Discover the 5 Simple Steps to Design Thinking in Education

Design thinking is a five-step model for creative problem solving that focuses on understanding people’s needs to develop products, services, policies, or strategies. This process finds solutions that balances what humans desire with what is possible and affordable. Design thinkers work in diverse fields including engineering, architecture, graphic design, game development, advertising, animation, video production, healthcare, and business. However, the truth is everyone is a designer at one time or another.

In fact, design thinking has a valuable place in education. It can be used to improve learning, enhance the classroom environment, shape policy, and more! Keep reading to learn how the five-step design thinking model can be used by educators to solve problems.

5 Steps in the Design Thinking Model

There are five steps to design thinking which are empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. The model is from IDEO. IDEO provides organizations with a creative toolkit to develop unique, practical solutions.

Design thinking is not a linear process. Rather, it begins with understanding the end-user and transitions to an experimentation of ideas. This approach constantly shifts back to the needs of people to verify that the solution will meet the goal. Since schools focus on children, IDEO has resources specifically for educators to support their use of design thinking.

1. Empathize Stage

The first step in a design thinking model is to understand the end-users’ or audience’s feelings and values. This can be done through observation, interviews, or by imagining yourself as the person in the situation. Not only is practicing empathy step one, it is also the number one priority of design thinkers. In fact, the cornerstone of design thinking is that solutions should be human-centered.

If you are in an education setting the end-user might be the students, teachers, parents, or administrators. To design a solution to enhance learning it is important to understand stakeholders’ needs. Research tools such as observational checklists, polls, surveys, or interview questions are methods for gaining insight into how the school community feels or what they value. However, personal observations, informal discussions, and student work also provide vital data.

2. Define Stage

The second step is to take the insights from the Empathize Stage and use them to identify one key problem that a product, service, policy, or strategy can solve. By narrowly defining the problem, it channels all resources towards a specific goal. Phrase the problem statement from the user’s perspective. This helps to keep them as the primary focus. A recommendation is to post the problem statement in a prominent location. This way it can be referred to often throughout the design thinking process.

Consider, this fill-in-the-blank sentence as a starting point to writing a problem-statement:

[End-users] want [desire] and feel [emotion] because [problem].

The problem-statement for students might be, students want new school spirit days and feel bored because each year the same ones are scheduled. A problem-statement for teachers could be, teachers need a story time area in the library and feel frustration because there is a lack of space. A problem-statement for a parent might be, parents want their children to be safe when dropping them off in morning and feel worried because cars are not following the lane routes. And a problem-statement for an administrator could be, administrators need to improve reading test scores and feel concern because several schools have poor comprehension results in Grade 3.

You get the idea. The definition of the problem centers on helping PEOPLE. The solution must transform a negative emotion into a positive one. Consider how a problem-statement can become a solution-statement, students have new school spirit days and feel excitement because they are going to have lots of fun. Or, administrators improved reading test scores in several schools and feel satisfaction because comprehension results are higher in Grade 3.

3. Ideate Stage

The third step in a design thinking model is to brainstorm a variety of solutions to a problem. This is often done as a team to gain a wide range of ideas. Brainstorming can use formal techniques such as mind-mapping or word association. Alternatively, it could just be a group discussion that results in a collection of post-it notes stuck to a whiteboard.

In an education setting, the team members might be a class of students, school staff, parent committee, board of directors, community groups, or a combination of all these stakeholders. To help devise the optimal solution it is often best to include a multitude of participants. This will help to avoid personal biases or groupthink, which can limit idea generation.

Tips for Ideating

Post-Problem Statement

At this stage, make sure that the data from the Empathize Stage is available for reference and post the problem-statement. This has three purposes. First, it offers an anchor to keep everyone focused on the task. Second, it provides a reference point for understanding the issue. And finally, it becomes a trigger for new ideas.

Set Aside Reflection Time

A word of advice… set aside reflection time for introverts. Extroverts love to shout out ideas and gain momentum as the energy level in the room increases. Whereas introverts often need a quiet space to consider ideas and may not be as comfortable sharing them in a large group setting. For this reason, you might want to begin the Ideate Stage by having people work independently, in pairs, or as a small group before assembling as a team.

