How to Launch “Design Thinking” in Your Classroom or Home

“The single best step I took to get students engaged in my classroom,” said one faculty member, “was to move from my typical lesson plan to using design thinking.”

Have you tried “design thinking?”

It’s a practice that’s gaining interest among educators, coaches and even parents across our nation. I have advocated for it for years now, believing it made the difference for me as an instructor, trainer, parent and leader of students. According to Mary Ellen Flannery of the National Education Association, “At the heart of design thinking are students trying to solve problems that affect people. Those people may be fictional characters in a novel, or they might be their community’s very real homeless adults. The process requires students to interview others about their needs, or to ask themselves what it’s like to be that person, the client or ‘end user.’”

High school teacher Dan Ryder says, “The secret sauce is the empathy piece. It’s the idea that students are attempting to solve problems—real problems—with their brainpower, and that their level of success depends on how well they serve the needs of others.”

The root of design thinking goes back centuries, as the best mentors and teachers always began with questions about real world problems, not merely theories from a text book. However, its recent popularity stems from Stanford University and their “” Laura McBain, is the director of K12 community and implementation at K12 lab in Stanford University’s She says, “The human-centered piece is probably the most profound and important thing we do as educators. It allows students to think about the challenges the world is facing and puts them in the driver’s seat to be really engaged to solve those problems to feel empowered to change the world.”

I agree. Suddenly, school becomes real for students, not merely hypotheses and facts to be memorized. And it actually prepares them for a well-lived life. 

Design thinking is a mindset. It begins with empathy and ends with problem solving.

Five Steps in Design Thinking

So how might you begin to implement design thinking in your work with students? It can begin with students noticing a problem in their school or even their own classroom. Or it may start with observing the property next to the school campus or down the street. It might be a social problem in their city, or somewhere in the country, such as the Flint, Michigan (clean water) or Houston, Texas (flooding water problems). In any case, students actually read up and research the problem. Then, they begin to problem solve as if they were the ones in charge of it. Here is the simple five-step approach popularized at Stanford’s

1. Choose and define the problem.

As a group, students must first decide on what problem most needs to be solved and which one they are best equipped to address. It can be a campus, local, regional, national or global issue that captures their attention. This fosters engagement.

2. Brainstorm and ideate multiple solutions.

This is where the “metacognition” process begins, when students stop looking to a teacher, parent or coach to come up with the answer and simply tell them. Instead, they get creative and begin a list of their own potential answers.

3. Prototype the best solution.

Next, they must test one of those solutions to see if it’s relevant and helpful. This is a maturing process that forces students to move from idealism to realism. They must think through all the possible outcomes that might happen.

4. Test the solution once you’ve tried it.

Now, they must actually try it out and see if there’s any hope that the idea might solve the problem in a beta test. This goes far beyond the “story problems” our math teachers used to give us. It involves applying knowledge to real life.

5. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t work and why.

Finally, critical thinking skills develop as students reflect on why or why didn’t their solutions work on the problem. In a way, students give themselves their own “exam” on their project and decide how successful they’ve been.

I love how design thinking makes subjects like math, science or social studies come alive because they become real, not just facts in a textbook to memorize. Probably the best news is, “design thinking” builds what educators call the “4 Cs” of 21st century skills: creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. It cultivates both hard and soft skills students will need as adults, and it frequently beckons students to think and act like leaders. It’s a win/win situation.

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How to Launch “Design Thinking” in Your Classroom or Home