Reboot Your Teaching Practice with Design Thinking: 5 Tips to Get Started

Here's a sign of a powerful professional development event, your laptop and cell phone never leave your book bag once.  The idea that a 1-day workshops won't grow dendrites for teachers, has been exclaimed by researchers for decades, yet if the one-day event creates disequilibrium in the way you view teaching and learning it's possible that change can take place immediately.  Researchers say professional development needs to be ongoing and continuous, but when an adult learner experiences a surge of inspiration in a moment in time, the intensity of the experience can disrupt your practice.  

This was my experience at DesignCamp Monterey.  For those of you unfamiliar with #DesignCamp it is rooted in the philosophy of Design Thinking in which designers tackle problems by rethinking an issue in a human-centric way as a means to explore possibilities and unleash creativity.  This is possible with hands-on tasks that have a "low-ceiling and high floor" to engage all learners and promote as many solutions to a problem as possible.  Design thinking gets kids to think just like an engineer and view learning as ongoing process which occurs when designers (a.k.a students)  partake in an iterative cycle of sketching, prototyping and testing concepts and ideas. 

This model of instruction definitely shifts the role of the teacher from director of information to coach and facilitator.  Students immediately take an active role in constructing learning and everyone has a voice and a choice for participation. The process of design is authentic in the sense that children quiet naturally are curious, flexible in thinking and willing to take risks (this reminds you of preschool right).

It is teachers who are most likely static in their approach to instruction, afraid of taking chances and rigid in their thinking.  So your biggest challenge might not be will my students be engaged in Design Thinking, but will I be able to get outside my comfort zone.  You see the process is learner-directed so the sage on the stage, is more like the coach on the sideline, you still have the expertise and the plays, but it's your students who will make all the moves.  

So what might design thinking look like in your classroom? Think of a concept you might be working on like:  
Common Core Math 5 MD.C3 Recognize volume as an attribute of solid figures and understand concepts of volume measurement

Then provide your students with a problem in which they must design a solution: 
Students will create and use a model that can transport fresh water over long distances with no human contact in between locations, design a water transportation model to scale, test it to ensure success and then show and explain how it works.  Students iterate and record data as they improve their designs.

 This approach to instruction is interdisciplinary in construct and connects various disciplines across the framework of the Four C's: Creativity, Communication, Collaboration and Critical Thinking.  

At our #DesignCamp we participated in several tasks from designing a suit for the Winter Olympics Mardi-gras event based on the users needs and interests, to building a rocket, and creating a solutions to transport water.  

Children as young as Pre-K can engage in an activity that allows them to think creatively and apply solutions.  This is what children do naturally from the time they are born.  They are testing out their environment and seeing what works.  

Here are my 5 Tops Tips for Implementing Design Thinking: 

1. Begin with Empathy: when tasks are rooted in empathy the collaboration and culture of the school and classroom shifts to recognize all students as individuals, who they are, what they believe in and what is important.  Building on students' funds of knowledge is what makes Design Thinking learner-centric, but when the task has meaning and value then students will go deeper with their learning and become passionate about what they are doing. 

2. Don't Go It Alone: If you are new to design thinking you need to share and reflect on your process and what you learned about your students during the task.  Create a team of teachers at your school site who can observe your students in action and help you make interdisciplinary connections across subject areas.  This is especially important at secondary schools as you will want to consider how you can integrate subjects: Want to see what this looks like in a middle school? Check out Vista Innovation and Design Academy in San Diego 

3.  Start with a plan and connect the standards:  Trying out Design Thinking without a solid plan might be the last time you take a big leap.  Your students might think it's fun, but are they learning?  Determine what your goals are for your students, consider the materials and resources needed and the kinds of task that will hook your learner. Without structure, Design Thinking can turn into playtime at Chuck-e-Cheese. Look at these Design Thinking Challenges from Raft Resources that includes standards-based lessons, planning and include materials and resources to get started immediately. 

4. Stay Connected and Continue to Learn: social media and twitter can get you digitally connected to teachers who have been developing Design Thinking tasks for quiet some time. But it's important to know who to follow on Twitter here are my recommendations:  
Principals Dr Chagala  @drchagala and Kaleb Brashad @kalebrashad are leaders who are charging their schools forward with Design Thinking.  Science teachers Brian Delgado @bluedotbrian and Andrew Lerario @bluedotandrew and English teacher  Dan Ryder (@wickeddecent) are forging the way for teachers to jump on board with Design Thinking.  