Transcribe Ideas and Post to a Shared Location

Do not limit the Ideate Stage to only one discussion or moment. Often the best ideas come afterwards when traveling home, chatting with a friend, or sleeping. For this reason, one suggestion is to transcribe the ideas at the end of the brainstorming session and place it in a shared location. Now, team members can easily access the document to list additional ideas as they occur.

Ideating Guidelines for Design Thinking

Since the Ideate Stage is a vital part of the design thinking process, it is a good idea to establish rules for ideating. For example:

  • there are no bad ideas
  • the more ideas the better
  • imagine all possibilities
  • wild ideas are welcome
  • reserve judgement
  • set a goal for the number of ideas and then exceed it

4. Protype Stage

The fourth step as design thinkers is to pick an idea that seems feasible and create a simple model or example. If there is no viable idea, then there might be a need to return to step 2 to redefine the problem. The Prototype Stage is all about experimentation. The goal is to find issues with the design to devise a better solution.

Do not waste time creating the perfect prototype. It is not meant to be a final product. Instead, it provides a visual aid to trigger thoughts and ideas. Remember, the aim is to fix design flaws to arrive at the optimal solution. It other words, it is good to find shortcomings and mistakes. The more, the better! View this stage as a series of rough drafts.

The form of the prototype depends on the problem and solution. There isn’t just one type of prototype. In fact, there are many!

Creative Endeavor

If you are working on a creative endeavor such as a video, animation, or game the prototype could be a sketch, storyboard, or flowchart that illustrates ideas. By mapping each part of the concept, the flaws become apparent. Icons or symbols are a useful way to represent ideas. As the solution evolves, software can create a rough mock-up.

In an education setting, there are many creative endeavors that require design thinking. For example, the prototype could be a doodle of a new mascot, sequential drawings for a educational video, or an illustration of a poster to promote a school program.

Product Development or Physical Space

If the solution relates to product development or a physical space, design thinkers might create a model. The prototype could be a pencil and paper drawing. Or if the item is three-dimensional, build a sculpture with cardboard, blocks, popsicle sticks, play doh, or other materials. If the solution is an enhancement to an existing product, then modify the item itself to show design changes. At this stage, if team members are tech-savvy there are software programs that will produce a wireframe or simulation.

In a school environment there are many products or spaces that can enhance learning. For example, the prototype could be a diorama of a miniature playground structure, floor plan of a reconfigured library, or map of a new school drop-off route. There are practical ways design thinking can help educators solve existing problems.

Policy or Strategy and Design Thinking

If the solution is a new or updated policy or strategy, the protype will take the form of a working draft. It could be an outline with bulleted or numbered list, graphic organizer, slide presentation, or brief report. At this stage, getting the right phrasing is not essential. All that is required are tangible ideas to explore.

In a school setting the prototype for a policy or strategy will most likely will take the form of written or verbal communication. It could be a list of new school spirit days, recommendations for a reading program, evaluation of robotic kits, or updated safety rules at recess.

What Happens if the Prototype Fails?

Sometimes, you have a great idea…but it just doesn’t work. There are design flaws that cannot easily be overcome. The issues might be a limitation of resources, time, money, or expertise. If this happens, do not worry. In fact, this is good news! Cut your losses early and return to one of the previous steps.

5. Test Stage

The final stage in design thinking is to share the prototype with a group of peers or end-users for feedback. By this point, you have some confidence in your solution and are looking to finetune the design. It is important to refer to step 1 and 2. You want to verify that the end-user’s needs and feelings are being met.

Just as the Prototype Stage takes multiple forms, so does the Test Stage. Testing might be a product pitch, presentation with a question-and-answer period, submission of a draft report, game test, observations of user interaction, or panel review. During this phase, you are seeking more than positive feedback. In fact, constructive criticism or bugs are welcome.

What happens next? At this point in the design thinking model, there could be a decision to implement the solution. Alternatively, if the design has flaws there might be a shift to any of the previous steps. Remember design thinking is not linear!

Educators will often test a prototype by presenting the solution to a committee. This group of people will then decide about whether a solution moves forward or if it needs further enhancement. Depending on the type of problem, the concept might need to be shown to additional stakeholders to gain approval.

If the project was student-driven the test might be a submission of work to the teacher, with a reflection on strengths and weakness to the design. Evaluation includes not only the quality and creativity of the prototype, but also the depth of students’ insights.