Design Thinking: It’s Natural to Be a Bit Confused

Socratic Ignorance can teach us something about our attitudes toward Design Thinking. Socrates earned his rep for being a wise man by admitting, “I don’t know.” When he wanted an answer, he would go to the experts of his day and unleash a series of questions that eventually lead to the politician, economist, philosopher, teacher, butcher, or farmer replying, “I don’t know.” Of course, in the process of all his questioning, Socrates learned much, but he never saw knowledge as static. Instead, he applied a consistent method to an ever-moving target.


I know that, for me, the concept of design thinking can feel like a moving target. Ask ten people for a definition of design thinking, and you’ll receive ten different definitions. And, what is the difference between design thinking, studio learning, Project-based Learning (PBL), Problem-based Learning (PBL), experiential learning and Challenge-based Learning? Honestly, I don’t know.


I’m being cheeky, though. I do know…kind of. There are subtle differences between these various approaches, but I am beginning to think these differences don’t matter much. In fact, I think these various approaches are different “brandings” for a very elemental concept that most educators intuit to be true and effective and elegant:


When we give students real situations they must navigate and use timely feedback and provocative questions to guide students in revising work until it is truly original, personal, and professional…real learning happens.


I have spent considerable time in recent years reading, researching, observing, and questioning just what design thinking means in the context of the classroom. In the process, I have learned much about how I can create student-centered learning experiences that put the onus of critical decision making on the students, not me. In this post I share some of the most useful resources I have found:


Toolkit for Educators: IDEO has worked with many high schools, including my own. As a result of their work with Riverdale Country School in New York, they have produced this useful website. You can download a helpful .pdf from the first page that gives a concrete breakdown of various steps in the design process. The videos and examples are also illuminating.


Why Design Thinking? from Design Thinking for Educators on Vimeo.


NuVu Studio: Part of my workday is spent as a faculty liaison to NuVu, an off-campus design program modeled after MIT’s Media Lab. The work students produce here is the most authentic design I have witnessed. In the article “What Is Design Thinking Anyway?” Peter Coughlan, a senior partner at IDEO, details what the design process looks like in his world, and NuVu does the best job I have seen of reproducing this kind of environment for high school students.


90 minute design cycle on Gift Giving.


Not Your Father’s SchoolPosts on Innovation:You will have no problem finding posts about design thinking that deal with the topic in a superficial way. It is much more challenging to find thought leaders engaged in deep reflection on the topic. Luckily, one of my colleagues, Peter Gow, takes time to ponder the recent push toward innovation in schools, and I find his posts illuminating and challenging. I think you will, too.


Buck Institute for Education: The Buck Institute offers a concrete, in-depth introduction to project-based learning. I find their graphics and summaries quite helpful. I especially like their rubrics, as they help me think about how to assess open-ended design work. This site also lists a collection of collaboratives where educators all over the world are deeply engaged in PBL work.


Apple’s Challenge Based Learning resources: Marco Torres, a California teacher and filmmaker, now tours the world with a team of former students teaching digital storytelling and film techniques. He and the team at Alas Media created the videos you will see on these pages. He told me one of the most illuminating points I have heard in regard to design thinking in the classroom. He said, “I don’t want fellow teachers to say I teach kids to make movies. I want other teachers to say I create problem solvers who know how to collaborate and find solutions when faced with ambiguity.” His comment crystallized, for me, what is at the heart of design thinking. Also, the >white paper posted by Apple helped me visualize a linear conception of design work in the classroom setting.


Of course, you won’t explore all of these resources. Even if you do, you will still have questions about design thinking and its impact on education. That’s natural. As it is more a mindset than a “thing,” trying to pin it down into a specific definition isn’t very useful. Instead, exploring the various interpretations will help you develop your own methodology that is, in the end, all about turning more control over to the students.


Editor’s Note: This post originally published at

Robin Neal

Educator at Beaver Country Day School

Robin Neal teaches English at Beaver Country Day School, a progressive, independent school in the Boston area. He has also taught in public and international schools and has experience at all levels from grades 6-12. He is particularly interested in technology in the classroom and how it can be used to create more dynamic, authentic educational experiences.