Design Thinking and ‘Thinking Inside the Box’ (Part 2)

An Introduction to Design Thinking (Part 2)


June 7, 2015

In the constructivist-learning model, engagement and experience combine with immersive environments and self-organisation of knowledge to establish a context in which learning occurs naturally. Constructivism has since the time of Dewey become closely affiliated with Project Based Learning and yet despite years of efforts to refine the process the result does not always match the promise (Scheer, Noweski and Meinel. 2012). Scheer et al. argue that ‘Design Thinking’ is capable of providing the structure required for successful constructivist learning and the development of skills required for 21st century citizenship. ‘We want to fill that gap by proposing ‘Design Thinking’ as a meta-disciplinary methodology which offers teachers the needed support through a formalised process. Teachers, as facilitators of learning need to be equipped with up-to-date skills and tools to actually practice on the needed key competence learning.’ So where should a school start and what does it mean to implement ‘Design Thinking’?

For schools in Australia, ‘Design Thinking’ needs to be on your radar thanks to the ongoing implementation of the National Curriculum. The ‘Design and Technologies’ curriculum incorporates ‘Design Thinking’ principles from Foundation to Year Ten with statements such as ‘As design skills and design thinking develop, students should have greater input into the development of design briefs for specific identified needs or opportunities.’ and ‘In Design and Technologies, in the early years, students are actively involved in projects.’ The curriculum requires students consider the ethics and sustainability of their solutions in their marketing; ‘Students become more enterprising in developing and promoting designed solutions. Marketing increasingly draws on social and sustainability considerations, recognising wider societal acknowledgement of ethics and futures thinking.’ and will require collaboration on a scale that will be new to many schools ‘They coordinate teams and collaborate with others locally and globally.’ This syllabus is available for use by States and Territories and its influence can be seen in document such as the NSW Science K-10 syllabus that incorporates Science and Technology.

An alternate approach for any school seeking support in implementing a ‘Design Thinking’ approach would be to match the description and requirements of critical and creative thinking provided with the Australian Curriculum against the benefits of design thinking. One statement seems most appropriate for this purpose ‘Critical and creative thinking are fostered through opportunities to use dispositions such as broad and adventurous thinking, reflecting on possibilities, and metacognition (Perkins 1995), and can result from intellectual flexibility, open-mindedness, adaptability and a readiness to experiment with and clarify new questions and phenomena (Gardner 2009).’(Australian Curriculum) It would not be unreasonable to restate this with ‘Design Thinking’ in place of ‘critical and creative’ as it is these opportunities that occur within such a framework.

For a school wishing to implement ‘Design Thinking’ the first step needs to be understanding that it is a process which should become entrenched into the broad approach of the school. If the desire is to add pieces of a ‘Design Thinking’ approach then it is unlikely that the full benefits will be achieved. Situated within a culture that allows learning from failure, encourages a growth mindset, values creative and critical thinking and places a high value on learners finding questions that matter ‘Design Thinking’ can be the process that consolidates the schools learning platform.

One starting point for a school wishing to build a culture that supports ‘Design Thinking’ should be the writing of Carol Dweck and the conceptual framework that is embodied in ‘Growth Mindsets’. Beginning with a ‘Growth Mindset’ will allow learners to see mistakes and failure as an opportunity to learn. New research by Melles, Anderson, Barrett & Thompson-Whiteside (2015) found that attitudes to risk-taking played an important role in the success of ‘Design Thinking’ endeavours and that Australians were particularly risk averse. ‘In order to support design thinking in Australian schools and higher education, we need to consider what constitutes a nurturing and supportive environment for creative and innovative thinking. (Melles et al 2015 p200)

When extended to a ‘Design Thinking’ approach a growth mindset will allow each iteration in the design process to be seen as one step closer to a workable solution. Learners with a growth mindset will fear neither feedback nor sharing their ideas in a process of collaboration. The process of giving and receiving feedback is a key piece of ‘Design Thinking’ and one that is well supported by a growth mindset. To learn more about ‘Growth Mindsets’ visit Carol Dwecks website – or read her book – ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’. Resources for promoting a Growth Mindset are abundant on the web and a quick search will reveal a wealth of ideas. On Twitter try #growthmindset It is easy to take the approach of placing posters on walls and doing little else but this will only introduce the idea. To genuinely develop a ‘Growth Mindset’ takes time and a concerted effort in shifting the way individuals and groups think and talk about learning. Subtle changes to the way feedback is provided, the nature of conversations around success and the attribution of achievement to characteristics within the individuals control all play an essential role in shifting mindsets.