5. Start Small and Stay Humble: this process is definitely not about perfection it's all about the process.  So be gentle with yourself and know that kids are still learning even if you're not getting the exact results that you want.  Learning can occur when mistakes are made and projects fail.  Failure is an opportunity for growth and a chance for kids to know that just because you fail does not mean you need to give up.  Here's an inspiring video of kids at HighTech High building a rocket 

So if you've got a growth mindset and a willingness to step outside of the box, then creating, implementing and facilitating a Design Thinking task is the right step for you.  Let us know what works for you, what are your challenges and where you need to grow, because that's what being humble is all about, and if we can't own our mistakes how can we teach empathy to others?

Join the digital conversation on our Facebook Group: Teacher Prep Tech 
Reboot Your Teaching Practice with Design Thinking: 5 Tips to Get Started Reboot Your Teaching Practice with Design Thinking: 5 Tips to Get Started Reviewed by Dr. Dickenson on 10:12 AM Rating: 5


  1. The implementation of design thinking can be difficult, but well worth it for my students. Many of my students do not know what their passions are (or do not want to admit them in front of others), so class time devoted to generating ideas and sharing them as a class would be necessary for my students to feel comfortable choosing their own topics to explore during a unit.

    Having students use backward design with an essential question/idea would also be helpful for them when planning out the process of what needs accomplished and what standards need to be met by the end of the unit. Keeping the end goal in mind throughout the planning process can help them stay on track to be successful.

    Giving students autonomy can be exciting for them, but teachers need to facilitate and make sure student ideas are well thought out before implementation or we may be setting them up for failure.

  2. This post is very beneficial for me. I've enjoyed reading this. It is very useful for me and my close friend who is member of ESD Dallas team. I would like to discuss with him and request to visit this blog once.

  3. Combining design thinking into our “genius hour” projects would be a great way to incorporate this in an elementary classroom. Students are already asked to think about and try to solve a problem that exists. The teacher could either open it up to a problem that exists in the world or have it more classroom based. Having them take it a step forward and actually create a model, by use of a 3D printer for example, would give them something tangible afterward. Students working collaboratively on their designs would benefit from their immediate feedback. This type of activity prepares students to enter into the global community and become productive, proactive citizens.

  4. That is really nice to hear. thank you for the update and good luck. Art prints posters

  5. While reading this blog post, and chapter 5, Cultivating Passionate Students, I began to jot down ideas for implementing the Design Thinking strategy into my fifth grade classroom. First, I would like to post the four C's in my room, and begin discussing each concept with my students. My next steps were developed from the blog posts five tips for implementation. I would reach out to my PLC group to share about this new to us strategy. We are currently doing lesson studies, and are able to observe each other three times a year, with time given for feedback. Our next lesson study is in May, which may be a good time to implement a unit developed around design thinking. Fortunately, I feel confident in the empathy aspect of this strategy. I take a tremendous amount of time focusing on our classroom culture. I strive to foster a room of collaboration and communication. One of our classroom mottos this year is, "Everyone is a learner. It might not be at the same time, or the same way, but everyone is capable of learning." Implementing an opportunity for students to learn about a standard in a meaningful way is empowering as a teacher. I enjoy that aspect of backwards planning. Looking at where we need to be, then tying in the standards. I also think that having your PLC group on board will help with the planning process, or any kinks you need help smoothing out before presenting to students. The biggest thing I took away from these readings are to start small. As teachers, we tend to get overwhelmed with trying to keep up in this field. There are so many strategies that we hear about at professional developments, and our districts can sometimes make us unintentionally feel like we need to implement EVERY strategy learned. It can be a lot to take in. Having a strategy that cherishes mistakes that might be made, or asks you to start with a small bit of the strategy feels doable. Also, it quite honestly may be more effective in the long run too. Knowing you have room for growth as a teacher is a relief! After all, don't we always teach our students to try, try again? -Kalee

  6. Good post you have published. I would like to discuss with my other friends who is currently working with Corbin Treacy Thanks for sharing this post with us.

