Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a human-centered, inquiry-based mindset and process we engage in to learn the thinking skills necessary to solve complex and real-world problems. When engaging in a Design Thinking mindset, it is possible to solve large, complex problems with innovative solutions. The process values critical thinking and human connection, or the WHY for the learning, over the end product, or the WHAT. The process is non-linear, wherein the components can be used interchangeably.     

While there are many inquiry based processes that are used throughout education, Design Thinking has the unique ability to work within many of the inquiry approaches. Its human-centered approach includes:

  • Problem-focused process
  • Opportunity for Novel Solutions
  • Collaboration throughout Process
  • Feedback and Reflection Loop
  • Demonstration of Learning
  • Opportunity for connections beyond classroom walls ​​


Because Design Thinking is a human-centered, inquiry-based mindset, engaging in Design Thinking is about much more than building a prototype, or creating a project. It’s about changing how we look at a problem so that we can better address it. To help facilitate that shift, outlined are four different ways in which design thinking methodologies can be used within the scope of the classroom.


Engaging students in the individual components of the Design Thinking process (for example: focusing on empathy building activities) helps students build capacity to think critically. Exploration can introduce students to the Design Thinking cycle without being confined to standards or the need for an end product. 


These experiences are designed around specific grade-level standards. The goal is to apply grade-level standards to design potential solutions supported by research of a current need and/or challenge. This builds a greater understanding of the world around us, and how content learning connects with that world.

Context/Issue Driven

Context or Issue Driven experiences are responsive to a current need/challenge in society, such as a natural disaster or homelessness. Although the students will learn standards/content within the experience, the focus is on thinking critically about a real world challenge or need. 


Some experiences lead to opportunities for student advocacy. For example, following a Design Thinking unit on “Tiny Homes” for urban sustainability, a group of students presented their findings to the City Council to advocate for an initiative proposed by the city council to build affordable tiny homes.

Design Thinking Elements

Objective: “Seek to Understand” in order to see a problem or need from multiple perspectives.

A first step toward building empathy includes the skills of observing and actively listening. Much can be learned through observation. Observation includes listening with our eyes, ears, and heart. Often people will say one thing, but a keen observer will find that actually the behavior is different. Active listening and curiosity are practiced and enhanced through direct lessons and extensive practice. Students become proficient interviewers who recognize the power of beginning questions with the word “Why.” In addition to conducting interviews, students will identify experts and perform online research to learn new information, locate resources, and answer questions. After collecting information and immersing themselves in the experiences of a user, students develop a deeper understanding that can lead to key insights.

Objective: Determine a clear problem or need that is broad enough to allow for innovation, yet narrow enough to allow for success.

Finding opportunities to engage in design challenges often comes from noticing problems. By focusing on particular user types and their needs, along with information gleaned through observations, interviews, and research, students will define a problem broad enough to explore new thinking and narrow enough to make the topic manageable. Solving even a small part of a large issue is worth the effort. In order to frame the problem optimistically and as a possibility, it is important to rewrite a problem statement into a “How might we” question. Additionally, developing a needs statement supports students with identifying the underlying problem.

Objective: Effective brainstorming supports individuals and teams with “turning off their judging brains” and increasing the fluency of their ideas.

Brainstorming is a set of skills as well as a mindset. Students benefit from exposure to different methods of analyzing and making decisions. Brainstorming is most effective when opportunities to diverge and converge thoughts are provided. Keep in mind that the goal isn’t the perfect idea, it’s lots of ideas, collaboration, and openness to wild solutions. When brainstorming, consider the following norms in order to maintain a generative mindset: Defer judgment; Encourage wild ideas; Build on the ideas of others; Stay focused on the topic; One conversation at at time; Be visual; Go for quantity.

Objective: Experimentation brings your ideas to life. Building prototypes means making ideas tangible in order to share them with other people.

The Design Thinking process embodies a “bias towards action.” By making representations of ideas, problems can be identified and resolved early in the design cycle. Tangible objects or simulated experiences allow students to obtain more informed feedback from users before committing the time and resources to a final version.

Objective: Sharing prototypes with others allows individuals and teams to see what really matters to people in order to further improve and refine an idea.

Seeking feedback from users is a key aspect of the Design Thinking process. There are many factors that go into a person’s response to an item or an experience. Designers bring an open mind and a beginner’s mindset of “not knowing” in order to gather both positive and negative feedback to improve their solutions. Experimentation as well as failures are valued for their information and because they contribute to future successes. Students evaluate all of the feedback they have obtained about their prototypes. Combining this information with additional research and brainstorming, they decide how best to proceed. Should we change our prototype? Have we answered the key questions? Do we need more information? Do we need more ideas? Should we scrap this and start over?

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