Design Thinking in the K – 12 Classroom

Design Thinking. As hip and happening as I think I am, I had no idea such a thing existed. Sure I knew designers thought but who knew they had a thought process all their own? Now I am told people are trying to apply this kind of thinking to education. No this doesn’t mean you will be seeing a tastefully placed chaise lounge in your child’s grade 1 class any time soon, we are not talking the design of physical space per se. Instead we are talking about curriculum design and delivery, which may involve the creative use of physical space.

My task here it to think about how I have or could use design thinking in my classroom all in 500 words, of which I have already wasted 126, so here goes.

Blank Venn Diagram - Plain (1)Although “Design Thinking” is a relatively new term in education, I don’t think the mechanics of it differ all that much from they way I was taught to develop my lesson plans way back in the 90’s. Back in the day, if I was to hand in a lesson plan that could be considered a product of “Design Thinking” I would have been given top marks. The kind of learning that Design Thinking espouses, is the “ideal” learning situation, it is nothing new.

The reason we are seeing greater attention given to this kind of lesson design, is that technology has made it increasingly easier to make it happen. A good learning experience is tied to the information available. Not that long ago, we were anchored to the hardcopy materials available to us in our classrooms but technology allows us to reach far beyond the small confines of physical space; therefore, achieving what some would consider the “ideal” learning experience.

This past year I have been given an Information Technology class to teach and as coincidence would have it, this term we are doing some Design Thinking (I think). Kids were tasked with choosing 2 or 3 areas of interest to explore and over an 8 week period they will identify a task, problem or project they want to pursue and they will work on it using the tools and resources available to them.

Having read the materials for this weeks assignment, there are certainly some things I could have done differently but it would seem that the rudimentary elements of “Design Thinking” are there.

  • Kids are identifying a need to be met, a problem to solve or an interest to pursue.
  • We have the tools resources and expertise to tackle the task (for the most part)
  • We have the flexibility in the curriculum to allow for this kind of learning

Hopefully we get some outcomes that are “purposeful” and worthy of being considered evidence of learning.

The Information Technology classroom is a fantastic platform for Design Thinking because of the flexibility it affords both teacher and student. Neither have to be a slave to a curriculum or assessment tool. I would think that Vancouver School District’s Robo Savages program at Gladstone was born out of this kind of flexibility.

Again, Design Thinking is nothing new to teachers, we do it as a matter of practise but the degree to which it appears in our classrooms depends on the constraints that are placed upon us.


  1. Michelle Hiebert

    Very good points, Keith. I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned “ideal situation”. One would hope that there are more ideal situations to use Design Thinking in schools these days, and hopefully the new BCEdPlan and technology infrastructure and hardware policies will afford more flexibility and opportunity to do just that.

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      I think it is important to keep in mind all the challenges a frontline teacher faces. It is REALLY easy to talk about the “what if’s” or the “it would be so amazing to do…” but some of this stuff is extraordinarily hard to accomplish with the variety of needs and abilities in one classroom.

      It would be a design thinking task in and of itself, to figure out how to do design learning in a less than ideal classroom setting.

  2. Harprit Nijjar

    I agree with your perspective here Keith. Perhaps the creative use of the physical space is not the only thing that can help foster learning design. Moving away from the bell schedule in schools (particularly high school) would also help create more opportunities for flexibility in learning for students and teachers. We would no longer be constrained to our 80 min class but could delve into an in-depth study of a particular topic.

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      Thanks for your comment Harprit!

      All of “this” speaks to a need to change our culture of learning and not necessarily from the classroom out. The notion of what is learning needs to come from society at large.

      The standardization movement in the States is a force beyond the classroom. Parents desire for getting back to the three R’s is outside of the classroom. University requirements are outside of the classroom, politicians making asinine decisions about education is outside of the classroom…

      Teachers are not going to stick their necks out if they think they are going to go to the guillotine if their efforts don’t live up to the expectations.

  3. Heidi James

    Hi Keith. I still think that you are hip and happening.
    I agree with the two main sticking points you identified as obstacles for Design Thinking: the current system revolves around curriculum and assessment. Finding places in our programs to explore, experiment, tinker and play becomes increasingly harder in the higher grades. The pressures of meeting the many PLOs can be in direct conflict with the time that is required to encourage students in the exploration of topics of interest or concern. I am optimistic to think that we are moving away from a PLO-heavy curriculum, but we are still in the throes of figuring out assessment.
    Enjoy the creativity that comes out of your IT project explorations. I look forward to hearing what your students come up with!

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