How can I use Design Thinking?

This blogpost is the third 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.


I recently spoke about my passion for design thinking at educampwelly. In my quick-fire Smackdown presentation (so, under 60 seconds) I said, slightly hyperbolically, that for me if there is a silver bullet for education, design thinking is it.

So far I’ve said a little bit about what design thinking is. In the last blogpost, I spoke about why I think we should use design thinking. This kind of boiled down to the idea that if we want creative, innovative problem finders and problem solvers, then design thinking offers a structured yet flexible, empathetic way to this. So now, let’s get a little bit more practical, and think about the possible applications of design thinking in our current educational context and climate.

Um. It can be used every way.

Yep, I really mean it.

You can use design thinking to shape a one-off lesson. While maybe not ideal, this could be a great way to introduce the overall scope of the method. You can use design thinking to shape a whole unit of work. My preference would lie here, and you can see such a unit I created with a class of Year 8 English students here. Of course, you don’t need to be a ‘slave to the process’, and the design thinking mindsets can be used at any time to enhance the specific context at hand.

Beyond the scope of a ‘one subject, one hour’ secondary school timetabled environment, design thinking offers an excellent way to bring subjects together in a naturally integrated, cross-curricular way. The current New Zealand Transport Agency’s game design competition is an excellent example of an authentic, purposeful activity that would lend itself perfectly to design thinking, and I know of a school that’s doing so.

Beyond the classroom, design thinking can be used as an approach to professional learning. I use it to shape my own learning, and it can also be used from a facilitator’s perspective to help inform the shape of a professional learning session. In fact, my eFellowship research looked into this idea in more depth, and you can read about that here. I believe there are strong links to be made here to the New Zealand curriculum’s model of teaching as inquiry, as well as Timperley et al’s spiral of inquiry (2014). The latter in particular, with its central focus on meeting the needs of the learner.

Beyond professional learning, design thinking can be used as an approach to leadership and strategic thinking. Steve Mouldey has written about this. What if we structured whole school initiatives using a design thinking model? Wouldn’t staff and students and the community feel involved? Wouldn’t we have a diverse, wide range of ideas and perspectives to pull from? And wouldn’t this equate to more innovative, targeted and collaborative solutions? I’d recommend Grant Lichtman’s #EdJourney as well as Ewan McIntosh’s How to Come Up with Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, as places to start thinking about this.

Basically, I find that the more you explore design thinking, the more you see that it’s an overarching approach, not dissimilar to choosing to adopt a growth mindset, and that you are limited in applying it only by your imagination.


Lichtman, G. (2014). #EdJourney: A roadmap to the future of education. San Francisco, USA: Jossey-Bass.

McIntosh, E. (2014). How to Come Up with Great Ideas and Actually Make them Happen: A Pragmatic Strategy Handbook for Education Leaders, Innovators and Troublemakers. Edinburgh, UK: NoTosh Publishing.

Timperley, H., Kaser, L. and Halbert, J. (2014). A framework for transforming learning inschools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry. Centre for Strategic Education, Seminar Series Paper No. 234.

Reflection: ‘Is the Sage on the Stage Really Dead’?

Something I’ve been enjoying is listening to podcasts on my morning walk (Wellington weather permitting…).  Friday morning’s podcast was asking whether or not the ‘sage on the stage’ model of teaching was really dead.  To be fair, the speakers’ responses clearly indicated that it is not, as they were mostly giving advice on how to move away from direct instructional teaching methods to more guiding or facilitating of students.

Some of the comments I heard really got me thinking and reflecting on my own practice.  The comment that had the most impact on me was the thought that many teachers agreed with the need to shift from ‘sage’ to ‘guide’ from an ideological view point, but found it difficult to enact from a practical stand point.  Hands up.  No, just me then?

This comment really encapsulates my fear when looking to move forward pedagogically next year.  I’m in the process of writing programmes for my classes in 2014, but what if they’re not ‘flipped’ enough, or provide enough authentic context, or seek to provoke genuine engagement… And I’m meant to be leading professional learning with this stuff?  Yikes!

In a way it’s really difficult to imagine what a student-centred classroom would look like when you’ve never experienced it yourself.  I’ve moved so much from when I first started this journey – from being a reluctant adopter, motivated essentially extrinsically due to the fact that my school was moving to BYOD and I would hate to see laptops as expensive electronic exercise books and pens, to being a raving enthusiast.  But.  I’ve yet to implement any of the stuff I’m likely to advocate.

I guess I just have to live in hope that my fear will be my saving grace.  That, as one participant in the podcast said, where there’s a will; there’s a way.  I’ll consider the advice I gleaned from the chat: ‘ask, don’t tell’ – how can I pose questions to lead students towards information rather than rely on me for direct instruction?  I kind of like the idea of setting the daily homework assignment of students asking a question about their learning every day – preferably in an online environment – which could help me to guide further learning, and, if I track the questions over time, to help me develop question-asking skills in learners.  Because, ultimately students don’t need us to be their source of information.  They have Google and Wikipedia for that.  We need to provoke students into asking their own questions, and to help them find or use the tools to explore their own answers.


Beyond teacher egocentrism: design thinking

Now that I’m feeling more confident with the ‘big picture’ of future or 21st Century learning themes, I’m aware of the need to move to considering programme-unit-lesson design. Posing challenges or ‘ungoogleable’ questions appeals to me, and this reading might help me with my exploration. Steve Mouldey’s application of this reading also has considerable food for thought: Designing and Causing Learning

Granted, and...

As teachers we understandably believe that it is the ‘teaching’ that causes learning. But this is too egocentric a formulation. As I said in my previous post, the learner’s attempts to learn causes all learning. The teaching is a stimulus; the attempted learning (or lack of it) is the response. No matter what the teacher says or does, the learner has to engage with and process the ‘teaching’ if learning is to happen.

From this viewpoint, the teacher is merely one resource for learning, no different from a book, a peer, an experience, or an experimental result. It is the learner who decides to try to learn (or not) from what happens. And the learner will only wish to learn and be able to learn if the conditions of learning have been optimized to make sustained engagement and understanding possible.

Put in terms of a phrase that many now…

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