These Kentucky schools have embraced a new approach called “design thinking”—and it’s paying off with higher achievement


At its most simple, design thinking is about making decisions with empathy, or with the needs of those affected in mind.

At Eminence Independent School in Henry County, Ky., elementary students walk through halls painted like Disney storefronts and, during lunch, glide through a tube slide that drops down into the cafeteria.

Half the high school students travel to Bellarmine College in Louisville two days a week to take college classes. When teachers worried about lost time traveling, Eminence officials created the first Wi-Fi bus, so students could use their school laptops while traveling to and from classes.

The K-12 school isn’t big enough to have separate computer labs, so every table in the cafeteria is outfitted with a flat screen and computer hookups. And when teachers, staff, or students need to solve a problem, they head up to an interactive whiteboard laboratory, where everyone plugs in their computers and works out a solution.

Eminence has a new lease on life, says Superintendent Buddy Berry, and it’s about, to quote Steve Jobs, “surprise and delight” in every day of the school year.

“We literally evaluated our entire school district and said it’s not working for us, for our students, and we think that’s symptomatic,” Berry said.

He gives a lot of credit to John Nash, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Education who runs the Laboratory on Design Thinking in Education. Berry went to a conference in 2011 held by Nash on “design thinking,” which has been used for several decades by businesses and other organizations.

(Next page: How ‘design thinking’ works)