Intro to Design Thinking for Independent School Educators

February 12, 2013 Peter Baron

Had you asked me last summer to define design thinking, I would have struggled to give you an answer…

It wasn’t on my radar until I met Greg Bamford from Leading is Learning this fall and heard him talk about design thinking with a passion that’s truly infectious. As Greg describes it:

“Design Thinking is a human-centered process for creating solutions to the problems around us, rooted in the methods of industrial designers at firms like IDEO and Frog Design and popularized and articulated through the work of the Stanford design school. It has become a process that students, educators, and businesspeople have used to develop new solutions – based on an empathetic understanding of human (user) experience – that create new opportunities for innovation, growth, and fulfilling human needs.”

The more I dug in, the more the theories resonated. Once we learned about a handful of private schools turning to design thinking, we came up with the idea of hosting a “100-level” webinar to provide all of us in the independent school world with a primer on the topic. Many thanks to Greg for leading the session.

In case you missed his excellent presentation, we have bundled the recorded webinar, slides from the talk, and the questions from the session below.

Greg has also said he’d love to talk with any educators who are interested in learning more about design thinking in schools. If you’d like to follow up with Greg, learn more about his work, or arrange professional development from Leading is Learning, please contact him at or via Twitter at @leadlearnlab.

Download Intro to Design Thinking for Independent Schools!

Design Thinking Questions from the Webinar

Q: How do we encourage perseverance through the five modes of design thinking? Isn’t “sticktoitiveness” a challenge?

Greg Bamford (GB): I have found that the work is intrinsically motivating, as long as you select a challenge area that is authentic and – to the extent possible – one that students perceive as a real challenge or problem. I’m basically optimistic: I think young people want to learn and solve problems, and if you give them the opportunity and useful tools, they’ll keep themselves going. The challenge is to know when to step back as a teacher so that they feel ownership of the process – and to step back without actually stepping out and disengaging. Successful management of design thinking means observing the classroom like a good Montessori teacher who is alert to the environment and the moments when students will be receptive to guidance.

Q: Do you need an optimistic, upbeat mindset to engage in design thinking, or does design thinking encourage it?

GB: Both. It’s a virtuous cycle. But when selecting the first cohort of classroom teachers to introduce this into your school, I would start with those who can communicate energy and optimism, simply because you need to get into the process before the process starts to reinforce itself.

Q: I would love to hear more about the word rigor – you have used it twice (or more), but certainly to some this isn’t rigor in the conventional way it has been viewed in the past. Do you have a suggested responses to that critique??

GB: I think the word rigor has often been misapplied. For some parents and teachers, rigor means being able to pass a “really hard” pen and paper test. I would argue that the most rigorous form of assessment challenges students to apply what they’ve learned in a real world context. Nothing is more rigorous than reality. At the end of a design process, your solution either works, or it doesn’t. That’s challenging and rigorous, because it requires you to integrate knowledge and content from different disciplines and units (rather than having the luxury of isolating knowledge from a single, artificial unit). It also requires you to implement solutions in a complex environment with many variables – some of which might stop a solution in theory from becoming a solution in practice. If we want to prepare students not for school, but for life, we need this kind of authentic rigor in our schools.

Q: You started talking about how design thinking might apply to other subject areas, but can you cite some examples of how it has been applied (in a classroom) to subjects not related to design?

GB: Design thinking can be used in any classroom that deals with understanding humans and human behavior (e.g. English, fine arts, history/social science) or with content matter that can be used to improve human living (e.g. STEM). The content can be used to help students empathize with and explore a human-centered subject area (e.g. using the empathy process to explore a historical period) or to help them apply subject matter in a real-world way (e.g. engineering a structure in a public park). It does require a willingness to spend class time on interdisciplinary skills – design challenges by nature are interdisciplinary. Great examples of K-12 lesson plans involving Design Thinking are available at Stanford REDLabs or the Stanford K12 Wiki.

Q: Can you offer some tips on communicating the design thinking approach to parents and the school community so they see its value?

GB: Let them see it. Parents and community can be brought in to provide feedback to students during the prototyping phase. They can also be part of a panel of experts to provide critique during the testing phase. But as you do this and they see kids in action, they’ll be able to see the rich skills (inquiry, collaboration, creative problem solving) that students are developing. This is an exercise where I recommend having the community interact with the kids mid-process.Finally, you can offer a “solutions fair” where students pitch/share their final solutions with the community.

Q: Please repeat your site URL.

GB: Yes! Visit us at or on Twitter at @leadlearnlab. We’re on Facebook, too – just look up Leading is Learning.

Photo credit: dellphotos via Creative Commons

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