because it requires a growth mindset. If your students and parents aren't willing to think that way, you may be up against an uphill unrewarding battle to change their minds. In the end, design thinking may or may not be a good fit for your classroom and students.

By Rachel Tustin
December 2017
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