What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a methodology for developing innovative solutions to real world, human-centered needs, drawing on interdisciplinary skills. It’s been lauded and embraced by businesses and social entrepreneurs globally for its power to tackle seemingly intractable problems in fields as diverse as healthcare, transportation, and government.  So why can’t we use it try to improve K-12 education?

A prime example of design thinking in action comes from Embrace, a product born out of Stanford University. A team of graduate students used design thinking to address the issue of infant mortality in the developing world. 20 million premature and low birth rate babies are born in each year, 99% of which occur in low-income countries. Of those, 4 million will die within the first month of life, while those who survive face lifelong health problems. The students initially thought that the obvious solution was low-cost incubators. However, when observing and interviewing healthcare workers in Nepal, they noticed many unused incubators and learned that many of the premature births occur in rural villages a day-long trip away from the nearest health care center. This powerful insight led them to realize that low-cost incubators would have little impact as they solve the wrong problem. They reframed their challenge to design a low-cost, portable way to maintain a baby’s temperature without electricity. Through ideation, prototyping, and testing, the team created Embrace, an infant warmer resembling a miniature sleeping bag that costs $25, an extremely affordable alternative to the $20,000 of a traditional hospital incubator. The students took Embrace to market where it’s been distributed widely among the developing world, helping over 10,000 babies in over 10 countries as of  July 2013.  (For more about Embrace, please visit their website here)

In a K-12 setting, design thinking can take a number of forms.  Wherever there is a need, there is an opportunity to design a creative solution.  That could be:  How might we redesign our classroom?  How might we solve a character’s dilemma in literature?  How might we build structures for plants with certain constraints?  How might we invent games for our friends?  How might we increase safety on the playground?  How might we improve the school lunch experience?  How might we redesign homework?  The list is endless!  Challenges can be large or small in scale, and cross and integrate curricular subjects.

Design thinking can support student learning and curricular planning through interdisciplinary activities. It supports Common Core State Standards of school and career readiness, and increases student motivation and engagement by taking a hands-on approach to real-world challenges. Through design thinking, students learn 21st century skills for learning and innovation, including critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.  Its greatest distinguishing feature from other similar curricular approaches (such as project-based learning) and methodologies (such as the scientific method) is its foundation in empathy to drive innovation.

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (d.school) defined the process of design thinking as an arc of stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.  Those stages are further explained in the figure below, as shared with our students.

dt copy

an introduction we share with students (click to enlarge)

The d.school also defined several key “d.mindsets” essential to fully engage with the immersive process. These d.mindsets are: Show Don’t Tell, Focus on Human Values, Embrace Experimentation, Bias Toward Action, Craft Clarity, Be Mindful of Process, and Radical Collaboration.

For a more thorough introduction to design thinking, please check out the d.school’s “Bootcamp Bootleg”, available here.


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