What is design thinking? Can it work in my classroom?


The term “design thinking” is often attached to maker spaces and STEM labs. However, design thinking is bigger than STEM. It begins with the premise of tapping into student curiosity and allowing them to create, test and re-create until they eventually ship what they made to a real audience (sometimes global but often local). Design thinking isn’t a subject or a topic or a class. It’s more of way of solving problems that encourages risk-taking and creativity. If you’re interested in this topic, feel free to check out my book Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in All Students

What is the design thinking cycle?

The truth is I’ve seen elements of design thinking in the non-profit sector, where we did program development. It was part of how we attempted to avoid neo-colonialism. That shaped how I approached service learning with my students. However, this cycle was also similar to the design cycle we used when creating Write About and, oddly enough, it resonates with how we wrote Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard

I first grew interested in the design thinking cycle when I had students doing design projects. We used this cycle in our first documentary and in our murals. Later, I used the same framework with the coding and blogging projects students did.

The original design thinking cycle I used followed these steps: empathy, define, ideate, prototype, test. I found some great resources at the Institute of Design at Stanford. Although it worked, I found that often students designed things out of a general sense of wonder. So, I changed it to awareness. I also added inquiry and research, along with launching and marketing. I’m not sure if “marketing” is always the right word.

Note that often one phase will lead back to a previous phase in a sort-of mini-cycle of its own. For example, inquiry often leads to research and revision is essentially creating a new prototype. Also note that this cycle is a framework — and that all frameworks should be flexible and adaptable. Making stuff is often messy.

  1. Awareness: Sometimes it starts with an observation. Students see or experience something and become aware of an idea, a system, or an issue. Other times, it’s more human as they become more aware of people and their needs. Still, other times, it starts with a general sense of wonder and a driving question that ultimately leads to inquiry. Depending on the project, we might do interviews, needs assessments, or observations.
  2. Inquiry: As they grow more aware of an idea or an issue, students start coming up with questions. This can happen both individually and collaboratively. In this phase, students tap into their natural curiosity on the topic and ultimately land on a specific problem that needs to be solved, along with the corresponding essential questions that they want to research. Note that some people might place “define” before inquiry. However, I’ve found that the freedom to ask deep questions ultimately leads to a larger problem that needs to be solved.
  3. Research: In this phase, students research the topic based upon the questions they’ve developed in the last phase. In some cases, they conduct additional interviews and needs assessments (to grow in their empathy and awareness). Other times, they talk to experts on the subject. Still, other times, they access informational texts and find facts connected to their driving question.
  4. Ideate and Plan: After growing in their conceptual understanding, students have the chance to brainstorm (ideate) and ultimately create a plan for their design. We usually break this up into a mini-cycle of open-ended brainstorming followed by an analytical process of picking apart the ideas and then back to brainstorming.
  5. Prototype: Some folks might place “plan” in the prototype phase, which is fine. It’s not meant to be a lockstep formula. However, we use prototyping as a separate phase because I want students to see the need to build something and make something rather than simply plan. Sometimes, this prototyping phase worked really well (in blogging, with documentaries, or in the Scratch Video Game project). Other times, we simply lacked the resources to build a realistic prototype (our Create a Product project).
  6. Test and Revise: Like the ideating / planning phase, this phase works in a cyclical model where students test what they made and then modify it in a revision phase.
  7. Launch and Market: Eventually, students send it off to their audience and attempt to convince people that their design is worth considering. As this happens, you get the chance to see if it’s working. This ultimately becomes a chance to grow more empathetic with the user or audience, which leads back to awareness.

Is design thinking right for my classroom?

I think design thinking can thrive in any classroom. However, it tends to work best in the following scenarios:
  • When students are making actual products
  • When students have the time to go through the entire process (often larger projects)
  • When you, as a teacher, have the freedom to allow this to work. This is harder in a high-stakes testing environment
  • With standards-based grading, where students can continue to revise in order to reach mastery
  • When the specific problem they are solving is important to the students

Can design thinking work in all subjects?

When I taught self-contained, I had the chance to work with all subject areas. I found that design thinking worked really well in inquiry-driven science experiments (where it was less about prototyping and more about building an experiment and testing it), in writing (where there’s already a sense of audience, brainstorming, writing, and revising), and in social studies. I had a tougher time using this framework in math. It worked somewhat in math when we used Dan Meyer’s visual prompts, leading into problem-solving, comparing, testing, and revising. However, the only time it worked really well in math was in our probability unit, where students designed board games.

For all the talk of STEM, I actually think we might do well looking at the places where the design thinking cycle is already happening at school. I’ve seen see the design cycle work really well in journalism, yearbook, shop class, culinary, and theater. I’d also point out that the design thinking cycle works with all ages. However, high school students tend to be more self-directed than early elementary. So, scaffolding is important.

Where did design thinking originate?

So, it’s debate where design thinking originated. Some claim that it started in the sixties with The Sciences of the ArtificialOthers point to Design Thinkingwhich focussed more on urban planning and architecture. Still others point to Robert McKim’s work in Experiences in Visual ThinkingMy guess is that, like all great ideas, it has been an evolution, influenced by thousands of people. My goal, in the next few months, is to read some of these texts in-depth and watch the evolution of the idea.


Here are some free design thinking resources I’ve developed that you might find helpful:

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