For the last 12 years, I’ve used design thinking as a teacher, an author, an educational technology startup founder and an artist. I’ve used in in the non-profit world in program development and I’m currently using it right now as I lead a team of faculty in building a Blended Learning Academy for professors. It’s a flexible process that I’ve used in nearly all the projects I’ve done over the last fifteen years. As I’ve worked with schools, districts, and organizations, certain questions have come up around design thinking. I figured I would answer these questions in one blog post and continue adding to it over time.

1. 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.

AJ Juliani and I developed the LAUNCH Cycle as a part of our upcoming book Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in All Students  Our model varies slightly from the Stanford dSchool and the IDEO models. We added a phase for inquiry-driven research as well as a final phase where students launch their work to the world. But here’s what it looks like:

Check out the video below:

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2. How do you find time in your schedule to use design thinking? 

Design thinking doesn’t require any extra time, because it isn’t a content area. You don’t need to teach a design thinking class or course. Instead, it’s a framework you can use in any subject area. That being said, the process can vary from a single day (rapid prototyping) to months. It really depends upon the standard you are teaching. I’ve had success doing two different types of hands-on design thinking projects. One of them is shorter and the other is longer:

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3. What do I do if I don’t have the technology?

Technology can be a powerful way to share your process and your product with the world. In many cases, you can leverage technology to do things that were previously unimaginable. However, there are times when technology can actually get in the way. Sometimes cardboard and duct tape work better than a 3D printer.

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4. How do I tie the standards into a design thinking project?

You have two different approaches that work here. The first is to find standards that will encourage creative thinking and allow students to create products that matter to them. For example, when I taught social studies, design thinking worked well with the documentary project and the shark tank project. However, I’m not sure that design thinking would have worked as well in our World War I unit, where it was more of an immersive experience with a lot of discussion and debate.

An alternative approach you can take is to develop a design thinking unit and then find the standards that correspond to what students are doing. So, when they do research, you find the research standards in the ELA standards. When they launch, you look for the publishing standards.

5. Is design thinking something you use all the time?

There is a common trend out there to take a great idea and use it at all times in every subject. I’ve seen schools switch to being “design-based” and incorporating design thinking for everything. I disagree with this approach. There are times when students should be designing products and going through the entire cycle. However, there are other times when they should simply make something without going through the entire process. So, design thinking might work for creating a book but isn’t necessary for writing a single blog post.

In addition, I actually don’t want students spending the entire day making stuff. I think there is value in being critical consumers. I want students to be consuming things and solving things and debating about things without necessarily designing something in the process. In fact, you run the risk of promoting pseudo-context when you use design thinking when the audience, product, or scenario aren’t actually authentic. You see this when kids do things like cereal box book reports.

6. Does design thinking work with all subject areas?

I used design thinking with my students when I taught self-contained (the same students for all subjects) in the years that I taught both ELL and Gifted. Students used design thinking in every subject area. Students used design thinking in math as they invented their board games and arcades. They used it often in science as they experimented. They used it in economics when we invented products and in language arts when they filmed documentaries and created media packages.

7. Can design thinking work with any age?

I have seen design thinking work well in kindergarten classes and doctorate classes. Obviously, the approach will vary. You want to remain developmentally appropriate. However, children are naturally creative and the design thinking framework provides a structure that allows this creativity to thrive.

8. How is this different from project-based learning?

Project-based learning doesn’t necessarily revolve around designing a specific product. In many cases, it is centered on a passion or a single project or a scenario. While the models often overlap and you can easily integrate design thinking into project-based learning, the frameworks have a different focus and a different framework.

9. How can I test out design thinking in a day?

You can join us for the Global Day of Design. It’s a one-day experience where you can connect with others around the world who will be doing the same thing in their classrooms. Hundreds of classes have already signed up.

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Launch Into Design Thinking

Want to get started with design thinking? Check out this page with free articles, videos, and resources. Also, check out the toolkit below.

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John Spencer

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.More about me


  • Gillian Stratton says:

    I love all of these videos and want to share them with my staff. Would you mind if I put links to them on my Professional Educators Blog?
    (Yes, I’m on the computer even though I’m not supposed to be. It is mighty challenging to take a technology class and be disallowed from the computer)

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