Why use Design Thinking?

This blogpost is the second in a series of five where I intend on exploring Design Thinking in an education context. I want to come back to the questions we have about design thinking when we’re first starting out. I want to think about what design thinking is, why we might use design thinking, how we can use design thinking in schools, where to go for resources and help, and finally, how design thinking can transform our schools.

So if we’ve established a bit of a common understanding of what Design Thinking really is, and remember the ‘sound bite’ from last week was: “Design Thinking is an approach to learning that focuses on developing children’s creative confidence through hands-on projects that focus on empathy, promoting a bias toward action, encouraging ideation and fostering active problem-solving…” (Kwek, 2011, p. 4let’s now turn our attention to why we might embrace a design thinking approach to teaching and learning. What might it offer our learners?

Perhaps the place to start is with the idea of ‘21st century’ skills, a phrase which is a bit amorphous, but is often used as an umbrella term for the kinds of skills that educationalists, researchers and future thinkers regard as being key for our current (and future) learners in order for them to be active and aware citizens. These 21st century skills are sometimes alliteratively grouped as three or four Cs: creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration.

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As a group works through a design thinking process using the design thinking mindsets, they cannot help but hit all four of these Cs in a meaningful way. There will be the collaboration of the group itself as they work iteratively through the framework. Many proponents of design thinking actively encourage diverse groupings in order to encompass a variety of voices and of perspectives. Collaboration cannot be done without communication. Additionally, there will be communication with the users, the people for whom the design solution is being sought. Empathy building will require some kind of interview, survey, research – or all three – to be conducted. This also draws on critical thinking, particularly as the group moves from an immersion to an ideation phase. Synthesising a wealth of information requires a hugely critical eye. Finally, one of the reasons I personally feel drawn to design thinking is the way it provides a semi-structured way to develop creativity. The ideation phase in particular targets this. But creativity will also be fostered in imagining ways to communicate effectively and deeply with users, creating prototypes, pitching an idea for feedback.

In New Zealand, our ‘21st century skills’ are really the Key Competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum:

  • Thinking
  • Relating to others
  • Using language, symbols and text
  • Managing self
  • Participating and Contributing.

Hopefully even with only a cursory glance at this list, we can see that again design thinking will hit meaningfully on these too.

As notosh says: “Design Thinking can be a powerful vehicle for deeper learning of content, more divergent thinking and building the thinking skills capacity of learners. Key to the process’s success in learning, is that it provides the platform for learners to become problem finders.” I’d like now to consider a further this idea of problem solving and problem finding. It might seem a little odd, but let’s not consider these two things as separate from one another.

You may recall from the previous blogpost, that Jean-Pierre Protzen (2010) looked at tracing the origins of this phrase ‘design thinking’ and in the process of doing so, focused on ‘thinking about design’. In his article, he makes a salient point about problem finding by quoting Horst Rittel: “formulating the problem is the problem.” Rittel uses the phrase ‘wicked’ to discuss design problems, as, among other aspects, “Every problem can be seen as a symptom of another and problems cannot be separated into disciplines.” (Protzen, 2010, p. 6)

‘Wicked’ problems are not just limited to problems of design (in a narrow sense of the word). Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert (et al, 2012) discuss these in an educational context in their superb “Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective”. They define wicked problems as those that “cannot be solved using straightforward puzzle-solving or mathematical solutions. They span multiple domains: social, economic, political, environmental, legal and moral…” For example: climate change, poverty, drug trafficking. “It is argued that education for the 21st century needs to support learners…to actively develop the capabilities they need to productively engage in 21st century wicked problem solving.” (Bolstad and Gilbert et al, 2012, p. 12)

I believe that design thinking offers one way to begin to tackle wicked problems. Working in a cross-curricular, trans-disciplinary, collaborative manner to hear the voices of those ‘on the ground’ seems to me to be a way to bring highly complex challenges from the abstract to the concrete and thus begin to find workable, realistic solutions; finding the problem in order to work towards solving it. Thus I believe design thinking fosters active, agentic, empathetic citizenship. More than developing and nurturing 21st century skills, design thinking offers hope that things can change for the better.


Bolstad, Rachel and Gilbert Jane (et al). (2012). “Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective”, Retrieved from http://www.nzcer.org.nz/research/publications/supporting-future-oriented-learning-and-teaching-new-zealand-perspective

Kwek, Swee Hong. (2011). “Innovation in the Classroom: Design Thinking for 21st Century Learning”, (Master’s thesis) Retrieved from http://web.stanford.edu/group/redlab/cgi-bin/materials/Kwek-Innovation%20In%20The%20Classroom.pdf

McIntosh, Ewan. (2014). “The Design Thinking School”, Retrieved from http://notosh.com/what-we-do/the-design-thinking-school/

Protzen, Jean-Pierre. (2010). “Design Thinking: What is That?”, Retrieved from http://www.ced.berkeley.edu/downloads/pubs/faculty/protzen_2010_design-thinking-what-is-that.pdf

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