Promoting a Growth Mindset

Good to Great Advice for Growth Mindsets

Having established a ‘Growth Mindset’ the next step for a school might be to develop the question asking capacity of its learners. ‘In design thinking significant time and energy are dedicated to the problem finding phase’  ‘where as in problem-based learning, students follow accepted theories and principles to solve a clearly defined problem given by the teacher.’ (Melles et al. 2015 p193 & 190) Just as with a ‘Growth Mindset’ establishing a culture that values asking and seeking questions that are worth answering will establish the environment necessary for ‘Design Thinking’. It is quite likely that this will be the first tension point as ‘Design Thinking’ is implemented as there needs to be ample opportunities for learners to seek questions and this is counter to the ‘command and control’ model of teaching and leadership that continues to permeate many institutions. The key is to see the importance of the skill set required to ask quality questions. Fortunately just as with ‘Growth Mindsets’ there are numerous resources to draw on. One of the best is the writing of Warren Berger in his book ‘A More Beautiful Question’. The reader of ‘A More Beautiful Question’ will discover how innovation leaders utilise their ability to ask questions as the starting point of a process for discovery and change. The way a question is posed, the value it is given and the openness in which alternative questions are pursued can have a significant effect on an organisation and a learner’s ability to innovate.

One-way of identifying the type of question most appropriate for ‘Design Thinking’ is embodied by the term ‘Wicked problem’. Richard Buchanan who borrowed the idea from Horst Rittel expanded on the idea of ‘wicked problems’. A ‘wicked problem’ is one with ill-defined terms, confusing information and many conflicting demands that conspire against simple solutions. If there is a single reason for the broad adoption of ‘Design Thinking’ it is the ‘wicked problem’ as it is this class of problem that most confounds traditional problem solving pathways. ‘Design Thinking’ with its focus on solutions suits the demands of ‘wicked problems’ by allowing the learner to concentrate on finding satisfactory solutions rather than needing to find optimum solutions. (Cassim. 2013) In an increasingly complex world the ability to solve problems that do not have one single correct answer is an increasingly valuable skill.

In previous posts I have explored the questions we ask and the utility of allowing students to pursue questions of their own.

The Questions that Matter most

What Questions shall we ask?

 Questions that encourage deeper thinking

Having established a culture that will allow ‘Design Thinking’ to thrive the next phase is selecting the process or framework that will facilitate the desired results. A ‘Design Thinking’ frame should allow individuals and groups to function in a productive manner that promotes collaboration and engages users in a process where ideation, sharing, iteration, reflection and evaluation combine. From simple models to highly evolved multi-phase processes there is likely to be a framework that works for your particular goals. For the ‘Design Thinker’ the framework provides a scaffold for their thinking and allows them to engage with collaborators in a more productive manner. For the teacher this structure can remove some of the fear that comes from throwing the class open to the students. While chaos at times can produce results it can also consume large quantities of time. A well selected or developed design process should allow time for creative chaos but include time for evaluation of the results and provide steps along the way for the consideration of alternatives.

When getting started you will probably want to use a ‘Design Thinking’ process that has been tried and tested. There are numerous options and most are supported with easy to follow graphics. The importance of a cyclical, iterative process should be clear in any model selected with opportunities for the learner to enter and exit the cycle at the appropriate point. This cyclical process sets ‘Design Thinking’ apart from linear design patterns where the designer moves from one phase to the next and onto a clear conclusion. While a linear design process may be appropriate for traditional graphic or product design where one solution is prepared for consideration by a client, it does not serve the multitude of purposes that ‘Design Thinking’ may be adapted to serve. The one danger with this cyclical process is that some learners may never feel they are ready to exit the cycle of evaluation and refinement. An understanding that needs to be built into the ‘Design Thinking’ culture is that ideas need to be shared and in the end a result should be achieved; endless refinement without sharing is counter productive.

