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Thinking about design thinking in education

We may not know what the future has in store, but as teachers we need to prepare students to thrive in it.

Our world as we know it today will not be the same in the future, nor will the trends regarding people’s jobs. Some jobs will emerge into different ones, some will disappear altogether and some will be newly created to cater for the needs of the future society. It is predicted that almost two-thirds of today’s kindergarten students will eventually have occupations that don’t currently exist.

Since we cannot accurately predict which jobs are to offer students more guarantees for success, we can only help our learners be as prepared as they possibly can for the challenges that follow.

Teachers need to empower students and shape them into human beings adjustable to the labor markets which may take some of them by surprise. So, preparing students only for a set of skills needed in specific fields will not be the solution. They need to develop skills such as adaptability and creativity in order to face the challenges of technological and scientific advances that are easy to foresee.

Design thinking can give a helping hand in this challenge.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a process comprising the necessary steps towards the best prototype to be implemented in any field. It takes five steps to design such a prototype, but that’s not all. One has to repeat the whole process multiple times or iterate one of the steps several times to reach the final design. So, it will not necessarily be a linear process due to the challenges one will face.

There is no one solution for designing models, nor one supreme framework. Everyone will be the creator of their own prototype, shaping it according to their own style and mindset, making it their own innovative design.

The five steps of design thinking in any field of knowledge are:

  • Empathize — getting to know the people you are working with and their needs
  • Define — naming the problems
  • Ideate — naming solutions to the problems
  • Prototype — narrowing the solutions to a representation of ideas
  • Test — submitting the idea to the test

These steps are not automatically followed by implementation. The process of finding the best alternative involves taking feedback into account and adjusting the plan where necessary.

Design thinking in education

The steps mentioned above can be successfully applied to the educational system as follows:


Knowing your students and understanding their needs, their motivation, their setbacks, allows teachers to design the right lessons for them. To empathize, teachers need to observe their students behavior to try to correlate what they say with what they do, which, more often than not, do not coincide. Then, educators have to engage students in the classroom activities by involving them in the learning process, making them more responsible for their own education, even allowing them to be decision-makers. Teachers should watch and listen more, letting students reveal what they know, what they struggle with and what their needs are.


Next, teachers gather every information received through empathy and define the challenges they face. The purpose of this step is to express a “meaningful and actionable problem statement” called a point of view, which synthesizes everything teachers know about their learners so far.


After analyzing all the data and defining the problem, educators have to come up with a solution. Creating a list of How-might-we…? will make it easier for teachers to respond to students’ challenges and find the right idea to put to practice by going deeper than discovering the obvious solution.


It’s a plan a teacher makes to meet students needs which will be put to the test and changed or adapted as a consequence of students’ feedback. This stage implies testing a variety of possibilities and not committing to one direction only.


This represents the real testing phase which takes place with the purpose of refining the ‘prototypes’ teachers create, learning more about their students, being able to present ‘the point of view’ more accurately. Educators take into account the feedback they receive, make the changes needed and test their prototype again until they reach the best variation they can find to suit their students’ needs.

Design thinking resources for educators

When teachers become agents of change leading their efforts towards innovations, that’s when design thinking is at its best. It is a mindset of being able to take action and create a better future in education and beyond.

Design thinking is human-centered, it challenges problem-solving, it tackles real-world issues providing students with meaningful work, it develops their abilities to empathize with others, to define problems, take the necessary steps towards finding a viable solution.

Teachers who choose design thinking should consider the following:

  • Be willing to deal with uncertainty;
  • Give up control;
  • Show flexibility;
  • Lead with empathy;
  • Foster students’ individual creativity;
  • Don’t assume things, test them first;
  • ‘Failing forward’ is a real motto;
  • Do it now, adapt & adjust later;
  • Discover-Interpret-Brainstorm-Experiment.

If you are trying to understand more on this topic, IDEO have created a toolkit for educators covering the most important aspects of design thinking and how it can help teachers design meaningful solutions in their classrooms and schools.

There are also many more resources one can find online on the subject.

More on design thinking

The design thinking process has sparkled a lot of contradictory opinions. Some see only the benefits, others focus on the setbacks, but you should make an informed decision on your position on the matter.

Here are some conclusions educators have drawn:


  • It’s an inclusive design (both creators and users work together for the same goals).
  • It facilitates problem synthesis (by discovering the cause).
  • It generates diverse ideas.
  • It’s low risk (nothing is built and spent, only ideas).


  • It lacks critical thinking (because it’s a linear process following a pattern).
  • It has become a buzzword (a trend that due to its rising popularity will fall under attack and eventually disappear not being relevant for the future).

Final thoughts

Whatever your take is on design thinking, try to consider the approach from the perspective of the student whose needs should be met during the educational process. It’s our duty as educators to try and find the suitable way of teaching with the sole purpose in mind of shaping creative and empathic human beings capable of tackling future problems. Personalized learning through design thinking will give students meaningful tasks to solve and develop skills relevant for the social challenges ahead.

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