Education & Design Thinking


What is design thinking and why should teachers care about it?

Let’s start with what design thinking is NOT. Design thinking is not a curriculum, not just for project-based learning, and not another buzzword passed down from administrators.  Design thinking is a combination of methods and mindsets used by engineers, businesses, and product designers that can help educators (and students) solve real world problems.

According to The Teachers Guild, a design thinking education nonprofit, “design thinking in education is a learner-centered approach to problem-solving that builds teachers’ skills and confidence to design for the evolving needs of their students and schools.”  

To say it another way, design thinking is an effective way of solving problems (and holy-moly do we have some problems to solve right now because of COVID-19). We hope these ideas and resources about design thinking will help you and your students solve problems while building metacognition, creativity, and relationships.

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These students have mastered the art of the class pranks over video meetings. (Warning: Sharing this with students may give them creative ideas and make your class TikTok famous).


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Watch students from Birmingham Covington Middle School use design thinking to become master problem-solvers and collaborators by designing, building, and iterating on prototypes.


Teachers are already some of the most creative and flexible design thinkers on the planet. You might not know it, but you use design thinking all the time to be responsive to student needs and design creative lessons. Learning more about design thinking and the methods used in business and engineering can empower you to be even more creative and collaborative inside and outside of the classroom! Here are the foundational steps to applying design thinking methods to improve your teaching:

Empathize – Discover student needs and reflect on evidence

Ideate – Define the problem with your team or class  and generate new ideas

Build – Make ideas tangible with a lesson or program prototype

Test – Try ideas to gather feedback from students

Iterate – Refine ideas based on feedback

Share – Inspire others to try your ideas

Use Design Thinking FOR for Your Students

Design thinking is a powerful tool to apply to the design of your own classroom, lessons, and interactions with individual students. By thinking of our students as users and leaning into listening with empathy (and letting go of our assumptions and old routines), design thinking can open up new ideas and solutions in our classrooms.

How can design thinking help schools find new solutions to old problems? Kamar Samuels, the Principal at Bronx Writing Academy used design thinking to listen to design school for his hardest to reach students. Instead of quickly trying to solve the problems of absenteeism and low test scores, the staff took time to listen to and empower students’ ideas. Students suggested more physical activity, specific technologies they needed in class, and other ideas. And It worked! Because of the design thinking process, those students now,  “work with more independence and are able to ask questions that make you feel as though they have a higher expectation of us. They are becoming advocates for their own learning.” 

The bottom line, design thinking works, but it’s not always easy. The design process can be messy and difficult. Design thinking requires a growth mindset – not only from the students, but also from us educators! As educators, we need to be open to challenges and new ideas (and some failed ideas). By taking on a growth mindset that focuses on the process of getting to really know our students’ needs and designing lessons in response to student interests,  design thinking can help us discover new and better ways to help students succeed. 

Try this empathy-building exercise for educators! Virtually shadow a student’s day to learn what online learning is actually like for your students.

  • Set up a video meeting when a student is working. 
  • Tell the student you want to see what online learning is like for them, then just work alongside them as they complete their online work. 
  • As the student works, observe their learning space, their distractions, and their routine. Ask open-ended questions and check-in a few times throughout the call.
  • Ask yourself how you can apply your observations to better design lessons or support your students.

Use Design Thinking WITH Your Students

Want more engagement, deeper learning, and more collaboration in your classroom? Teach your students design thinking with your students. Incorporating design thinking in your lessons can help students feel more engaged because they will be taking on real-world problems,  and they will be more empowered because their ideas will be brought to life. Even more importantly, design thinking promotes metacognition by teaching students to break down problems, empathize with others, and utilize project planning skills.  

You might be thinking that design thinking sounds good, but isn’t for you or your students. Before you take a pass on design thinking, let’s debunk a few myths about using design thinking with students. 

Design thinking is NOT just for STEAM class You can use design thinking in every subject with every age group, and you should because it helps students organize their thinking! 

Design thinking does NOT require a maker space – Design thinking can work when building things with duct tape and cardboard or when creating digital content. There’s A LOT of tools you can use with a design thinking lesson. The possibilities are endless!

Design thinking is NOT just for fun projects Design thinking can fit with any standard that starts with problems students can solve! The design thinking process might even allow you to cover more standards, because it allows students to engage in a variety of skills to solve problems.  

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Not sure how to start using design thinking in your classroom? 

Start with design thinking expert John Spencer’s guide to design thinking for teachers and learn how to make PBL a reality in a distance learning environment.  

Try one of these design thinking-based projects with your students.


Learn more about design thinking with these in-depth resources recommended by the TomTod staff. 

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Thank you and Adventure on!

– The TomTod Team

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