  7. I think one of the biggest issues for teachers trying to implement design based learning is trying to define what kind of role we (the teachers) have in the classroom. Some teachers might see this type of individual attention as additional to what they’re already doing, and the typical expectations of this already demanding profession. But, really it’s shifting our job from presenters and assessors to facilitators. By abandoning traditional lesson plans, and copious amounts of grading, we will have time to give students the individual attention needed to guide their questions, their projects, and their self assessments. We become partners in the brainstorming process instead of someone who expects students to fit into a pre-designed mold. By providing this type of support instead of traditional assessment, we can ensure that students are not only reaching outside of Vygotsgy’s ZPD, but also making sure they are achieving that feeling of competence that Sanguras emphasizes. I think the first step to implementing design instruction is actually deciding what kind of specific role you will play in the students’ projects.

  8. There was never an attack on your personal spirituality, but when you use a term that has had a very specific and useful function--for many, many people--and decide that it will mean something different, you should expect push back. This has nothing to do with slavish devotion to a tradition, as you’re arguing above, and more to do with language conventions. You’re taking a word, emptiness, infusing it with a very personal meaning, then getting upset that people don’t validate your use of it.

    Can you imagine this in any other domain of social discourse? Could I walk into a Physics class and report that the word “gravity” would mean something slightly different when I use it and not expect people to have a different take on that?

    Paradigm shifts aren’t usually about people reformatting old vocabulary with new definitions--they are about leaving behind an old vocabulary for a new one, more appropriate for a new conversation.

    That said, I do think you will get the most mileage out of a term--which is a tool--if you use it within the vocabulary context in which it was generated. Again, this doesn’t mean unquestioned devotion to a tradition, but an understanding that vocabularies are a kind of ecosystem that function best when their vital components are kept intact.


  9. I find the idea of Design Thinking in education intriguing but immediately run up against whole slew of questions: DT obviously lends itself organically to STEM projects or even project-based learning, but how does it fit into a math or literacy program adoption? (We’re including these subjects, as well, in the range of what a student could be “passionate” about.) This is harder to visualize partly because (a) these program-based learning targets are typically not inherently about design, and (b) the scope/sequence and daily lesson plans are structured with very limited instructional freedom. I’m not saying program adoptions can’t be re-scripted to allow for DT, only that I think having examples would be greatly helpful. How did a 5th grade teacher from Portland use DT in concert with the Lucy Calkins’ Reading Units of Study, for example? We have one limited example in the Sanguras text (the amazon writing example), but I think teachers would need more.
    Even the Science/STEM work our district does isn’t informed by a DT process. Students do get opportunities to engineer and problem solve, but not with an eye towards “users.” While I totally love and support the idea of incorporating DT into these pre-existing units of study, they would often have to be re-worked fundamentally in order to allow for a DT framework to come into play. This is often where brilliant initiatives like this fall apart: it’s simply a matter of limited time and resources.
    In other words, DT really seems to lend itself to what most public schools in my district aren’t doing: open-ended passion projects that are not constrained by the scope and sequence of program adoptions.
    I definitely think aspects of this approach can be incorporated, though: nurturing and modeling passion, using innovating/progressive knowledge-constructing pedagogy, and, when possible, using DT.
    I’d like to, as a challenge, re-vision my instruction through this lens to see how it might work.

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  11. I really like the idea of Design Thinking in the classroom. It also scares me a little. I think it would really inspire students and be way more fun than giving a lesson and doing an assignment. I teach math and it's hard sometimes to get students motivated and excited about math. It would be nice to make math applicable and for the students to see how it is used in the real world, with real world problems.

    My fear comes from trying something new and the risk that it may not working. I would have to have buy in from the students and my administrators. I would also need support from the other members of the Math department. Then there is the fear that the students would fail or not actually learn the math that they needed to learn. With the pressures to ensure that our students pass the state test, it's a little scary to take a risk like this. Yet, this is what I feel teaching should be like. It should be more than bookwork. It should be action and doing. Design Thinking inspires me.

    I like the volume idea that was presented in the blog. I could also see doing something with the Pythagorean Theorem or slope. Maybe something to do with designing ramps for buildings in need of wheelchair ramps, etc. I’m sure the students could come up with lots of great ideas focused around those standards or any of the standards involving geometry.

