School & District Management Opinion

Design Thinking: From Process to Culture

By Beth Holland — July 12, 2018 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Last fall, my professor made a comment that really impacted my thinking about education: “imagination is bound by culture.

Few institutions illustrate this point better than education. Because almost every adult has experienced school, it has created a shared mental model for what education should resemble. A confluence of sociohistorical factors formed what scholars Tyack and Tobin (1994) refer to as “the grammar of school” - a vision of the tenets of what a real school should be. The challenge, however, lies in the new complexities of today’s era: technology, globalization, and an exponential rate of change. As a result, our collective consciousness rests on a shared vision built on a now outdated model.

For better or worse, the 1983 A Nation at Risk report served as a catalyst for modern conversations about a new vision for education. Among other things, it issued an edict that schools should prepare students for a new Information Age (Mehta, 2013). Since that time, there have been calls for “back to basics” to build fundamental skills, increased accountability measures to ensure “success,” and proclamations for students to develop new skills (Fusarelli & Fusarelli, 2015) - whether those traits be defined as the 4Cs, the 6Cs, the ISTE NETS, the new Global Sustainable Development Goals, or the Common Core State Standards. Interestingly, across all of these various frameworks, creativity and critical thinking consistently emerge as common themes; and yet, they also remain elusive in most classrooms.

In their 2013 article, neuropsychologists Gregory, Hardiman, Yarmolinskaya, Rinne, and Limb assert that creativity results from both routine expertise - the ability to derive a single solution - and adaptive expertise - the capacity to create lots of novel solutions and pathways. Where the former relies on convergent thinking, or the ability to come to a single measurable answer (which resonates with the entrenched mental model of school), the latter requires divergent thinking - the capacity to consider, analyze, and synthesize to create new ideas (Gregory et al., 2013). However, bound by culture, how might we imagine an education system that encourages the wild production of ideas as well as the ability to verify and revise them all while resisting inherent bias?

Enter, Design Thinking

German physicist, Horst Rittel, coined the term “wicked problem” in the 1960s and defined it as one that defied a linear cause and effect solution (Pacanowsky, 1995). Instead, he advocated for more iterative, design-based solutions that considered the complexity of the ecology in which the problem existed (Pacanowsky, 1995). At the same time, William Demming described the need for individuals to possess a System of Profound Knowledge that consisted of an appreciation of the system that produces the outcomes, knowledge of the varied conditions that impact the system, comprehension of what could actually become known, and a conceptual understanding of the individuals around them (Perla, Provost, & Parry, 2013). Further, Demming supported the work of Walter Shewart who advocated for the use of “cycles of inquiry” which later evolved into the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles championed by design theorists (Perla et al., 2013).

From this deep history of analysis, iteration, and deep understanding came the field of design thinking. Unlike other frameworks or protocols, design thinking focuses on deeply understanding the problem - and the user - rather than rushing to a solution. Those two tenets could explain the surge of design thinking in education as teachers endeavor to encourage the divergent thinking required for real creative thought.

Unfortunately, as highlighted in a January 2017 article by Jessica Lahey, the rise of design thinking could also be associated with its demise. Much like how early studies of the introduction of technology into schools (e.g. Cuban, Kirkpatrick, & Peck, 2001; Zhao & Frank, 2013) revealed the “taming” of computers to fit into the existing cultural norms of education, Lahey postulated that design thinking could suffer a similar fate when reduced to worksheets and checklists.

This article still resonates with me. A challenge that I have often confronted in my own design thinking workshops with educators is finding the balance between providing tools and scaffolds to support the process - such as the Mix Tapes from the Stanford dSchool or Thinking Routines from Project Zero at Harvard - and helping teachers to actively engage in the process of discovery and understanding that design thinking endeavors to encourage. Greg Kulowiec recently offered a series of scaffolds to Unlock Design Thinking for teachers. Based on the work that he did this summer in a number of EdTechTeacher institutes, he provided what Lahey noticed was missing from her initial experience of design thinking: discussion of HOW to actually design think.

Meanwhile, I still find myself concerned about the potential taming of design thinking to fit the institutionalized mental model of school. I am hearing about design thinking projects or experiences that happen in isolation or spaces outside of the traditional classroom. Instead, I long to learn more about opportunities that embrace the need for students to possess that system of profound knowledge on which to engage in divergent thinking and develop adaptive expertise.

Though there are a few exceptions, such as Design39 in San Diego or Mount Vernon School in Atlanta, rarely does an entire school or district intrinsically identify with the principles that design thinking intends to nurture: empathy, problem-definition, iteration, and tolerance of experimentation. These outlier schools see design thinking not as a process to implement but as a culture to embrace. Circling back to that initial point from my professor, if imagination is bound by culture, then maybe the question that we need to ask is not HOW to design think; but instead, how might we reimagine a culture of school that deeply values the tenets of design thinking?


Cuban, L., Kirkpatrick, H., & Peck, C. (2001). High access and low use of technologies in high school classrooms: Explaining an apparent paradox. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 813-834. http://doi.org/10.3102/00028312038004813

Fusarelli, L. D., & Fusarelli, B. C. (2015). Federal education policy from Reagan to Obama. In Handbook of Education Politics and Policy (pp. 1-24). Routeledge.

Gregory, E., Hardiman, M., Yarmolinskaya, J., Rinne, L., & Limb, C. (2013). Building creative thinking in the classroom: From research to practice. International Journal of Educational Research, 62, 43-50. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2013.06.003

Mehta, J. (2013). How paradigms create politics: The transformation of American educational policy, 1980-2001. American Educational Research Journal, 50(2), 285-324. http://doi.org/10.3102/0002831212471417

Pacanowsky, M. (1995). Team tools for wicked problems. Organizational Dynamics, 23(3), 36-51. http://doi.org/10.1016/0090-2616(95)90024-1

Perla, R. J., Provost, L. P., & Parry, G. J. (2013). Seven propositions of the science of improvement. Quality Management in Health Care, 22(3), 170-186. http://doi.org/10.1097/QMH.0b013e31829a6a15

Tyack, D. B., & Tobin, W. (1994). The “Grammar” of Schooling: Why Has It Been So Hard to Change? American Educational Research Journal, 31(3), 453-479. http://doi.org/10.2307/1163222

Zhao, Y., & Frank, K. A. (2003). Factors affecting technology uses in schools: An ecological perspective. American Educational Research Journal, 40(4), 807-840. http://doi.org/10.3102/00028312040004807

Related Tags:

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.