Regardless of the model you choose you will most likely have four to five main phases in your Design Cycle. Fatima Cassim distilled one model of the ‘Design Cycle’ from academic writings on the topic. Cassim identifies the key phases as: Formulating, Representing, Moving, Evaluating Reflecting

Adapted from Fatima Cassim (2013)

Adapted from Fatima Cassim (2013)

For added detail at each phase of the cycle you may find the Design Cycle developed for the International Baccalaureate useful. It has four main phases with up to three distinct steps within each.

Image courtesy of IB World School -

Image courtesy of IB World School –

 Other options for a Design Cycle include the excellent model developed by Dr Charles Burnette available online at or the detailed process developed by the Nueva School. An extensive set of resources and professional development is offered through including tools for planning and strategies such as ‘Hexagonal Thinking’ that will encourage learners to make connections between ideas. For schools wishing to apply ‘Design Thinking’ as a strategy for solving problems and not just as a teaching tool the experts at IDEO have produced a toolkit for educators called ‘‘Design Thinking’ for Educators’. This resource provides a set of tools that can be adapted to solve many of the problems schools are likely to face from reimagining spaces to developing new learning programmes. Stanford’s dSchool is a highly respected leader in the field of ‘Design Thinking’ and share many valuable resources through the web. For any school looking to implement ‘Design Thinking’ their Bootcamp Bootleg is a valuable set of resources that can be tailored to individual needs. While some of these resources are aimed at users beyond the classroom, the ideas can be modified to suit a classroom setting with a little creative thinking. To this end dSchool has a site dedicated to the K-12 environment and provides a wealth of tailored resources based upon the programmes developed for University students.

Hexagonal Thinking courtesy of NoTosh -

Hexagonal Thinking courtesy of NoTosh –

As you delve deeper into ‘Design Thinking’ you may wish to build a model of the ‘Design Cycle’ that suits your needs as a school and body of learners. Taking this step can be a learning experience and the result is a device that is understood more deeply than if you borrow a process from elsewhere. This is the thinking behind the ‘Creative Process Planner’. It was developed with ideas borrowed from many other ‘Design Cycles’ and is aimed at serving the needs of students as they approach their ‘Genius Hour’ projects. It includes a range of sub-steps and gives just enough advice to help students move ahead with their projects. It was developed initially in ‘Inspiration’ the well-known mind mapping software and gradually adapted to be used on the web. It is presented here with an open licence for schools to adapt to their needs.

Once you have the foundations of a ‘Design Thinking’ culture in place, you may like to explore providing a space for it to occur within. ‘Even more so, they need space to try out different mental models and methods to connect abstract knowledge with concrete applications and thereby, being able to convert and apply abstract and general principles (acquired through instruction) in meaningful and responsible acting in life (acquired through construction). (Scheer, Noweski and Meinel 2012 p10) ‘Design Thinking’ is a philosophy that fits nicely alongside the ideals of the Maker Movement and providing a space for ‘Design Thinking’ that is flexible and encourages collaboration can do much to legitimise the endeavour.

by Nigel Coutts

Read Introduction to Design thinking (Part One)

Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked Problems in ‘Design Thinking’. Design Issues, 8(2), 5-21

Cassim, F. (2013). Hands On, Hearts On, Minds On: ‘Design Thinking’ within an Education Context. International Journal Of Art & Design Education, 32(2), 190-202.

Gardner, H. 2009, 5 Minds for the Future, McGraw-Hill, North Ryde, Sydney.

Melles, G. Anderson, N. Barrett, T.  & Thompson-Whiteside, S. 2014 Problem finding through design thinking in education Chapter in Innovations in Higher EducationTeaching and Learning –

Perkins, D. 1995, The Intelligent Eye: learning to think by looking at art, Getty Centre for the Arts, California.

Scheer, Andrea, Noweski, Christine, & Meinel, Christoph. (2012). Transforming Constructivist Learning into Action: ‘Design Thinking’ in Education. Design and Technology Education, 17(3), 8-19.

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