What is Design Thinking?

This blogpost is the first 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.

It’s actually really hard to find the ‘sound bite’ answer to this question. This is probably the most succinct response I’ve come across:

“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. 4)

Which is all well and good, but what does this actually mean?

It is loosely possible to trace the origins of the phrase ‘design thinking’. In fact, Jean-Pierre Protzen (2010) has had a go at that exact task. He focuses on where ‘design thinking’ has come from, from a strictly design perspective, and ultimately chooses to discuss ‘thinking about design’ which is, naturally, subtly different. By tracing the various definitions, theories and philosophies about design over the 20th century, and comparing and contrasting various definitions of design, Protzen posits the following:

“Design is not a thing but an activity.

Design is purposeful.

Design in creative, searching for something new.

Design is meeting expectations,

Design involves uncertainty and risk,

Design involves simulation.” (pp. 3-4)

Which brings us rather nicely to the folks most design thinkers recognise: the Kelley brothers. David Kelley formed IDEO in 1991. With his company he designed products, such as the Oral-B toothbrushes, but found that he was increasingly asked to work in non-traditional design fields, for example health care and education. This prompted a change to “design with a small d” which ultimately led to the formation of the d. school Stanford.

As the CEO and President of IDEO, Tim Brown, tells us:

“The design thinking process is best thought of as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps. There are three spaces to keep in mind: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Think of inspiration as the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions; ideation as the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas; and implementation as the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives.” (2010, p. 5)


For me, these ‘3 Is’ are central. If you Google ‘design thinking’ you will find various representations of models: d.school, NoTosh, Frog, Design Thinking for Educators. Rather than get worried about which one is the ‘right’ one, focus on what’s similar. I like to think of these as ‘iCubed’:

  • a period of Immersion (Research, surveys, interviews. Sitting deeply with the problem and looking to understand it from a multitude of perspectives.)
  • a period of Ideation (Synthesising the data collated, re-phrasing the problem for a particular user, then going wild with intense bursts of rapid, creative idea generation.)
  • a period of Implementation (Filtering ideas to create a prototyping which goes through various iterative feedback and refinement loops until a working solution is arrived at.)

And overlapping the design thinking framework, is a series of design thinking mindsets. In brief: design thinking is a human-centred process that has a bias towards action. It draws on practices of radical collaboration and a culture of prototyping in order to show, rather than tell, possible solutions to problems while always being mindful of process.

Image Credit: https://dschool.stanford.edu/groups/k12/wiki/6c04c/Visual_Resources.html

Of these, human-centredness is key. Empathy is the core tenet of design thinking. As Tim Brown puts it, “Not only does [design thinking] focus on creating products and services that are human centred, but the process itself is also deeply human.” (2010, p. 5). In education terms, empathy and human-centredness is the key distinction that differentiates design thinking from other inquiry processes such as problem or project-based learning (Kwek, 2011). You are formulating a problem in order to solve it for a real person or group of people. It is authentic, immediate and altruistic. And that is what design thinking is.


Brown, T. & Wyatt, J. (2010). “Design Thinking for Social Innovation”, Retrieved from https://www.ideo.com/images/uploads/thoughts/2010_SSIR_DesignThinking.pdf

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

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


When I shared my CORE eFellowship research plans with my lovely colleagues at The Mind Lab, I received some wonderful endorsement from my new colleague Tim Gander, himself an eFellow in 2014. He said to me that all pedagogy starts with andragogy. I smiled to myself, thinking, ‘OK, that makes sense: teachers learning (education as an adult – andragogy) about how to teach young people (pedagogy),’ and the comment went no further in my brain.

And then I recently read this blogpost by American educator Tom Whitby, “The Importance of Andragogy in Education“, which got me thinking further.

I’m no expert in andragogy, and in fact, sometimes I confess to thinking that some of the things people more expert than I list to consider when engaging with adult learners are equally important when working with young people. Take this list from Tom Whitby’s post for example:

According to an article, “Adult Learning Theory and Principles” from The Clinical Educator’s Resource Kit, Malcolm Knowles, an American practitioner and theorist of adult education, defined andragogy as “the art and science of helping adults learn”.

Knowles identified the six principles of adult learning as:

  • Adults are internally motivated and self-directed

  • Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences

  • Adults are goal oriented

  • Adults are relevancy oriented

  • Adults are practical

  • Adult learners like to be respected

I’m not entirely sure that this is so different to what works for younger people too – it’s just that maybe their ‘life experiences and knowledge’ haven’t been gained over the same amount of time. And that maybe younger learners need more help to be ‘internally motivated and self-directed’. (I don’t know – share your thoughts with me below…)

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean a list like this isn’t useful, nor that it should be dismissed. And it’s the final bullet point that I want to think about today, that ‘adult learners like to be respected’.

