Design Thinking Can Work in Any Subject

Every day, I ask my kids, “What did you make in school today?” Too often, they can’t give me an answer. But on the days that they do, their eyes light up and they passionately describe their projects. It’s in those moments that I am reminded that making is magic.

I want to see schools transform into bastions of creativity and wonder. But here’s the thing: this is hard to pull off. We all have curriculum maps and limited resources and standards we have to teach. We don’t always have fancy maker spaces or high-tech gadgetry. Our time is limited and so creativity is often a lofty ideal that rarely becomes a reality.

This is what I love about design thinking. It works within the standards in every subject. It’s a flexible approach that you can use with limited resources. It isn’t something new that you add to your crowded schedule. Instead, it’s an innovative approach to the work you are already doing — a process designed specifically to boost creativity and bring out the maker in every student.

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.

Design thinking is used in the arts, in engineering, in the corporate world, and in social and civic spaces. You can use it in every subject with every age group. It works when creating digital content or when building things with duct tape and cardboard.

As a teacher, I used design thinking for over a decade in coding projects,  service projects, documentaries, and engineering challenges. As startup co-founder, I’ve used the design thinking cycle for product development. As an author, it’s a framework I use for publishing. In other words, it’s incredibly adaptable.

The LAUNCH Cycle

So, here’s a description of the design thinking cycle that AJ Juliani and I developed and included in our book Launch: Using the Design Thinking Process to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student. Note that we added a final phase that’s often missing from design thinking models. It’s the idea of launching. It’s the belief that after students have designed their work, they should send it to an authentic audience.

Although there are many models for design thinking, we have developed the student-friendly LAUNCH Cycle. We added a few components, including inquiry and research and we broadened the starting place from empathy to awareness, so that students could begin with a passion, an interest, a problem, or the observation of a phenomenon (sometimes the empathy comes later in the process).

We also created an acronym to help make it easier to remember:

L: Look, Listen, and Learn
In the first phase, students look, listen, and learn.The goal here is awareness. It might be a sense of wonder at a process or an awareness of a problem or a sense of empathy toward an audience.

A: Ask Tons of Questions
Sparked by curiosity, students move to the second phase, where they ask tons of questions.

U: Understanding the Process or Problem
This leads to understanding the process or problem through an authentic research experience. They might conduct interviews or needs assessments, research articles, watch videos, or analyze data.

N: Navigate Ideas
Students apply that newly acquired knowledge to potential solutions. In this phase, they navigate ideas. Here they not only brainstorm, but they also analyze ideas, combine ideas, and generate a concept for what they will create.

C: Create a Prototype
In this next phase, they create a prototype. It might be a digital work or a tangible product, a work of art or something they engineer. It might even be an action or an event or a system.

H: Highlight and Fix
Next, they begin to highlight what’s working and fix what’s failing. The goal here is to view this revision process as an experiment full of iterations, where every mistake takes them closer to success.

Launch to an Audience 
Then, when it’s done, it’s ready to launch. In the launch phase, they send it to an authentic audience. They share their work with the world!


Note that there are many different design thinking frameworks out there and there is nothing wrong with the other models. A.J. and I both developed the LAUNCH framework because of our own experiences in working with students. But if another model works best for you, use that.

When to Use Design Thinking

Design thinking can happen in any subject and in any classroom. However, it works best with standards or learning targets that:

  • Allow students to own the entire process
  • Have some sort of finished product that they create
  • Include an element of research, ideation (brainstorming and planning) and creativity
  • Provide an authentic audience
  • Incorporate a realistic context. In other words, you can’t do something where the context seems distant, fake, or phony.

When I taught math, for example, linear equations didn’t fit well with design thinking. While we engaged in some creative projects (like our Bad Graph mini-project or our cost comparison challenges) the standards didn’t fit well with inquiry, ideation, and prototyping. By contrast, when we learned about probability, we were able to use design thinking to create marketable board games and when we studied statistics, we integrated it into a service learning project (involving Needs Assessments, budgeting, statistical research, etc.) We used proportional reasoning, volume, and surface area for our Tiny House Projects:

We were able to do a project centered around budgeting and another one using proportional reasoning, volume, and surface area (creating eco-friendly homes).


Design Thinking Examples in Each Subject Area

The following are some examples of classroom projects that use design thinking:

  • Reading: Book Blog, CuriosityCast (an inquiry-based podcast), note that just about every design thinking project includes reading in the research phase
  • Writing: Student Blog, Class Online Magazine, NaNoWriMo (writing a novel in a month)
  • Social Studies: Service Learning Project, Historical Documentary Project, Whiteboard Video (similar to RSA Animate), History-Themed Blogs, History-Themed Theater Production (using design thinking to build empathy with the audience)
  • Economics: Create a Product (similar to Shark Tank) Projects, Mock Entrepreneurial Teams
  • Math: Create a Board Game, inclusion of math integration into project budgeting, creating an eco-friendly home, creating a Scratch game
  • Science: Solar Energy Designs, Engineering Projects, Science Fair
  • PE: Design a Sport, Create a Fitness Campaign
  • Art: Class Art Magazine, service-oriented art projects, visual design in a Shark-Tank style project
  • Music: Music Video Projects
  • Foreign Language: Design-oriented Tutorial Partnerships (where students work with refugees to create video tutorials for aspects of American life and then learn and practice the language as a result)
  • Computers: Scratch project (designing a video game), Multimedia Composition Projects, Digital Product Cycle

These are just some of the ways that I have seen design thinking used in various subject areas at all grade levels. Because design thinking is not tied to a specific subject, you can easily find specific standards that fit within the framework.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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