Design Thinking in Education

The impact of design thinking in education is two-fold: First, by requiring the use of multiple lenses when looking at a problem, design thinking demonstrates that bringing together seemingly disparate perspectives can often be the key to finding effective solutions. This encourages students to be as well versed and ‘literate’ in as many subjects as possible, as they begin to understand that the most complex problems are often best solved through an interdisciplinary approach. Second, and perhaps more importantly, design thinking emphasizes that collaboration and the use of outside resources are critical to both the learning and problem solving process—a notion that will be valuable to their scholarly, professional and personal lives.

Design thinking teaches students that the best solutions are those that are empathy-driven and end-user-centric. By understanding the perspective that an answer to a problem is only as good as the end-user finds it to be, students gain a valuable and complimentary second layer to the empirical or logic-based problem solving methodologies they are used to. With this combination, students may begin to grasp the idea that no answer is perfect, and that there are often many ways to frame and address a single problem. While this dual perspective presents students with a fairly sophisticated paradox—one that even the most seasoned design thinkers struggle with—it ideally forces them to see that an effective way to land on a single, actionable solution for a given problem is to focus on the audience or end-user at hand, and have this perspective inspire the approach.

As we know, empathy and end-user-centricity must not just be part of the solution, but must also be integral to the process, which itself should be an iterative, co-creative partnership. Design thinking teaches students that in order to develop and fully integrate empathy into the fabric of a solution, they must engage and create dialogue with the end-user up front, throughout the problem solving process, during the rationalization of potential solutions and in the way in which those solutions are ultimately defined and communicated.

Inherent to this perspective is the powerful idea that there is an ecosystem of solution makers and users—that basically, the world is filled with people looking for solutions (users) and people looking to solve problems (solution makers), and ideally, the two are fully aware of each other’s needs and desires. In other words, students can realize that it is in the best interests of the businesses, institutions and organizations they interact with on a daily basis to best serve their end-users, and that accordingly, end-users have both the right and power to influence and shape the products and services they receive. Like the students, businesses (as solution makers) also benefit from this co-creative dialogue: a population that, through an exposure to design thinking and its emphasis on collaboration, is more aware, engaged and ready to interact is ultimately beneficial to them.

Design thinking demonstrates that bringing together seemingly disparate perspectives can often be the key to finding effective solutions.

Businesses should also view the teaching of design thinking as an investment in the development of their future leaders and innovators. With an understanding of strategy, leadership and communication enhanced by a superior understanding of design thinking (in particular its principles around collaboration and human centricity) a generation raised on design thinking would be arguably more capable of leading existing enterprises, institutions and organizations into the future and navigating and the unknown roads ahead. So, how is design thinking being taught in secondary education?

In 2012, Springside Chestnut Hill (SCH) Academy in Philadelphia held the first session of a program called eShift – a 10-day workshop on entrepreneurial leadership through design thinking for early high school students. The program, which drew participants from as far as Senegal, France, India, South Africa and Denmark, utilized highly collaborative group exercises and immersive experiences with various companies and entrepreneurs. They did this to demonstrate design thinking principles such as human-centricity, co-creation and prototyping in ways that are tangible, relevant and readily-applicable to kids—better enabling them as future leaders. In the final phase of the workshop, each student had the opportunity to apply what he or she had learned to develop and refine a product, service or business model concept of his or her own design. By beginning with face-to-face interviews with the proposed end-user and engaging with them throughout the ideation, co-creation and prototyping stages, each student gained a first-hand understanding of the importance of empathy, how to cultivate it during the problem-solving process and how to weave it into the solution.

While design thinking is by no means a catchall solution, it is nonetheless a powerful and transformative perspective and toolset. As a thought framework, it requires no classrooms, calculators or computers to teach, can be made relevant and applicable to nearly all ages and backgrounds, and has the magical ability to encourage individuals to dream big and not fear failure. While awareness of design thinking and its value in secondary education is increasing steadily, with programs such as SCH Academy is leading the way, its full impact is yet to be realized. Young students still struggle to see the true potential of design thinking because the outputs of their efforts, at no fault of their own, are not large-scale enough to shock, amaze and create that “I can’t believe I did that!” effect. While there are companies and organizations that actively partner with programs such as SCH Academy’s in order to help students see first hand the power they wield as design thinkers, they are unfortunately in the minority. That said, the major corporations and organizations of the world need to recognize the shared value of teaching design thinking at a young age, partner with the schools and institutions teaching it and invest in the potential leaders of tomorrow.

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