pedagogy · Philosophy of Education

Design Thinking for Teachers 2.0: designing learning experiences for the storytelling animal

DESIGN THINKING 2.0In my last blog, I introduced the concept of Design Thinking. I argued, that more organisations than ever are taking a human-centric approach to evolving their existing practices and generating new ideas. I worry education is falling behind.

In this blog, I want to formalise the design process by outlining a Design Thinking model. As Ruth points out, Design Thinking is already embedded in professional practice; teachers carefully plan the learning environment to support learners. The Design Thinking Model introduced in this blog can be used as a tool to formalise those practices.

The 5 step Design Thinking Model

An oft-cited approach to Design Thinking is the model outlined in Figure 1,  which consists of five steps 1. Empathise 2. Define 3. Ideate 4. Prototype and 5. Test. design thinking_image

Figure 1  Interactive Design Foundation

1. Empathise: focus on experiences, especially emotional ones.

The first stage of the Design Thinking process is seeking an empathic understanding of a problem. This involves consulting research as well as observing, engaging and empathising with learners. Conclusions derived from this process can be difficult to express in quantitative language; therefore, Design Thinking uses storytelling and emotive language.

An example may be useful, previously I used the example of a young learner discovering the mathematical concept of 1 + 1 = 2. Imagine the knowledge required to learn even this simple concept for the first time. The question would be “what is 1?” A more experienced learner would recognise it as a socially constructed mathematical symbol representing a unit of something or other. Complicating matters is that mathematical symbols like “1” are also used in everyday language, for example, what is “1 love“? Does 1 love plus 1 love = 2 loves? The vagaries of language do not make it easier.

The broad problem is how do we explain the mathematical concept 1 + 1 = 2 to first-time learners? Lyle (2000) suggested that human beings are a ‘storying animal’ making sense of thoughts and events through narrative. The process of storying and finding the emotional centre of learning is the first step in designing great learning experiences.

2. Define: create models to define the problem

Once the broad problem is identified, a core problem can be defined during Stage 2 (Define), by analysing and then synthesising information gathered during Stage 1 (Empathise). Design models supplement spreadsheets and other documents to facilitate creative approaches to tackling non-linear problems. Addressing the problem statement encourages targeted solutions whilst generating as many ideas as possible.

In our example, 1 + 1 = 2 requires considerable prior knowledge. Is it possible to explain the concept to first-time learners in the same way as those familiar with mathematical symbols but unfamiliar with modern mathematical notation? Perhaps we could imagine a conversation with Socrates on the issue of 1 + 1 = 2. My guess is the conversation would be quite different.

Let us say, for argument’s sake, that the core problem is cognitive load based upon the assumption even the most diligent first-time learner would struggle to manage so much new information in a short period of time.  Resolving the issue of cognitive overload becomes the core problem.

3. Ideate: share the problem and collaborate to generate solutions

Having defined the problem, we now need to generate ideas to solve it. During the third stage of the Design Thinking process, ideas are generated based upon the learning needs identified during stage 1  (Empathise), and core problem identified in stage 2 (Define). Ruth refers to this as “possibility thinking”, resolving a core problem by generating workable solutions. One solution to resolve cognitive load issues is to leverage existing schema whilst introducing new learning.

Constructivist theory already offers solutions to such problems. Bruner described the constant interaction between a teacher and a student in discovery learning as scaffolding (Wood, Bruner and Ross, 1976). By sharing the problem and collaborating with knowledgeable peers an elegant design solution can be arrived at using existing good practice.

In our example, a practitioner gives young learners two apples to hold. The learners are instructed that an apple in one hand equates to 1, an apple in each hand to 2. Natural objects act as bridges to new learning. One could even introduce an aspect of play by asking the young learners to pick the apples from a tree.

Of course, this says little about mathematical notation or how mathematics represents physical objects in the natural world, but it does begin the process of learning such things.

4. Prototype: think it through and discuss widely

Digital or diagrammatic prototypes help practitioners design learning solutions based upon ideas generated in Stage 3 (Ideate). Colleagues can share ideas and publicly display prototypes creating an open-minded culture valuing exploration and experimentation.

MIT innovation expert Michael Schrage refers to “serious play describing  prototyping as “probably the single most pragmatic behaviour the innovative firm can practice.” Figure 2 is the basis for such a prototype. The method could be a combination of direct instruction and storytelling; practitioners teach initial concepts and then apply them to concrete examples like picking apples from a tree. I describe the process in more detail here.

ruth image 2

Figure 2: the prototype

The prototype does not have to be a formal flow chart it can also be a drawing or something less formal, such as a doodle. Mathematician and physicist, Roger Penrose used drawing in his work for expositional purposes and visualisation of problems. Penrose also used ‘doodles’ to help wrestle with complex highly abstract calculations.

5: Test: getting it wrong to get it right

The Test phase is all about seeing what works in the classroom, gathering evidence, getting feedback, and refining prototypes. Design thinking is an iterative process that involves trial and error.

As Ruth observes, a key aspect of the design is the constant revising and revisiting of effective practice. In training, teachers should be encouraged to practice “appreciative inquiry” identifying good provision and replicating it.


The characteristics of Design Thinking are already evident in classroom practice. Design Thinking is a way of formalising tacit practices. The model outlined in this blog gives those characteristics a structure, which practitioners can use to enhance collaboration and the sharing of design ideas ultimately improving practice.


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

Jarvis, P. (2019). Not just ‘once’ upon a time. Genealogy. 3(3), article no. 44.

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

Lyle, S. (2000). Narrative understanding: Developing a theoretical context for understanding how children make meaning in classroom settings. Journal of Curriculum Studies32(1), 45-63.

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.

Worthington, M., & Carruthers, E. (2005). The art of children’s mathematics: The power of visual representation.




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