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  13. After reading Chapter 5, "Cultivating Passionate Students" and "Reboot Your Teaching Practice with Design Thinking", I was left asking myself some difficult questions. Can I realistically make this work in my classroom? Can I get all of my standards taught to students? How will administrators feel about this? Although I agree that we as educators have to change things up to benefit our students in today's world, I feel as though we are limited by administrators who are driven by standardized test scores. Testing of students three and four times each year, to drive our instruction dampers things. However, with that being said, I agree that change has to happen! The change in thinking of our administrators, and teachers. Agreeing that through Design Thinking educators can implement multiple power standards into our lessons thus creating multiple ways for our students to learn is certainly reasonable. The time constraints and the number of CCSS's that are expected to be learned by students in nine months means we must be more creative in our designs of lesson planning.

  14. At my school, all 10th grade students complete a ¾ year long Personal Project which is quite similar to the Genius Hour assignment. Our students struggle with it because they often struggle with having passions. I feel that, if they were introduced to some “Design Thinking” assignments prior to grade 10, they might be more able to be successful at determining what their interests are.

    In my English curriculum, students are being asked to investigate the UN Sustainability Goals for 2030. I feel that a strong way to allow students to have a hands-on opportunity to investigate these goals is to try to solve one of the 17 goals in a country of their choice- anything goes. This will give them the ultimate in a sense of impact since they will be trying to solve goals that governments and world leaders are struggling to solve. Also, as none of the goals has yet been solved, students will be able to be really creative in their ways of solving the problem. Just as there are no right answers, there are also no wrong answers. Their learning will matter as these UN Goals were determined to be the most important things that need to happen to help the world be more sustainable for future generations. By working autonomously, the students are able to beat world leaders, feel successful and show their competence in a variety of ways. Hopefully, also, since there are so many goals, each student or group will be able to find one that speaks to them and can become their passion. If not, maybe they can just be passionate about it for the length of the assignment and branch off in a different way, but have found passion for a field for a short time.

  15. In Chapter Five of Laila Y. Sanguras’ Grit in the Classroom: Building Perseverance for Excellence in Today’s Students and Dr. Dickenson’s article, "Reboot Your Teaching Practice with Design Thinking", both authors discuss the value of design thinking to spark critical thinkers, fuel innovation, promote collaboration and inspire creativity. In reading these papers I was filled with ideas on how to implement this into my own classroom for myself and my students.
    What stood out to me was that design thinking prepares students to be productive and expansive citizens that are able to tackle challenges, solve real life problems and invent a brighter future. “By purposefully cultivating passion in our students, we can bring the fun back and get on with our mission to raise them to be responsible and gritty human beings.” (Sanguras, 114) When I read this I immediately thought of my Global Perspective course I teach at the 12th grade level. I thought about how I can implement design thinking aspects along with genius hour ideas and prepare strong student led projects. Ideas such as having student research a world issue they connect with, organize a way to raise awareness, design a current event website and/or invent their own portfolio idea. My biggest hope is that students find a passion that holds deeper meaning and that they take their inspiration and follow through with commitment to create truly unique and strong differences in the world. Design thinking is aligned with purpose and intention, which translates to stronger classroom community where students can express opinions, challenge themselves and explore new perspectives.
    My favorite aspects of design thinking is the focus on 21st century skills, such as innovation and collaboration, and pairing these skills with passion and creativity. “Building on students' funds of knowledge is what makes Design Thinking learner-centric, but when the task has meaning and value then students will go deeper with their learning and become passionate about what they are doing.” (Dickenson) This aspect spoke to my heart because I believe this builds meaningful intentions for our students and provides them with the opportunity to solve real life problems while also exploring their own interests. I connect this to my high school economics course, where students can work on projects in a Design Thinking manner, where they are hands-on and leading with their own autonomy.
    I love the purpose and strength behind Design Thinking, for it prepares students to be more expansive, collaborative, creative and intentional.

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  17. 9th grade English students at my school prepare for their personal projects and are introduced to service through community service of their choice. After attending an MYP/PYP training this summer, it became apparent how important community service is to students in terms of autonomy and choice of service in their own communities but also to begin thinking globally rather than just in the here and now. Although this is not considered Design Thinking, it would be extremely interesting to somehow design their community service hours into some global problem that they could work on solving and reflecting upon. As my colleague, Karen Taylor, stated in her reflection, her 10th graders have assignments that very much align with the Genius Hour project and Design Thinking so introducing some form of autonomy with their reflections and problem solving would be quite interesting in helping get them prepared for what is to come in 10th grade.

