How can design thinking improve teaching practice and education outcomes?

Just like Lean Thinking could work within adult education to improve teaching practice, so too could Design Thinking. Again, I’m particularly interested in my own perspective which is the professional development relating to adult literacy and numeracy education for trades and vocational training.

Design thinking

According to the Wikipedia entry:

Design Thinking refers to the methods and processes for investigating ill-defined problems, acquiring information, analyzing knowledge, and positing solutions in the design and planning fields. As a style of thinking, it is generally considered the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context.

This approach seem perfect to me for engineering solutions to teaching contexts where there are complex issues such as with foundation education.

What would it look like if we applied a design thinking paradigm to a narrow educational context like embedding literacy and numeracy into trades and vocational training? Again, from the Wikipedia entry:

An example of a design thinking process could have seven stages: define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn. Within these seven steps, problems can be framed, the right questions can be asked, more ideas can be created, and the best answers can be chosen. The steps aren’t linear; they can occur simultaneously and can be repeated.

Let’s see how these steps fit. The following is adapted to for my context in education so I’m talking about learners rather than consumers, but the idea is the same.


  • Decide what underpinning literacy, numeracy, or foundation skills issue we are trying to resolve.
  • Agree on who the specific learners or other target group is.
  • Prioritize this project in terms of urgency.
  • Determine what will make this project successful.
  • Establish a glossary of terms as required.


  • Review the history of the issue; remember any existing obstacles.
  • Collect examples of other attempts to solve the same issue.
  • Note the project supporters, investors, and critics.
  • Talk to students in order to get the most fruitful ideas for later design.
  • Take into account thought leaders’ opinions.


  • Identify the needs and motivations of your learners.
  • Generate as many ideas as possible to serve these identified needs.
  • Log your brainstorming session.
  • Do not judge or debate ideas.
  • During brainstorming, have one conversation at a time.


  • Combine, expand, and refine ideas.
  • Create multiple drafts.
  • Seek feedback from a diverse group of people, include your learners (the end users).
  • Present a selection of ideas to the learners, or other stakeholders.
  • Reserve judgment and maintain neutrality.
  • Create and present actual working prototype(s)


  • Review the objective.
  • Set aside emotion and ownership of ideas.
  • Avoid consensus thinking.
  • Remember: the most practical solution isn’t always the best.
  • Select the powerful ideas.


  • Make task descriptions.
  • Plan tasks.
  • Determine resources.
  • Assign tasks.
  • Execute.
  • Deliver to learners and stakeholders.


  • Gather feedback from learners and stakeholders.
  • Determine if the solution met its goals.
  • Discuss what could be improved.
  • Measure success; collect data.
  • Document.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments…


Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

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