Design Thinking and ‘Thinking Inside the Box’

Making time this morning to dig deeper into design thinking. The IDEAS blog shared on “The Learner’s Way” site ( shares the story of one of the pioneers of design thinking … Stanford University’s dschool. 

An Introduction to Design Thinking (Part 1)




May 31, 2015

‘Design Thinking’ might just be the next ‘new’ old thing in education. In her recent address to the National Press Club, Catherine Livingstone of The Business Council of Australia included ‘Design Thinking’ amongst the critical STEM skills required for Australia’s future. But what do we mean by ‘Design Thinking’ and why should educators be interested?

Stanford University has been a pioneer of ‘Design Thinking’ since founding its dSchool in 2005. Founder David Kelley explains that ‘the central tenet of Design Thinking, isn’t one of aesthetic or utility, but of empathy and human observation’. It is a process for finding new ways of solving problems and for identifying problems worth solving. It is much more than a process of design and it provides a structure in which critical thinking, reflection and evaluation is the key. Seen in this way it is what 21st century teaching and learning is all about.

“We moved from thinking of ourselves as designers to thinking of ourselves as design thinkers. We have a methodology that enables us to come up with a solution that nobody has before.” — David Kelley

In a traditional problem solving model the solution is derived to solve the problem that has been presented. ‘Design Thinking’ begins a step before this with the identification of the problem a subtle but important difference. The problem identification process is critical as it at this point that we begin to evaluate why problems need a solution. According to Kelley the measure is empathy or ‘needfinding’ a process in which ‘ it was just important to worry about figuring out the kind of human needs that were worth working on and then doing the problem-solving’. ‘Design Thinking’ is not something that happens separate to humanity it is a core response to the needs of people and it begins with asking questions about making the world a better place.

The methodology of ‘Design Thinking’ is the key to its value. It provides a structure and language for collaborative problem solving that allows teams to be more powerful than they would without it. Ewen McIntosh of ‘NoTosh‘ describes it as the box that gives you a place to work within. ‘You want to think creatively, you NEED the box to think inside of. You need a common process to go into new places.’ Rather than throwing out the box, ‘Design Thinking’ turns the box into a worthwhile process that facilitates problem solving and ideation. In this model the box is not a constraint but a structure that enhances creativity.

‘Design Thinking’ engages learners in a highly iterative process grounded in evaluation and critical reflection, both highly valued processes. Research by Looijenga, Klapwijk and de Vries titled ‘The effect of iteration on the design performance of primary school children’ explored the benefits of a highly iterative design process for young students. They found that ‘Effective knowledge expansion comes by thinking about already acquired knowledge and also by searching for definitions and explanations of not yet understood knowledge. Both activities are practiced during design activities.’ This study used simple design tasks with young learners, not the more involved and student driven tasks typical of a ‘Design Thinking’ process and yet the results showed that the iterative process of design tasks required high order thinking skills that could be transferred to other learning contexts. ‘Design concepts emerge and become complete through iteration of analysis, synthesis and evaluation’. For schools using Bloom’s taxonomy the evidence here is clear that ‘Design Thinking’ will not only target the high level thinking skills which are so desirable but will require them to be used over and over again by the students as they evolve their ideas.

For advocates of a ‘Genius Hour’ approach ‘Design Thinking’ is unlikely to be a knew idea. The research by Looijenga et al. adds validity to such an approach ‘Our case study shows that iteration, freedom of choice, collaboration and presentation improve the effectiveness of design and technology activities.’ The beauty of ‘Design Thinking’ is that is a highly collaborative process that leads to the presentation of ideas that are evolved through iteration. That the process begins with the identification of the problems and needs that will become central to the project adds further values as learners are allowed to develop ideas with both personal and broad meaning.

Central to the iterative process is ongoing evaluation of ideas. Allowing students to experience an environment where learning occurs from self-identification of what works and what does not has great value. In ‘Design Thinking’ failure is part of the process that leads to learning. Each time an idea is found to be lacking the learner moves one step closer to a plan that has a chance of working. In the world of start-ups and tech companies this mentality is given voice in catch cries such as ‘fail fast’ or ‘move fast and break things’. Students learn to evaluate their ideas and learn from each iteration. If our goal is to develop a ‘Growth Mindset’ where failure is viewed as a positive learning experience ‘Design Thinking’ provides an ideal process and opportunities to develop an attitude that can be readily transferred beyond the design project.

A “‘Design Thinking’’ approach will also ensure students are engaging in a process of critical reflection and metacognition. ‘Effective reflection for learning through experience requires a capacity for understanding one’s thinking and learning processes, critical self-awareness of values, beliefs and assumptions, and an openness to alternative, challenging perspectives.’ according to Debra Coulson and Marina Harvey of Macquarie University. Their research focused on the role of reflection at three critical points in the learning cycle and which occur repeatedly within a ‘Design Thinking’ process. ‘Reflection for Action’ can occur for students as they consider the nature of ‘Design Thinking’ and use scaffolds for their collaboration which will support reflective practice. ‘Reflection in Action’ is part of the culture of ‘Design Thinking’ in which learners are constantly engaging in a process of questioning, evaluating, testing and refining their ideas based on their observations and analysis. Including a formal reflective process into this mix can add structure and refine the process while recording the thinking that is taking place for later analysis and review. ‘Reflection on Action’ occurs at end points in the ‘Design Process’ but as in many respects the end point is the start of a new cycle the reflective process has greater meaning than it may otherwise. In a “‘Design Thinking’’ model this ‘reflection on action’ is what spurs the learner onto more action and continued learning. ‘Reflection and learning may continue long after the experience and the academic requirements are complete, particularly if scaffolding has been effective in supporting the development of reflective ability and agency.’

Observe a group of students engaged in ‘Design Thinking’ and you will see similarities to the way students play. Unsurprisingly Looijenga et al. noted this in their study. ‘Playing includes experimenting with the same thing, with small variations, over and over again. Every repetition of the experiment gives improvement in performance.’ This sort of constructive play according to John Dewey, amongst other skills and dispositions encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning. What you are also likely to see is learners engaging in a process of self-explaining in which they describe their thinking to themselves or share their ideas with collaborator or teacher. ‘Eliciting self-explanations clearly enhances learning and understanding’ states Chi, De Leeuw, Chiu and LaVancher in their study on the effect of self-explaining. Chi et al. found that self-explaining is a constructive activity and it occurs frequently within the ‘Design Thinking’ process. Further they found it encourages integration of new learning with old and as it is a continuous process where partial explanations are evaluated and added to ‘self-explaining’ can manage conflicts and misunderstandings between new and old knowledge. ‘Design Thinking’ encourages this sort of iterative self-explaining and constructive play.

In Part Two of ‘An Introduction to Design Thinking’ explore how ‘Design Thinking’ can be implemented by schools and discover a range of resources from experts in the field that can maximise its benefits for learners while making the process easy for teachers to embed.

Coulson, D., & Harvey, M. (2013). Scaffolding student reflection for experience-based learning: a framework. Teaching In Higher Education, 18(4), 401-413. doi:10.1080/13562517.2012.752726

Chi, M., De Leeuw, N., Chiu, M., & Lavancher, C. (1994). Eliciting Self-Explanations Improves Understanding. Cognitive Science, 18(3), 439-477. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog1803_3

Dewey, J. (1899/1976). Play and imagination in relation to early education. In The middle works 1 (pp. 339–343). Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.

Looijenga, A., Klapwijk, R., & de Vries, M. (2014). The effect of iteration on the design performance of primary school children. International Journal of Technology & Design Education, 25(1), 1-23. doi:10.1007/s10798-014-9271-2




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