Re-designing the future of learning with design thinking


Rosie Byrnes


The five stages of design thinking that could help the students in your classroom to think creatively, solve problems and become innovators.

With the world changing more and more each day, it can be difficult for educators to know exactly what we should be teaching our students in order to prepare them for the future.

So rather than trying to predict which skills our students might hypothetically need one day, some teachers are heading toward a new goal: teaching kids to think creatively, solve problems, and become the innovators in charge of changing the world, instead of trying to keep up with it.

To do that, we need to start by shifting our thinking about what learning should look like in the classroom. And for some teachers, it’s starting to look like the process of design thinking.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a framework that was originally created in the context of — you guessed it — the world of design. The model was created as a way to try to explain the process of good design and innovation, and it was soon adopted in fields like science and engineering.

More than anything else, the design thinking framework is a problem-solving framework. But unlike other similar processes, design thinking is driven by one key element: empathy.

Under this framework, problem-solving is inherently linked to human connection. Design thinking isn’t just about creation and discovery for its own sake; instead, it’s about creating what matters to people, and discovering meaningful ways to help others.

And as the world quickly evolves, it’s becoming clear that this way of thinking isn’t valuable only to designers; we need problem-solvers and innovators in every corner of the globe. So where can we find them?

Well, we can start by transforming our classrooms.

By getting kids involved in the process of innovation during their education, we can teach them how to think like innovators. And as the world keeps changing, these kids will be able to better adapt to what their world needs — and even to become the ones who are leading the charge toward a better future.

The design thinking process can be broken down into five stages:

Stage 1: Empathize

First and foremost, students need to learn about a topic and understand how it relates to a group of people — whether they are included in that group or not. This can apply to just about any academic subject, so get creative! Whatever students are learning about in class, start by asking: Who does this affect in the real world?

In this stage, students are listening, observing, and soaking in as much knowledge as possible. They are trying on different perspectives, and seeing the world through the eyes of someone else — and they are beginning to spot problems that need to be solved.

Stage 2: Define

Next, students define a specific problem that needs to be solved, based on what they have learned and the questions they still have. By putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, they can get to the root of whatever is causing difficulties for a group of people.

Sometimes, their problem might be defined in the form of a question; for example, “How can we make the playground more fun for kids with disabilities?” or “What could we build that might keep people safe during an earthquake?”

Stage 3: Ideate

Once they know what the specific problem is, students can brainstorm as many possible solutions for it as they can. No idea is too big, too bold, or too silly in this stage — and it’s always a good idea to have someone else help with the brainstorming, too.

This stage might involve a bunch of written notes or quick design sketches. Students might use mind maps or graphic organizers, or create a mood board for all of their ideas. Whatever gets their thoughts flowing should be encouraged here!

Stage 4: Prototype

Now, it’s time for students to choose the idea that they think will work best to solve the problem they defined. Here they create a model or prototype to show how their solution will work in the real world to solve a real problem.

Their prototype might be a creation or an invention of some kind, modeled out of clay or cardboard or 3D printed materials. It could also be a video explaining their solution, or a skit or demonstration to show how it would work. The kind of prototype that students create depends largely on the kind of problems and solutions they’re working with — and different students may need to create different kinds of models, even when working on similar problems.

Stage 5: Test

Once their prototype is complete, students will need to test it in front of a real audience. If they can, students should demonstrate their solution to the people who are actually affected by the problem, in order to get real feedback from them. Then, they can return to Stage 3 or 4 to make adjustments to their solution as necessary.

Depending on the topic, it might even be possible for students to move beyond the prototype and create the actual solution, once it has been tested and approved by its audience. Or, if their solution is too big to create inside the classroom, you can always extend the process by having students send a letter (or even their prototype) to someone who really can make their solution a reality — people like lawmakers, engineers, or CEOs.

Remember: the design thinking process is a framework, not a recipe.

Some stages may take longer to complete than others, and some stages may need to be revisited multiple times. Students will all go through the process at a different pace, and not every prototype will work perfectly.

Failure and experimentation are valuable components of the learning process, and that means that things will undoubtedly become messy (and even frustrating) at times. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it; and in fact, obstacles like this are a sure sign that students are immersed in authentic learning and problem-solving — and that they’re onto something important.

Want to try design thinking, but not sure where to start? Check out the Rebuild the World project from LEGO here!