What is Design Thinking for educators?

Five phases of design thinking in colorful circles

Design Thinking for Educators is a collaborative, human-centered problem-solving approach. Educators often face problems of practice that are complex and varied, requiring flexible, interdisciplinary, and creative strategies. These kinds of “messy” problems — where no clear “right” or “wrong” solution exists — are well-suited to Design Thinking as a problem-solving tool (City et al., 2009). This conception of “teacher as designer” may challenge more traditionally held views of “teacher as doer” — that is, the design aspect of teachers’ work is distinct from the implementation aspect. Designing requires the active construction of new ideas, while implementing often assumes that these ideas already exist (Carlgreen, 1999).

While several variants exist, Waloszek (2012) suggests that the main stages of the process are the same: understanding the problem; observing users; interpreting the results; generating ideas (ideating); developing prototypes; and testing and improving the design. These stages are flexible and iterative — not a “predefined series of orderly steps” but rather a “system of spaces” (Brown, 2008, p. 88) where designers might re-enter the process to gather more information or generate more ideas.

  Design Thinking became a central feature of our work for several reasons. We believed, based on research, theory, and experience, that it could help teachers:

  • respond to the sudden and startling uncertainty that a global pandemic engendered
  • identify the “solvable” problems within their purview and generate real solutions in the form of prototypes
  • center their teaching on students who were most excluded from high-level learning in mathematics

Our theory of action assumed that Design Thinking would offer participants a specific and replicable process to be used again and again within their local context. By experiencing Design Thinking for themselves — within collaborative teams, grounded in problems of practice of their own making, supported by our guidance — we believed that teachers might take up a “teacher as designer” identity. Finally, the historical moment of our course suggested the urgency for a problem-solving approach for teachers that was innovative and forward-looking. While other methods might have focused on “what is,” we trusted that Design Thinking would support participants to envision “what might be” (Owen, 2005).

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