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Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a practical tool for integrating 21st century skills and an innovator’s mindset into the classroom, school and workplace. It demonstrates the direct connection between content students learn in class and what the world beyond their school will ask of them. Students are inspired. They take an active role in their own learning. Developed at the Stanford d.school, Design Thinking is a methodology that teaches individuals new strategies to solve problems. The design process challenges students to combine empathy, ingenuity and rationality to meet user needs and create successful solutions with an innovator’s mindset. Students are taught to defer judgment early in the process, which reduces fear of failure and encourages thinking outside the box.


The design process is taught through problem scenarios called “design challenges,” which can range from redesigning a school backpack so that it better meets the need of an individual student, to answering the question, “How might we improve the physical and emotional safety of youth at our school?” Through these “design challenges,” students develop creative confidence, critical thinking skills, and the ability to collaborate and communicate as a team.

The process has five stages, which can occur simultaneously and can be repeated. Through these stages, problems can be framed, the right questions can be asked, more ideas can be created, and the best answers can be chosen. Each individual step helps students solve problems using the essential skills of collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.
o generally the starting point
o encourages students to ask great questions
o learn about the audience for whom you are designing
o collect examples of other attempts to solve the same issue
o identify existing obstacles
o redefine the deeper roots of the issue based on new knowledge from empathy
o determine what will make this project successful
o identify the needs and motivations of end-users
o generate as many ideas as possible to serve these identified needs
o log your brainstorming session
o do not judge or debate ideas as this limits creativity
o build a representation of one or more of your ideas to show others
o combine, expand, and refine ideas
o create multiple drafts
o seek feedback from a diverse group of people including end-users
o review the objective and determine if the solution met its goals
o avoid consensus thinking and ownership of ideas
o discuss what could be improved

Teachers cultivate a creative mindset to develop rigorous and relevant programs for their students. Design Thinking allows students to fail fast and learn by doing rather than avoiding failure by striving for initial perfection. It fosters the need to ask relevant questions versus giving correct answers. It requires teachers to guide and show pupils instead of telling and lecturing. It encourages students to become process experts as opposed to subject experts.

Traditional models of education in the United States are formed around content-based standards in which teachers are responsible for transferring a specified set of knowledge and skills to their students. Ultimately, the success of students’ proficiency in these areas is measured by uniform aptitude tests based more on logic and memorization rather than complex problems that require critical and creative thinking skills. To prepare today’s students, we know they need much more than content knowledge. The world they will inherit will require them to think critically and creatively, collaborate, solve complex problems and be able to navigate an increasingly multi-faceted and sophisticated world. To help them succeed, we must become adept instructors of the metacognitive skills and processes necessary to solve problems creatively. This includes being able to assess incremental progress in thinking and creative skills development across grade levels.

Educators who use Design Thinking report increased student engagement and achievement. Through the process, students are able to take ownership over their learning and are better able to see the relevance of educational content. Projects are actually implemented for an authentic purpose and audience, making learning more realistic and practical. When students can see a clear connection between what they learn in the classroom and how it relates to their lives, they are inspired to learn. Design Thinking leads to success after school because they become experts in solution-based thinking applicable to all professional fields. It instills confidence in one’s ability to creatively solve problems. Today’s job market is changing so rapidly, we no longer know what we are preparing students for; Design Thinking teaches an approach and a process that they can apply to whatever pursuits they may choose.

For more examples of student success in Design Thinking, visit our “Success Stories” page.


The most valuable part of working with CreatEdu was... "learning about the process and power of Design Thinking AND having the chance to practice it and apply it in our educational environment. Having [CreatEdu] available to work with small groups of teachers on specific projects was an important part of embedding the methodology."
-Middle School Principal

Design Thinking increases achievement and engagement by challenging students with real world complex problems and encouraging them to take risks. CreatEdu founder Coeylen Barry spoke about Design Thinking in schools at TEDx Denver Teachers in 2013. See the talk here.

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