How Design Thinking Supports Innovation in K-12 Education

Access and Inclusion February 06, 2017

This article is a preview introducing the WISE-IDEO research report, “Thinking and Acting Like a Designer: How Design Thinking Supports Innovation in K-12 Education”. The WISE-IDEO report was written by a team of authors led by Dr. Laura Moorhead and Ms Sandy Speicher.

The needs of the twenty-first century demand new approaches to learning. Today, student success requires skills for collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving, and these skills are increasingly becoming a focus in both K-12 and higher education settings. But twenty-first century learning needs to be much more if we are to expect young people to navigate and meet the challenges of a complex future.

We need change-makers who will redefine problems, inspire new ideas, take informed risks, and never stop learning. Change-makers implement and develop solutions that aim to better the individual and the whole, be it a classroom, a school, a community, or a society. This is the approach of a designer and the focus of this report.

Design touches all aspects of our world, and designers work to impact the human experience. They generally do this with particular mindsets that encourage looking at challenges as opportunities for design. Four mindsets typically guide the behavior of a designer: human-centered, collaborative, optimistic, and experimental. Designers also often act in a particular way, following a process that helps them generate and form ideas, beginning with problem-defining and empathy, using synthesis and prototyping to develop strategic ideas, and ending with implementation.

How designers think and act, taken together, make for design thinking, a human-centered approach to creative thinking and problem solving. Thinking and acting as a designer are powerful ways to encourage people to become change-makers in education.

Over the past two decades, interest in using design thinking in K-12 settings has grown dramatically. In spite of this growth, insufficient attention has been given to the importance of design thinking as a component of an educator’s professional toolkit. Minimal guidance has been offered on how to support design thinking in education and on what guidelines, best practices, and professional development are needed for successful implementation. Through a consideration of current research and practice, this report helps fill that gap by showcasing forward-looking practices, as well as new ideas from design thinking in K-12 education. It draws from efforts in a variety of countries, including Bhutan, Britain, Colombia, India, Kenya, Portugal, Sierra Leone, Taiwan, and the United States. The report examines the following key themes through vignettes culled from longer case studies, and concludes with a series of recommendations for policy makers, practitioners, and academic researchers. These are outlined as follows.

Design thinking is used to fundamentally reimagine school models and systems.

When design thinking is used to create new schools and school models, it encourages design teams to bring an experimental mindset to the task. Another key component of this approach is working collaboratively with communities to be culturally sensitive and inclusive of students, teachers, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders. Finally, schools and school models created using design thinking are adaptable and modular in order to respond to ongoing shifts and different contexts.

Design thinking supports change in school culture by transforming how educators work together.

Educators who practice design thinking become agents of change by developing optimistic and action-oriented mindsets. Teachers and administrators are using design thinking to collaborate in new ways on both curriculum and school-level challenges. School leaders are inspiring change by starting with a bias for action and small, iterative experiments. They also recognize the need for constant evolution through innovation, and understand their critical role in setting permissions and empowering others to innovate.

Design thinking supports student development of twenty-first century skills.

Design thinking experiences, both in and outside of school, help students develop twenty-first century skills and learn to activate their creativity and to believe in their power to change the world around them. This report shows examples of schools that immerse students in design thinking as a way to connect academic subjects to real-world, project-based, hands-on learning experiences.

Whether readers of this report are teachers, administrators, parents, students, nonprofit leaders, or policy makers, the goal is to encourage conversations about how design thinking can drive education innovation to better prepare all students for the future. As such, this report is written for readers with varying levels of familiarity with design thinking, from encountering it here for the first time, already using it in daily practice, or audaciously applying it to systemic challenges.