Why design thinking isn’t just for techies

Build empathy and creativity with this dynamic problem-solving model

I was really intimidated when I first heard about design thinking. I also had a lot of questions: What is design thinking? Isn’t it just for techies? How is this relevant to my elementary school-level classroom?

The epicenter of design thinking is the d.School at Stanford. According to the d.School, “… design thinking is a methodology for creative problem solving. You can use it to inform your own teaching practice, or you can teach it to your students as a framework for real-world projects.” Founded in 2004 by a few Stanford professors including faculty director David Kelley, the d.School offers courses to all students at Stanford, no matter their major. They also have made their approach available to a variety of industries, including education.

Schools often assume that design thinking is a “techie thing” and send their edtech coordinators and directors to design-thinking workshops. Although design thinking has been adopted widely by the tech industry, its approach can be applied by any organization that wants to adopt a way to solve problems empathetically and collaboratively. In schools, design thinking complements inquiry- and project-based approaches to teaching and learning.

I had the privilege of attending a couple of deep dives into design thinking at Stanford’s d.School. When I attend workshops, I’m always thinking of ways to bring back what I’ve learned and make it relevant to my colleagues and students. My aha moment came when I realized that, like the scientific method, design thinking is just another inquiry cycle that guides students by giving them steps to conduct research. Design thinking is a social-scientific approach to solving human-centered problems. Its main driver is empathy, a skill you can build and foster in your classroom.

The inquiry cycle
If you’re like me, the steps of the scientific method have been thoroughly imprinted on your brain since middle school. Like the scientific method, design thinking has discrete steps that guide students through the inquiry cycle.

Empathize: Choose one topic and ask lots of questions. What’s your least favorite chore? What don’t you like about it? How does it make you feel? Dig deeper with why questions: Why does it matter to you? Why do you do it?

Define: Now that you’ve empathized deeply, what information stands out? What is the person struggling most with, and how can they accomplish their goal?

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