Launching into Design Thinking

I read Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student when it first came out, but at the time, it wasn’t as relevant to the work I was doing as Director of Educational Technology. In that role, I was not able to fully immerse myself in transforming classroom learning practices.  However, in my new role, Design Thinking plays a huge role in bringing our core principles of student agency, collaboration, personalization, and cultural intelligence to life. Therefore, I decided to crack the book open one more time and look for nuggets of wisdom I could share with teachers partaking in the revolution to making learning relevant, meaningful, and deep.


From “Getting Started with Design Thinking in the Classroom” blog post by John Spencer

“Creativity is a process that requires structure. The word structure gets a bad rap as being part of some sort of rigid process that takes away from authentic and creative learning. That’s simply not the case” (p. 23).
For teachers new to Design Thinking, they often jump to connecting it to makerspaces, which may then trigger images of students building cardboard arcades and toilet paper roll robots. For others, it triggers anxiety around loss of time management, or no academic instruction. But when design thinking is used with intention, structures such as thinking routines, time constraints, and feedback loops support students through the process.

“Too many educators believe they lost their creativity – or that they were never creative in the first place. Maybe they stopped creating because they didn’t think they had the time, energy, or mental capacity for new ideas. We don’t buy it. Not creating is a choice – and a poor choice at that. And in truth, every time you come up with a new idea for a lesson, you are creating. Every time you think of a way to handle that super-challenging student, you are creating. Every time you collaborate with a colleague, design your classroom, set up the desks in a new way, or do something different – you are creating!” (p. 31)
Honestly, I think this is the most important paragraph in the book. We often talk about the need to empower students with the soft skills needed for success, and creativity is one of those skills. But what we neglect to consider is that, for many teachers, creativity was stifled under No Child Left Behind, Program Improvement, and other high stakes accountability system. They lost their mojo, so to speak. So as we encourage them to open the doors to new experiences for students, we need to also remind them of the creative nature they already posses and find ways to nurture their innate abilities.

“Creative classrooms are the ones where students are able to question answers as often as they answer questions” (p. 100). And along those lines, “You cannot empower students to be self-directed, responsible, critical-thinking people if they can’t ask their own questions. At that point, you’re teaching compliance rather than responsibility” (p. 106).
In a previous district, we spent three years of instructional rounds looking for effective questioning strategies. This focus meant that a lot of our energy was spent watching for teacher moves that provided opportunities for multiple student voices; observing DOK levels of the questions asked; and watching for a variety of ways in which students respond to the questions. What was missing from this entire dialogue was the opportunity for students to feel empowered to ask their own questions, to dig into meaning that was relevant to them.

Other items I appreciated in the book:

John and AJ discuss how empathy is not always about a specific audience. Sometimes, industry designers base their work on awareness, which can involve empathy, but may also include “a personal awareness of a process, a system, or a phenomenon. [It] can be scientific or artistic, social or economic, human centered or systems centered” (p. 69). Opening empathy up to a broader context helps teachers and students better identify the purpose for engaging in the design thinking process.

When I attended Harvard’s Project Zero last summer, I was fortunate to meet and learn from Edward Clapp, a Project Zero Project Director. Clapp discusses the biography of an idea, which John and AJ mention in their book as well. They quote Clapp:

“What if instead of telling the biographies of individuals who are widely seen as creative geniuses, we tell the biography of the ideas that they are most known for? For example, what if instead of telling the biography of Albert Einstein, we told the biography of the Special Theory of Relativity? We would tell the biography of that idea, highlighting all the different players who have historically participated in the development of that idea, the different roles those individuals have played, and the different twists and turns that idea has taken as it has wended its way to the world” (p. 147-8).

“Seven Reasons Why Kids Should Learn Marketing” is something I had not considered. Sure, we do elevator pitches with students and talk about audience awareness, but John and AJ write that students who learn marketing from a marketer’s perspective “grow as critical consumers while learning what it means to share their work with an authentic audience” (p.197). Their reasons why, which include learning about rejection and growing in creative confidence, also support the soft skill acquisition students need to succeed in the world.


For the teacher who is dabbling in design thinking, or PBL, or genius hour, this book provides strategies and examples that will build teacher confidence in the process while engaging students in meaningful work. I appreciate the website connection which provides tangible projects, structures, and questions to guide teachers through design thinking. It’s a nice gateway before digging into the world of IDEO, Stanford, and others.

Learn more about the work we are doing with Design Thinking on our website:

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One Comment on “Launching into Design Thinking

  1. Pingback: Bringing the Invention Cycle to Design Thinking – Igniting Awe in Learning

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