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently about respectful practice. I started this eFellow journey in conjunction with my work as Postgrad Programme Director at The Mind Lab by Unitec with the intention of transforming education one teacher at a time. (No quiet, humble goals for me!) I want to use Design Thinking as my pedagogy (or is that andragogy now??) to bring about this shift. The Design Thinking principle I was seeking to embrace was ‘bias towards action’ – participate in the learning at The Mind Lab with the intention of changing your practice and thereby the world. But now I have started to doubt myself: who am I to disrupt the thinking of classroom teachers? Is there not an inherent disrespect in thinking I know a better way to ‘do’ education?

Image Credit: https://dschool.stanford.edu/groups/k12/wiki/6c04c/Visual_Resources.html
Image Credit: https://dschool.stanford.edu/groups/k12/wiki/6c04c/Visual_Resources.html

But in the midst of this doubt, which still continues, one thing has become abundantly clear to me: I hold genuine admiration for these teacher-learners who come faithfully every week to learn with me at The Mind Lab. They embrace playing with new technology, they share ideas, and are willing to consider new ideas. They devote time out of the scheduled sessions to read, view, think (and complete assignments!). They clearly just want the best for the young people in front of them. They embody a growth mindset. I am lucky to be part of their learning, and they are teaching me a lot about myself in the process.

So, instead the Design Thinking mindset or principle I find myself embracing is empathy, human-centredness. And maybe this is a more important starting point.

Timetable Mentality

While not originally conceived of as a companion piece to my most recent blogpost, this does work alongside quite naturally. Again, this is not intended as a criticism of any particular school nor teacher. This is my own personal opinion, and I invite your comments, thoughts and suggestions.

Ah, the timetable. I’m in awe of the immensely hard-working teachers who construct these. I love getting my timetable in the last week of school seeing what’s ahead for me in the new school year. I love to colour-code my timetable. See when my non-contact lessons are. Check out what I’m teaching Period 6 on a Friday. And Period 1 on a Monday.

Image Credit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/64/Stundenplan.PNG

As a thoroughly Type-A personality, the organisation and structure of a timetable brings joy to my heart. By this means I can figure out what’s happening when, how to allocate my time, my efforts and energy. I know what classes I’m teaching, and I can know where any student or colleague is meant to be at any given moment of the school day. What a thing to behold.

Of course, the timetable is far more than the piece of photocopied paper in front of me. It is a whole system. In a timetable, students are allotted their chosen subjects, and are organised by their age, and sometimes by their ability. In a timetable, teachers are allocated their classes for the year, which places them within subject disciplines and departments. A timetable files people very well.

And by this ability to file people, a timetable becomes more than a system. It becomes a mentality – and possibly a fixed mentality at that. A timetable can limit the way both students and teachers see themselves and see their learning. Whole schools of thought are broken down into terms, weeks, and lessons. Learning only happens in 55 minute slots. Science and English are discrete subject areas. It is lunchtime and learning must stop. A timetable can be as rigid as the ‘cells and bells’ of traditional (secondary) schooling. Learning becomes assessment driven in a timetable. It is much easier to teach via direct instruction as a time efficient method of conveying the required content.

A timetable is a completely legitimate way to deal with these immense pressures. But I would like to pose a key question. Does a timetable suit an adult or a learner best?

What if…

  • We saw the barriers (timetable, assessment, university requirements) as enabling constraints?
  • We put learners at the heart of the system and built our schools genuinely and authentically around them and their needs?
  • We worked within the flexibility afforded by the New Zealand Curriculum and possible under NCEA to find creative, innovative structures and systems?

Because ultimately I believe that the big picture of education is really the small picture: start with the learner, not with the timetable.


It was a lovely summer’s evening in Wellington yesterday. As befitting such an evening, we were eating outside, and dining on a nice, light, post-Christmas meal of fish, corn on the cob, and salad. I trialled a new recipe: marinating the fish in some lemon and fresh herbs from the garden. The salad was a tried-and-true: a tasty Nigella number with feta, watermelon and olives. The combination of the salad and the fish was delicious! I was very happy with the feast.

While I was eating and enjoying the fruits of my labour, I was thinking about how I might even further improve on my efforts. Add lemon thyme to the oregano I used in the fish marinade. Make sure I use black olives rather than the lemon flavoured ones currently in the fridge. Definitely don’t marinade the fish any longer than I did – the citrus could easily become overpowering. I wondered what using lime rather than lemon would be like…?

And I realised: I was tinkering. I was reflecting with pleasure on what I had created, and was thinking about what I could do to make it even better next time. While there was obviously an element of judgement involved – how to improve – it was not negative as it was building on the enjoyment from my first iteration.

This is growth mindset. This is a maker mindset. If I’m happy to do this with my cooking, how might I inject this same attitude towards other areas in my life? Suggestions gratefully received!