Will Design Thinking disrupt Education?

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VIDEO Desktop walkthrough prototype

Chances are if you didn’t go to design school (or don’t have a career in design) you believe you have absolutely no clue what Design Thinking is.

But when one starts analysing how they create solutions, they are likely to recognise similarities with this now superpop method. Innovation by Design Thinking follows patterns similar to other traditional methods, however guided by human-centric principles rather than business & technology requirements. Katja Tschimmel (2015) describes it as a way of transforming and innovating through human-centric approach. In other words, creative thinking with people in mind that leads to actually meaningful solutions.

Doing is the new Teaching

During 2 intensive days we had guests from Portugal, Katja Tschimmel and Mariana Valença, lecture the Design Thinking masters course at Laurea SID. What stood out for me was their way of lecturing. They digested all those years of extensive research into easy-to-grasp exercises and a useful set of slides overviewing everything Design Thinking. It was interactive and inspiring rather than exhaustive. Quickly the lecture became practical with quizzes, ultimately becoming a workshop following one of the models presented, Evolution 6.

I’m more interested in observing how Design Thinking can change the way we teach/learn anything at schools in general. While performing the exercises myself I recognised at least 4 design thinking principles applied to the teaching&learning environment, described by Tschimmel in the latest Research Report D-Think.

4 Design Thinking Principles for Education

1. Holistic Approach

We performed an ice breaker in which we mapped ourselves in space according to country of origin. In another warm-up exercise we collected answers from each other. As a result, we got a more holistic understanding of who we are as a group: I know now peoples’ nationalities and that Laura is an only child. For successful projects every aspect needs to be taken into account. A holistic understanding of the environment and it’s playing parts is one of the starting points of Design Thinking models, like the E6’s Emergence Phase

2. Empathy

We created our own personas by actively listening, drawing, observing. We also used “Interviews with images” (one E6 Empathy Phase tool) to understand emotions triggered by different concepts. The goal of the empathy principle is to deeply understand people’s behaviours, expectations, decision making process, personal and cultural values. Moore (2013) stresses how commitment to human-centricity is fundamental in organisations. Understanding well people around us brings value to collaboration in learning environments as well.

3. Creative Thinking

The exercise of jotting down all possible things to do with a pen, and later on the “Brainwriting” tool helped us practice the concept of divergent thinking without judging each other’s ideas. The key point is to support a healthy, stereotype-free, effective creative collaboration (E6 Experimentation Phase)

4. Prototyping

As a designer, most times I try out new tools it’s a beta software, a template or a keyboard shortcut. When I saw the Lego toys for the “Desktop Walkthrough” I was very curious what kind of learning outcome it could possibly produce other than pure play. It was a surprise to realise how it helped us identify pain points in our customer journey.

The principle of early testing and improving works as a bridge between conceptual solutions and their materialisation. Because prototypes identify risks early, they also have an important business impact according to Moore (2013). I feel active prototyping in education could help institutions adapt faster to students’ fast changing needs.

Moving away from a Book-Centric to Human-Centric Educational Approach

The outcome of those 2 days was a well-structured, innovative solution co-created based on Design Thinking tools. Considering students’ initial level of familiarity with the methodology, results were impressive. It was a challenging effort, but the process was flexible enough to adapt to common student limitations such as limited attention spam and fatigue, for example. 

And just like that, Design Thinking principles were successfully used to teach Design Thinking. It was different from the traditional lecture during which you sit and get dumped tons of really technical information. It was interactive and just deep enough to inspire and guide our further studies. I felt the learning experience was pleasant and that I have truly internalised the learnings by doing.

If you are interested in experimenting with the same tools we used, you can now buy online the playful deck of Design Thinking cards from Mindshake.


written by Livia Hakala

Mootee, Idris. 2013. Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation: What They Can’t Teach You at Business or Design School. Wiley.

Tschimmel, Katja. 2015. Research Report D-Think.

4 thoughts on “Will Design Thinking disrupt Education?

  1. Livia, you have managed to express very clearly the important Design Thinking Principles and link them to what we learned during the two days of the DT course. Overall, a very well structured blog. Bravo! I truly hope that the answer to your title is YES and that the Design Thinking movement in schools and other educational institutions ,or whatever you want to call it, will spread on a global scale. With today’s digitalisation and open source methods this might be even possible. There are already good examples: The D-Think project, HBR’s Design Thinking Issue from last year’s September presented the case of the private business Intercorp setting up a school network in Peru with the help of IDEO & Design Thinking, IDEO publishing its Design Thinking for Educators toolkit and the Finnish HundrED project. So, we are on a good track!

    • Oh I didn’t know there was a project ongoing in South America… that’s excellent since developing countries tend to bear more traditional education models, what mainly causes them to end up lagging behind in various aspects….social, political, economical… I just love how DT can be such a holistic game changer 🙂

  2. I’m also really interested in how design thinking can be used to improve educational outcomes. On a most basic level, I remember being an English teacher at a public high school in Madagascar many years ago — all the other teachers read out lessons from a book and expected the students to memorize, repeat, and recall the information for the tests. My American colleagues and I had been trained to create an interactive experience for the kids, because students learn more when they are engaged with the subject matter. Across Africa I think education still needs to be improved at this basic level: injecting interactivity. But I think most European and American schools have already moved into this interactive/engaging way of teaching.

    I’m not convinced, however, that most students learn how to identify what fulfills them in life, and how to craft a life that enables them to achieve that fulfillment — even in Europe and America. This seems like a very complicated thing to accomplish, but it would mark a fundamental achievement in human satisfaction, so we must try! I wonder if we could use service design principles to design a better approach to childhood education that would respond to this fundamental “user need” that is currently being overlooked?

    • Yeah I can have a pretty good idea what you’re talking about regards the experience in Madagascar ( the brazilian government recently sent educators and education officials for training in Finland). I also think there’s still a lot of ground to cover even in the North… learning in Europe or America is certainly on the interactive side, but still not on the spot-on-learning-for-life level, which DT can help achieve. Actually this topic you mention of achieving happiness is becoming something quite big… it’s moving away from being individual’s “own cross to carry” to something to be discussed/regarded by the system.

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