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Imagine a classroom where students create meaningful solutions (think tangible product prototypes) that have a positive impact on the world. That’s the basic premise behind Design Thinking, a nationwide initiative that encourages students to tackle real-world challenges.

Before you start thinking, Hey, aren’t we talking about maker spaces?, let’s define Design Thinking. It’s not a curriculum, per say. Design Thinking is a mindset and framework that helps educators use a human-centered process to teach students problem-solving.

In this blog, we’ll provide some specifics on what design thinking is, how it’s being applied in classrooms, and how to create the best space for design thinkers.

What is Design Thinking?

“Design Thinking isn’t one thing,” says Neil Stevenson with IDEO Chicago, one of the best-known purveyors of the concept. (IDEO offers a free, downloadable Design Thinking Toolkit at Rather, he says it’s a “bundle of mindsets and philosophies all wrapped up in one term.”

It starts with empathy. For example, if students are designing a renewable energy farm, they must first think about the needs of the people who will use the energy and the impact on neighbors, as well as the practical aspects, such as location and budget. Stevenson explains that the design-thinking philosophy requires students to put their egos aside and examine how to meet the unmet needs – rational and emotional – of the end user.

Design Thinking also stresses imagination. It means generating a lot of ideas. Teachers instruct students to have an open mind to define problems, create prototypes and hone those prototypes through multiple iterations until they have generated a viable solution or solutions. Failure and frustration are a natural part of the process. Students learn resiliency through the concept of “failing forward.”

According to a recent presentation by Stanford University, Design Thinking helps children learn “that they have the power to change the world.” Moreover, that they can change it now, rather than waiting until they’re older.

Classroom Applications

In a Design Thinking classroom, both teachers and students engage in hands-on design challenges that focus on “developing empathy, promoting a bias toward action, encouraging ideation, developing metacognitive awareness and fostering problem-solving,” the Stanford Presentation notes.

Many educators are applying the guidelines of Design Thinking to schools in exciting ways. The nonprofit Henry Ford Learning Institute (HFLI) is an example of an organization leading the Design Thinking charge. HFLI asked the question: How can public school education foster innovation explicitly? How can it empower students?

HFLI set out to establish a framework for developing curricula that meets traditional academic standards and also makes room for lessons in the valuable skills of the design thinker, such as creativity, adaptability, empathy and synthesis.

To accomplish this, HFLI partnered with IDEO and other experts from around the country to identify the core attributes of an innovator and to imagine a school environment that produces graduates with those traits, according to an IDEO article. Based on their insights, and a partnership with EDC, a nationally recognized curriculum-development company, HFLI established a new structure that “organizes each quarter around a particular design challenge, and aligns the academic content covered in the discipline-based classes with the design challenge at hand to provide relevant knowledge.”

In this innovative curriculum, students work in teams to build process-based skills, including communication, prototyping, empathy and collaboration, as they solve real-life problems. As the school year progresses, the challenges grow increasingly complex.

For example, IDEO offers a sample project where sixth-graders are tasked with creating a better study area. The assignment entails interviewing each other to discover personal preferences, researching ergonomics, and observing other workspaces. Next, the project becomes more complicated, and students are asked to “brainstorm, develop and test a prototype, drawing on the knowledge they’ve gleaned from math, science and other courses,” the IDEO article explains.

How to Create a Space for Design Thinkers

Creating an effective space for Design Thinking requires a growth mindset and the belief that, just because something is challenging, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done or isn’t possible. If educators truly want their students to benefit from the process, it’s important to create the right learning environment.

According to IDEO’s Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit:

The physical environment of the classroom sends a big signal about how you want your students to behave. Right now, we tend to think of our classroom spaces as standard … kids in rows, sitting in desks. By rethinking the design of our spaces we can send new messages to our students about how they should feel and interact with the classroom.

If you’re planning on creating a learning environment conducive to a Design Thinking- based pedagogy, it’s important for students to feel at ease and have the ability to collaborate with one another without restriction. Choose flexible classroom furnishings that students can arrange creatively.

Furniture manufacturers like Smith System offer a number of solutions for design thinkers. Check out Smith’s collaborative furniture desks, tables and chairs, especially  Flavors Seating, which allows students to face front, back and both sides. Also see Smith’s Cascade Storage Systems for ways to organize and store essential Design Thinking supplies.

With Smith System’s help, schools can create an invigoration classroom that helps everyone put on her or his best (design) thinking caps!

Works Cited
“Design Thinking for Educators.” Design Thinking for Educators. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 June 2016.
“Design Thinking for the 21st Century.” Sing Teach. Sing Teach, n.d. Web. 10 June 2016.
Lahey, Jessica. “How Design Thinking Became a Buzzword at School.” The Atlantic, 4 Jan. 2017.
Riddle, Thomas. “Empowering Students With Design Thinking.” Edutopia. Edutopia, 2016. Web. 10 June 2016.
Schwartz, Katrina. “Can Design Thinking Help Schools Find New Solutions to Old Problems?” MindShift. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 June 2016.