Design Thinking: Ideas for the Classroom

We have a special treat this week on the blog! Our friend Stephanie over at the USC Rossier School of Education shares her tips and ideas for how to incorporate the concept of design thinking into your classroom. There’s some great information ahead!
Students are untapped experts in the field of education. They spend hundreds of hours every year in classrooms where their insights are rarely requested. Spend 10 minutes in a classroom and you’ll immediately notice areas that need improvement: That weird corner where students can’t really hear; The Friday dead zone where a change in routine would be welcome. That’s where design thinking comes in. Recognize a problem, design a solution, try it out, get feedback, improve and share.

Design Thinking


Design thinking is a great way to revitalize students’ learning experience and it allows students to participate and learn at their own pace. Here are the five phases of design thinking that can easily be applied in the classroom.


Discover: What do you (and your students) want to change? What’s the challenge? This can come in the form of a class prompt to solve a problem or students themselves can identify an area of need on their own. Before you can find solutions, make sure you thoroughly understand the problem. This might mean researching online or conducting interviews and looking at the issue from multiple points of view. For example, kids have lots of stuff at school. If the problem is: How might we better store and manage our school materials? Then the first step would be to ask how students are already managing it and assess the current situation.

Design Thinking

Here is a worksheet to help students find and understand a problem.


Interpretation: Knowing a lot about the problem can seem daunting, like trying to solve poverty or reform the entire tax code. Instead of becoming overwhelmed with a big issue, step back. Once students have done research on the problem, they will have a lot of information and will need to narrow it down to one aspect for their current focus. This can be the hardest step for kids to move through and it will require your guidance.  Narrow in on one specific problem you want to address first.


For example, in regards to the school storage issue, you could limit your worry to just papers—not lunch boxes, not backpacks or water bottles.


Here’s a worksheet to turn information about a problem into a statement of action.


Ideation: What can we do to address the specific issue we have decided to focus on? This step is essentially brainstorming — emphasize the importance of generating ideas and nothing more. If students get stuck or aren’t comfortable throwing out crazy ideas, a worksheet with prompts about different ways of thinking might help. Post-its are extremely helpful in this stage as they are easy to move around and will force students to write succinct ideas.  You could assign students in groups and give each a different color.


In the school storage example, students can write down any and all ideas about how they can store and manage their papers better, such as: include bins attached to the bottom of desks, folders on walls, or full digitization of the classroom.


Design Thinking


Once you have generated many ideas, start narrowing them down to find one solution to try out. Sometimes this means combining a few ideas into one concept. If you are working in groups, you could have each group of students pick their own idea to try out, or simply have each student pick her/his own idea to work on. It’s nice to keep up the ideas that weren’t chosen as a reminder that one must be selective when problem solving, and if the first concept doesn’t work, you can go back to the drawing board and try a different idea.


Experimentation: Here’s where you get to be messy. Take the selected idea and put it into the three-dimensional universe. Make a model or prototype of your planned solution. Not every problem needs a physical solution, but it helps to make a design or model, so that the process is easier for students to see and understand. A wide variety of supplies can help guide creativity and encourage students to try something new.


In this phase of solving for the paper storage issue, students could draw out their idea and how it would work, create the idea in 3D form, or act out the idea by role-playing how it would work. The method is not as important as the ability to communicate the idea and how it could work so that others outside the group will be able to understand it.


Evolution: One try and you’re done, right? Isn’t that how real-life inventions work? Of course not. The evolution phase is when you show your product (what you created in your experimentation phase) and receive feedback from others to improve your original idea. In order to focus on constructive criticism in the classroom, you can use this handout to help students provide useful feedback. After getting feedback, students should go back to the ideation step and revise. Repeat until the best solution has been found for the problem!


Excited to try something new like design thinking in your classroom? Is your mind spinning with new ideas? The Big Ideas Fest coming up in December will be four days full of excitement. Hear from other educators about what has worked for them; mingle with innovators from all fields who want to get students thinking and dreaming big. You’ll come away energized with classroom-ready tools.


Related Resources + Activity ideas:


PBS Design Squad Nation provides training videos, lesson plans, and other materials at a basic level for anyone dipping their toes into the world of problem-based learning.


Tech Museum for Innovation. This plan is very structured and step-by-step, which is ideal for introducing these new concepts.


Classroom guide about design.


Middle school Design Thinking project in action.




Stephanie Echeveste used to teach English on the northern coast of Spain and now works in community relations for the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education’s online Master of Arts in Teaching. She loves #Edchat, cappuccinos and design thinking.


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