Education Opinion

Use Design Thinking to Create an Opportunity to Learn

By Beth Holland — February 10, 2017 3 min read

In a recent guest post on this blog, Professor Donald Peurach described the challenge of transforming education through “deeper learning” and “21st-century skills.” He explained that most change efforts focus on the structures and systems surrounding teaching and learning absent discrete knowledge of what needs to occur in the classroom. And yet, many teachers with whom I work explain that while they may comprehend what ambitious instruction looks like in theory, they do not have first-hand knowledge of how to put it into practice.

From a constructivist perspective, learning is based on past experiences (Ertmer & Newby, 1983). Without existing mental representations to serve as a solid foundation, then a learner cannot easily construct new knowledge (Gee, 2008). To further complicate matters, when new learning conflicts with previously held beliefs (such as traditional, teacher-led instruction), then it can be resisted (Alexander, Schallert, & Renolds, 2009). Coming back to the challenge presented by Professor Peurach, if we want teachers to not only examine but also implement ambitious instruction that incorporates deeper learning and 21st-century skills -- areas that few teachers have engaged in personally -- then we need to provide them with initial experiences on which to build new knowledge and understanding.

This past week at the EdTechTeacher Innovation Summit in San Diego, I had the opportunity to facilitate some hands-on, Design Thinking activities for teachers. Each one afforded participants with an experience on which they could build new understanding of what it “feels” like to be a student in a non-traditional classroom. Whether through littleBits, BreakoutEDU, or the Extraordinaires, educators engaged in the design thinking process so that they could formulate an idea of what it might look like in their classroom.

During the last session that I led, participants spent two hours engaged in a design thinking activity with the Extraordinaires. Collaborating in groups, they had to seek out and define a problem by engaging in empathy. Rather than produce a single answer, they had to ideate to uncover lots of possible solutions. They had the opportunity to get feedback from other groups and then revise their ideas before crafting a 30-second “elevator pitch” to share their final design concept.

As we debriefed each step in the process, participants brainstormed how the process of empathy could be applied to academic subjects, discussed the need to encourage their students to engage in more divergent thinking, and shared their struggles with iteration. Several groups jumped on the first solution rather than “sit with the problem” to examine it from multiple perspectives. Most everyone agreed that their students would also struggle initially, but found value in working through the process.

After only a few hours, this group felt significantly more comfortable taking the process of design thinking back to their students. Whether the goal is design thinking, project based learning, deeper learning, 21st-century skills, or any other new form of instruction, what may be most critical is ensuring that all teachers and administrators can have that initial experience on which to base new knowledge. If the goal is to transform education, then everyone needs an opportunity to learn.


Alexander, P. A., Schallert, D. L., & Reynolds, R. E. (2009). What is learning anyway? A topographical perspective considered. Educational Psychologist, 44(3), 176-192. doi:10.1080/00461520903029006

Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (1993). Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 50-72. doi: 10.1111/j.1937-8327.1993.tb00605.x

Gee, J. P. (2008). A sociocultural Perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. A. Moss, D. C. Pullin, J. P. Gee, E. H. Haertel, & L. J. Young (Eds.), Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn. Cambridge.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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