Getting Started with Design Thinking in the Classroom

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.

This is why A.J. Juliani and I developed the LAUNCH Cycle. It’s a design thinking framework specifically tailored to K-12 classrooms that you can use at any grade level. Think of it this way. Making is the mindset. Design thinking is the process. The LAUNCH Cycle is the framework.

mindset process framework

Every Child Is a Maker

I believe that every classroom should be filled with creativity and wonder. I want to see teachers unleash the creative potential in all of their students so that kids can be makers, designers, artists, and engineers.

I realize that school can be busy. Materials can be scarce. The creative process can seem confusing, especially when you have a tight curriculum map. So creativity becomes a side project, an enrichment activity you get to when you have time for it. But the thing is, there’s never enough time.

We can do better.

I am convinced that creative thinking is as vital as math or reading or writing. There’s power in problem-solving and experimenting and taking things from questions to ideas to authentic products that you launch to the world. Something happens in students when they define themselves as makers and inventors and creators.

I believe all students deserve the opportunity to be their best creative selves, both in and out of school. I believe all kids are unique, authentic, and destined to be original.

I have a crazy belief that all people are naturally creative.  Too many people have believed the lie that there are certain “creative types” who are the exception to the rule. This is why I believe in design thinking as a powerful process for helping students embrace a maker mindset and recover this sense of creative wonder.

What Is Design Thinking?

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 a flexible process for getting the most out of the creative process. It is used in the arts, in engineering, in the corporate world, at universities, 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. It can even be used in planning events or in designing services.

When students use design thinking, they are more likely to develop a maker mindset and when that happens, you see this . . .

when students embrace design thinking.001

Isn’t that what we want for our students? Isn’t this what we mean when we talk about students as passionate, creative, lifelong learners? And is this what it looks like when we talk about preparing kids for the creative economy of the future? But how do we actually make this happen?

The Student-Friendly LAUNCH Cycle

For the last 12 years, I’ve used design thinking. As a teacher, I used it for everything from coding projects to service projects to documentaries to engineering challenges. As startup co-founder, we used the design thinking cycle for product development. As an author, it’s a framework I use for publishing. However, as a teacher, I realized that design thinking needed to be relevant, developmentally-appropriate, and simple enough that any child could use it.

A.J. Juliani and I realized the need for a student-friendly design thinking framework tailored specifically for a K-12 environment. We both had spent over a decade using design thinking and we had each added a few innovations, including an inquiry phase, a research phase, and a launch phase. After testing this out in multiple classrooms, we finalized the LAUNCH Cycle.

You can read all about it in our book Launch: Using the Design Thinking Process to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student

We 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!

Getting Started with Design Thinking in the Classroom

The following is a series I created on design thinking. Note that I continue to update this and revise this, so be sure to bookmark this page an come back to revisit it periodically.

Part One: An Overview of Design Thinking

Part Two: The LAUNCH Cycle

Part Three: Taking the Leap

The FREE Design Thinking Toolkit and Maker Project

Curious about design thinking?This toolkit provides a set of free, out-of-the-box resources you can use from day one. Simply fill out the form on the left and the entire toolkit will be sent to your inbox. You’ll also be enrolled in the Creative Classroom newsletter. The toolkit includes:

1. Getting Started with Design Thinking: a comprehensiveeBook explaining the LAUNCH Cycle

2. The LAUNCH Cycle Video

3. A free maker project that you can adapt to your K-12 classrooom

4. The Creative Classroom Assessment toolbox, complete with nine assessments you can integrate intoa design thinking project