    Another observation I have about Design Thinking is I really like the emphasis on critical thinking rather than what the end result will be. Of course there is the expectation that kids will have an end result but I really enjoy watching my students think deeper about common assignments whether it be a literary device or problem solving so the emphasis on thinking with Design Thinking is something that I appreciate about this.

  18. The readings regarding cultivating passion in students were very inspiring, and definitely the way I would prefer to teach. I agree this is a more realistic scenario for students, one I feel is lacking in schools, and is therefore more engaging and conducive to growth. However, part of me starts throwing a pity-party when my excitement is so rudely faced with inevitable challenges. Those challenges come in the form of state and district “requirements.” I have worked in a number of schools during my career, and have been in experiences where administration expected all teachers to be teaching the same adopted curriculum lesson on the same day. Thus, ensuring all kids in that grade level band make it through the exact same curriculum by the end of each term. Although, I am beyond thrilled this is no longer my situation, it makes me realize this modality of teaching needs to start with teacher support. Therefore, I am choosing to begin by sending my principal to read this article.
    I feel I have dabbled in design thinking over the last few years, but haven’t been up to snuff. My goal for this year is to pick the subject I have the most freedom with (most likely social studies), and shift to a design thinking model for at least one unit per quarter. If even this seems too daunting, I’ll pare it down, as I’d rather have a quality experience.

  19. Implementing Design Thinking sounds inspiring as the teacher acts as a facilitator for students who brainstorm, create, plan and build an idea that became possible because of their ideas and teamwork. I can see the enthusiasm and passion that it would create but then I fall back into how do I do this as a math teacher? Chapter 5 Cultivate Passionate Students, second page caught my eye immediately when it discussed state testing and funding. My time is pushed to the limit trying to teach students to pass not only my class but the rigors of state testing. Yes I have been close to burning out from working to inspire interest in the subject matter, repetition to help build brain memory, and fight against the wave of student apathy that seems to grow rather than shrink. I want more of those “ahhh ah moments” where they finally get it and a light opens up. DT is a teaching tool that I could plan as a yearly project for the class to work together as a hands-on-learning real world problem to brainstorm, investigate, and solve for a problem; then implement a solution together. Students do feel empowered when they create or build something, this could lead to a community wide service project; such as, ramps, bridges, playground equipment, or more involving geometric shapes, volume and area. Also the use of probability and statistics if it was more than just a paper assignment. The CTE (Career and educational) and shop teacher would be open to helping with design and creative solutions.

  20. Implementing Design Thinking in my own classroom sounds scary, overwhelming, and extremely exciting. Many years ago when I began teaching I remember part of my philosophy was to be the “guide on the side” I wanted to encourage students to find what inspired them to learn more. I wanted to start down a road and find as many paths that split off from that as my students wanted and needed. I was able to do this, for a bit, and then it seemed near impossible with the way teaching was changed. I now had standards and many tests I was required to ready students for in a way that I was not used to, I had to teach the curriculum and not stray. This way that I wanted to teach, and I could see students wanted to learn by, was not exactly Design Thinking but it was cross curriculum, student centered and led, and maybe most of all fun. Students wanted to learn and I didn’t have to work so hard to help that happen.
    Implementing this type of teaching now would take some serious effort on my part because of what the past ten plus years of being in education has done to me, and my way of teaching. For me, the first place I would start with this would be to find as many ways as possible to combine all the subjects so students stop compartmentalizing each area and labeling them. I would want them to see the connection between everything so they can no longer say I don’t like math, or reading, or writing, or whatever the case. I would also have discussions so students are able to share their hopes, their discoveries, and their passions, which in turn plants seeds in other students, which they can then grow.
    I really like how this blog and the chapter five reading encourage getting excited about our passions. I know when I talk to my students at the beginning of the year so many are worried about math and say they don’t like it or they are bad at it, I was one of those students so I feel them. However, by the end of the year that has changed for so many of them and I really credit that to my excitement for it now as their teacher. I get so excited to do math with them and they know it! I have fun with them, and I help them discover the fun in it as well. I know this is just the beginning of implementing Design Thinking in my classroom, but hey I’ve got to start somewhere!


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