Design thinking in schools

A designer's process for solving problems takes root in districts

An increasing number of educators use elements of the design-thinking process—empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test—to find solutions to and think analytically about the many ails plaguing the world around them.

Michael Cohen, printmaking and design expert turned educator, says district leaders can use design thinking to address systemic educational issues such as high dropout rates and poor student engagement.

As the director of innovation for Yevisha University of Los Angeles Boys School in California, Cohen sees design thinking as a very intentional process of analyzing different variables to find the best solution for all stakeholders.

“You want a company or organization to have its brand represented well and the end user to be excited enough to engage with it” he says. The same intention, he adds, can be applied to classrooms.

Cohen, known as the “Tech Rabbi” is a featured presenter for the Future of Education Technology Conference, January 27-30, 2019, in Orlando, Fla.

Where does the design-thinking methodology fit into K12?

As educators, we’re designing to support and create environments for people to succeed. These people happen to be our students.

Design thinking gives students an opportunity to wonder. It’s going to make more creative thinkers in society, and develop them into people who will start to wonder how to solve problems in a more unique way.

What are the first steps for introducing design thinking to schools?

The first thing is for an administrator to really understand the design-thinking model. That’s a very easy first step.

A framework was created by Stanford University and IDEO, a think tank and design firm, which says that design thinking begins with empathy.

As leaders, when we lead with empathy and we understand whom we’re trying to support, we actually empower students and teachers. This doesn’t make them followers, it makes them leaders.

Design thinking creates a culture that is empathetic, and it is focused on problem-solving with the end user in mind.

Once you establish this empathetic culture, what follows?

The second step is to bring that into the conversation.

If it’s a district leader and they’re meeting with their principals or if they’re meeting with their teacher leaders, look at education as a challenge to solve—whether it’s struggling readers or math scores that need improvement, or they’re looking to create an environment and an elective-driven program in which divergent thinking and creative thought processes are nurtured.

Allow design thinking to have a role for creativity, but also use it to help solve serious and very significant challenges that we might face as a district, or any, leader.

How should design thinking frame the work of a district administrator?

That’s what’s so beautiful about this process. It really is about exploration and trying, and not about trying to perfect it or having specific steps to succeed. This is a method of problem-solving. It is so versatile. Each step of the design-thinking process, independently, has value.

The design-thinking process starts with empathy, then you define the problem and then you start to ideate.

It encourages not three ideas but 50 ideas, which takes the pressure off of ‘perfection’ or that we must get this right the first time.


Emily Ann Brown is associate editor.

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