Design Thinking and School Change

I recently facilitated a discussion on design thinking at EdCampPDX. Design thinking is a process for solving problems promoted by IDEO and Stanford’s, among others. The design process includes the following steps:

  • Interviewing users
  • Seeking themes in identified issues
  • Brainstorming solutions while reserving judgment
  • Prototyping and revision

Our discussion group explored the potential of design thinking for student instruction, technology innovation, and school management. The discussion quickly turned to the question of school change — how may a school broadly adopt innovative forms of teaching and management such as design thinking? One school leader expressed concern that students would be less prepared for college admissions as a result of such a change in instructional methods. Others in the group advocated for instructional innovation and risk-taking.

This debate happens frequently when discussing innovation, and school change is difficult to lead. It feels safer to continue to practice the current methods that to try something new, because the promise for improvement is only theoretical, and others have to buy into the change for it to succeed.

At the same time, I left this discussion with a new idea; that design thinking itself could help an instructional team build support for design thinking and other educational innovations. That is, the protocol for discussing design thinking should itself model the design thinking process.

Let us interview students directly and find out whether they are actually passionate about their studies or rather just “doing school” (Pope). Let us seek themes in identified issues to find the problems for which solutions would most benefit students.

When considering possibilities for change, let us set a protocol to reserve judgment and only build on others’ ideas. Nothing kills a discussion more quickly than a veteran teacher standing up to denounce a new idea when it has only just been proposed.

Let us prototype design thinking as an instructional method within our school, with small groups or short units in the year, collect feedback on prototype performance, revise, and try again. Let us evaluate the potential of an idea not just by discussing it but by trying it.



  1. “the protocol for discussing design thinking should itself model the design thinking process.”

    Right on. That’s the beautiful recursion that Engelbart describes as “bootstrapping.” It’s the “going meta” that Bruner talks about. It’s the “meta-medium” level I’m trying to articulate.

    I love thinking about the word itself: “de-sign.” Such a rich word.

    Excellent thoughts! Thanks.

  2. Richard says:

    Thank you for the kind comments, Gardner.