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Design thinking in education

By Joel Adams,

Classrooms and schools across the world are facing design challenges every single day, from teacher feedback systems to daily schedules. Wherever they fall on the spectrum of scale – the challenges educators are confronted with are real, complex, and varied. And as such, they require new perspectives, new tools, and new approaches. Design Thinking is one of them.[1]

Design thinking (DT) is quickly becoming the hip, hot, shiny new tool for educators.[2] Which is strange if you think about it. After all, as a concept — or, depending on who you ask: a process, a mindset or even a way of life — DT can trace its origins to the heady world of late 1960s architects, urban planners and engineers.

After a detour through the esoteric high-tech orbits of guru-geniuses in Silicon Valley and some of the more creative spaces of the corporate world, design thinking has finally made its way to the classroom.

But what does design thinking offer us as educators? Is it just the newest buzzword on the ed-block or might it (just actually) help inform, change and shape our pedagogy in 2017?

Ask any design thinker where to begin and they will always say: start with people.

Design thinking is fundamentally a people-centered and people-oriented process that believes in the value and experiences of users. Think of any type of organization, product or space — from a business office to a website to a classroom. Each one of these “things” has users.

These are the people who click the links, post on the message boards, answer the phones, send the emails, hold and plan the meetings. Or, closer to home, users are the people who design the syllabi, choose the teaching materials, create the presentation and arrange the seats. In a classroom, the users are also the students who sit in those seats, complete the assignments and (hopefully!) listen to the presentations.

Design thinking asks us to consider the needs, experiences, ideas and challenges of all users. Once one of those challenges is identified design thinkers then work together to creatively envision, imagine, build, test and evolve possible solutions.

Some of that last bit points to some of the more established processes at the heart of design thinking. A few of those early tech gurus, engineers and design visionaries pooled their resources in the 1990s and founded IDEO. IDEO is a Palo Alto-based international consulting and design firm with roots in both business and education.[3] They are also on the forefront of design thinking.

IDEO and its offshoots have developed a series of best practices for design thinking — a kind of DT toolbox — that can help the rest of us move from talking about the challenges we see to actually fixing them.[4]

Here’s one version of how to get from A to B according to DT:


Begin by listening. And looking. And asking questions.  Trust the users of any system to know their stuff.  Collect evidence, anecdotes, testimonials.  What do these users want?  What slows them down or trips them up during a particular process, activity or assignment.


Hopefully, you took some notes, made some outlines, snapped some pics.  Gather all of these stories, post-its and images together and work on defining a key challenge or problem for your users.  It can be a big problem or a little problem — but however you frame it, your problem should be defined in such a way as to allow multiple (sometimes seemingly contradictory) solutions.


This is a fancy term for brainstorming. As educators, we do this nearly everyday — both with ourselves and other teachers as well as with our students.  And you know the rules of brainstorming — every idea or possible solution should be collected, documented and explored.  Sometimes one idea can become the genesis for another.  Write them down, talk them out and see what sticks.


This is where design thinking really takes shape — literarily.  Now that you have all of these wonderful ideas it’s time to build, visualize and make some of them.  Prototyping is the process of taking an initial idea or solution and creating the minimally viable working version of that idea.  This can be a curricular model or map, a new seating arrangement or a just-barely-functional website.


No, not the scary multiple choice kind.  Testing is all about feeding your prototypes back into the system.  Let your users try out the possible solutions.  Do they work?  Was the initial challenge addressed?  Is this solution sustainable?  Does it meet the originally collected needs and desires of your users?  If so — great news!  If not … try another prototype, ideate some more, listen and look again.  And repeat.

Here at the IB, many of us — from program coordinators, curriculum managers, ed-tech developers and more — have been implementing some of design thinking’s best practices throughout the organization.  Over the next few months, we would like to share some of our DT stories with you.  But we would also like to hear from you as well.  Are you using design thinking in your schools, programmes and classrooms?  Send us your story and we will share it with the wider IB community.

[1] “Design Thinking « Design Thinking for Educators.” Design Thinking « Design Thinking for Educators. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

[2]For instance, see “Design thinking.” Innovating Pedagogy 2016. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

[3] For more about IDEO check out their website at

[4]In fact, IDEO has created an educator’s design toolkit located at  But IDEO isn’t the only DT game in town.  Check out how Google is implementing DT through its sprint structure at:

Joel Adams is a DP Curriculum Manager for Visual arts and information technology in a global society at the IB Global Centre, The Hague, Netherlands. Keep an eye out as more design thinking in educations posts are to follow. 

If you enjoyed this article, you may like to read about how IB World Schools are using design thinking to bring learning to life.