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What Does 'Design Thinking' Look Like in School?

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Design thinking can seem a bit abstract to teachers. It’s not part of traditional teacher training programs and has only recently entered the teachers' vernacular.

Design thinking is an approach to learning that includes considering real-world problems, research, analysis, conceiving original ideas, lots of experimentation, and sometimes building things by hand. But few schools have the time or wherewithal to integrate these processes into the school day.

But at the Nueva School in Hillsborough, Calif., a small, private school for grades K-8, design thinking is part of every class and subject, and has been integrated throughout the curriculum with support from a dedicated Innovation Lab or the iLab.

“It’s really a way to make people more effective and to supercharge their innate capabilities,” said Kim Saxe, director of Nueva's iLab, and one of the champions of design thinking.


At Nueva, students are asked to bring the principles of design to every problem, no matter what age or grade. One fourth-grade design challenge included designing an LED lamp for a family member. Rather than immediately jumping in with ideas about the coolest lamp design, students were told to go home and observe their family members surreptitiously and decide who most needed a new light source. They then had to design a lamp that suited that person’s need and interests.

A sixth grade health-related project required students to work with Kaiser Permanente to improve some of their products. Students interviewed real patients to understand their health experiences and to improve them. “I felt that if they interviewed people with health issues that the kids would get some wisdom from them,” Saxe said. “Rather than being an overt health class it would infiltrate them.” And because students pitched their ideas to Kaiser -- not just to the teacher for evaluation and assessment -- they took the project very seriously.

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Kindergartners are tackling simple design challenges too, learning about materials, and getting a taste of design thinking as part of all their lessons. By third grade the students are actually designing products that have a service component; they research the problem, come up with solutions and design presentations and brochures on their best idea.

The projects teach students how to make a stable product, use tools, think about the needs of another, solve challenges, overcome setbacks and stay motivated on a long-term problem. The projects also teach students to build on the ideas of others, vet sources, generate questions, deeply analyze topics, and think creatively and analytically. Many of those same qualities are goals of the Common Core State Standards, Saxe said. “Design thinking weaves together a lot of the standards that need to be taught in ways that people will really need to use them,” Saxe said.

In addition to classwork, Saxe keeps the iLab open during recess so students can work on their own projects.


A big part of what Saxe loves about her job is thinking about how to foster each student’s individual creativity, helping them think critically about how and where they get their best ideas. One active student discovered his best ideas came after he’d tired out his body playing sports. Another student found that shutting herself in a closet where she wasn't affected by anyone else was the most productive.

Saxe has developed a strategy for pulling lots of great ideas from her students, but it runs contrary to the group brainstorming method that many entrepreneurs embrace. Instead, students spread out to a quiet, comfortable space for solo-brainstorming. When they come back into groups each student shares her favorite idea and the group builds on that idea. Then each student shares her wildest idea. “Innovation often comes from some seed of an idea that’s tucked into a wild idea,” Saxe said. The group can help tease out what works and what doesn't.

Other qualities of great design learning educators include being open and curiosity, the ability to question beyond the facts, a positive attitude, high energy levels, and excitement about interdisciplinary approaches. More than anything, Saxe said the educator should “firmly believe that if you tell an answer to a child you've deprived them of a great learning opportunity.”

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Nueva's integrated design thinking program might seem impossible to achieve in a public school, but elements of design thinking are easy to implement anywhere, she said. Even at Nueva, which was highly receptive to the idea, implementation was slow. Saxe was careful not to force teachers to incorporate design elements; instead, she offered trainings and helped to plan and deliver lessons. Since the program started in 2007, the school has steadily added design learning elements to all grade levels and subject areas until the iLab and the classroom are woven together.

One of the things that sold design thinking to the faculty was the idea of attempting to solve a real problem and adding an element of making.

[RELATED: Harvard Wants to Know: How Does the Act of Making Shape Kids' Brains?]

“Our faculty loved that design thinking increased student empathy,” Saxe said. “We always have them designing for a classmate or someone in the community, rather than just themselves.” Most often students are trying to solve problems they've identified in the life of a family member or in the community around them.


Saxe became a design learning believer because of a personally transformative experience rediscovering her own good ideas. But she recognizes that teaching with design thinking takes some specific qualities. “I think it takes a fair amount of flexibility and resourcefulness,” she said. “They have to be willing to deal with uncertainty themselves. If you are going to let someone go into an area and identify the needs, you have to give up control.”

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