pedagogy · Philosophy of Education · Policy

Design Thinking for Teachers 1.0: centring the learning experience


In earlier blogs, I describe educational learning as a series of designed learning experiences.  In this blog, I want to focus on the issue of Design Thinking.  As with previous blogs, Ruth Swailes provides concrete examples.

Originally conceptualised to address physical objects designers increasingly apply Design Thinking to complex interactions like customer experiences. In an educational context, it could apply to student interactions with learning (Jonassen, 1994).

What is Design Thinking?

Cross (2007) defined Design Thinking as:

(…) a style of thinking, or as the study of the cognitive processes that are subsequently manifested in design action

It is concerned with the cognitive processes that designers employ, as opposed to the designed objects they produce. In education, it is the process teachers use to plan and design learning experiences.

Characteristics of Design Thinking

The characteristics of Design Thinking are hotly debated. Jon Kolko describes four that are representative albeit not definitive:

  1. Human-Centred exploration

The first characteristic of Design Thinking is Human-Centred exploration, central to which is creative problem solving refined by iterative cycles of prototyping and testing.

Prototyping and testing sounds like a product-oriented approach, but I would argue that they are exactly what teachers do on a daily basis. The old maxim “no two classes are the same” always rings true to me in my classroom practice and it necessitates the constant re-design of learning in the classroom.

2. Failure Tolerance

Secondly, Design Thinking embeds a culture of collaborative teamwork allowing ideas to flourish.  It does not encourage failure but is tolerant of it.

Greg Petroff, the chief experience officer at GE Software explains “employees in every aspect of the business must realise risk is the norm, for example, half-baked ideas can be expounded without loss of face or  repercussion.”

If I argue, as I do in point 1, that no two classes are the same then teachers need to be able to adapt approaches to learning. An environment encouraging innovation and the sharing of good practice will result in better designed learning experiences.

3, Consult widely: use research and outside expertise

Thirdly, Design Thinking cultures also seek to expand their innovation networks by looking for opportunities to co-create with learners, industry experts and academics. A feature of such an approach is the exploitation of social media and other networks to enlarge the exposure of teaching teams to innovative thinking.

SEED (an early education and development study),  is an example of such thinking in education. It emphasises an open and reflective culture driving continuous improvement. Such progressive approaches to practice were once widely hailed in education; however, as industry embraces soft skills it seems education is travelling in the opposite direction.

4. Thoughtful restraint

Finally, Design Thinking emphasises a designed emotional experience rather than a process-driven focus on the end product. Restraint emerges from deliberate decision making about what a product or social practice should do.

As CEO of the thermostat company Nest Tony Fadell says “At the end of the day you have to espouse a feeling—in your advertisements, in your products. And that feeling comes from your gut.”

It is important for teachers to reflect on what they are trying to achieve. Do they want to simply generate evidence of outcomes by giving every learner a “tick-box” worksheet? Or do they want them to learn and understand a concept at a deeper level with emotional and concrete connections embedded in long term memory? The emotional investment in learning enhances cognitive engagement and leads to better retention.


Design Thinking provides an underpinning philosophical approach to learning experience design. It is also an antidote to extremist instructivist policy that favours a prosaic curriculum including Gradgrindian scripting and lesson drilling.

Business consults service users and tailor’s product to their needs. Education increasingly sees learners as passive recipients of knowledge and attempts to consult are considered as a threat to the autonomy and expertise of teachers.

The focus on process and outcomes rather than the learning experience could find education lagging behind current best-practice ideas. As Bridget van Kralingen, the senior vice president of IBM Global Business Services, puts it “There’s no longer any real distinction between business strategy and the design of the user experience. “

Design Thinking looks to address this issue by placing teacher and learner at the centre of the learning experience. My next blog looks at a popular model used by Design Thinkers.

Useful resources

Dunne, D., & Martin, R. (2006). Design thinking and how it will change management education: An interview and discussion. Academy of Management Learning & Education5(4), 512-523.

Fleming, D. (2015). Student voice: An emerging discourse in Irish education policyInternational Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 8223242

Jonassen, D. H. (1994). Thinking technology: Toward a constructivist design model. Educational technology34(4), 34-37.

Schrage, M. (1999). Serious play: How the world’s best companies simulate to innovate. Harvard Business Press.

Shamiyeh, M. (Ed.). (2014). Driving desired futures: Turning design thinking into real innovation. Walter de Gruyter.

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