I did not expect to begin my sixth year of teaching standing baffled before a folding table covered with tin foil, pipe cleaners, and mysterious mini-motors, but I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised. Tinkering is a hallmark of a “design thinking workshop,” and design thinking is in fashion.
I understood the basic techniques of design thinking; this was, after all, my third design-thinking workshop as an independent school teacher. The task of the day: “build a board game for your peers.” As PhDs tinkered with copper foil in MIT-designed “smart” notebooks and 30-year veterans made pipe-cleaner game tokens, I noticed a set of naysayers gather around one table, hands idle and jaws flapping: the English department—those familiar crossed-arm Luddites.
Schools, especially well-resourced schools, love design thinking these days, but the tech-world language and startup buzz that frames it make the whole process easy to write off. Whether enthusiastic about or resistant to the elements of play in a workshop, most teachers leave design-thinking workshops with a conundrum: How could this actually change my teaching for the better?
Education is notoriously slow to adapt to the “new,” and that adaptation often falls along socioeconomic lines. Students at schools with more resources can receive the benefits of research and innovation decades ahead of those at less privileged schools. At independent schools especially, the curricular freedom to implement findings of popular recent texts (like Neuroteach or Make It Stick) and the resources to build new spaces (like separate design labs equipped with raw materials and devoted design-thinking instructors) allow them to offer what most schools can’t, and to do it faster.
And because design labs, like the workshops that train teachers, encourage students to take on “real world” problems—too much trash on a local beach, say, or not enough textbooks for middle school students at that school down the road—the students who are empowered to take on these problems are often the least affected by them. In my experience, “design thinking” as it works now reproduces a system of patronage and salvation: Students with access to design-thinking resources take on the position of rescuer, a position that reinforces existing class barriers.
Design thinking need not be a show pony for schools with money, demonstrated with flashy products from expensive “makerspaces.” The Stanford Design Lab, a leading group in the design education field, breaks down design thinking into five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Each of these buzzwords represents a concept already broadly known in the field of teaching. Teachers of writing, for example, could find significant overlap with the basic tenets of effective writing instruction, which ask students to establish their intended audience’s needs; define what needs to be communicated; seek evidence, examples, and new ideas to answer the given question; build a prototype (as in, write a paper); and, finally, edit based on feedback.
Creators and presenters of design thinking don’t seem to know how well design-thinking processes align with what teachers already do. In my experience, workshop coordinators usually haven’t gone through teacher-training programs or spent years in secondary school classrooms. They often lack empathy—a core tenet of their own process—when they share it with groups of teachers. Instead, they alienate teachers, especially those whose non-STEM fields their workshops tend to treat as archaic (like English).
Any process introduced to “shake things up” in the classroom insinuates that teachers don’t already seek ways to better engage their students on a daily basis. Design thinking does not offer teachers a groundbreaking way to think about their practice, but it could offer a way to frame and find consistency within the jumble of evidence-based best practices with which teachers are already familiar. If properly harnessed, this attitude could be transformative within a school.
The process could offer an opportunity to help schools offer more uniformly compelling tasks to their students, cost-free. Design-thinking workshop leaders, starting with major organizations like the Stanford Design Lab and trickling down to local groups, should pay more attention to conveying these ideas in the language that teachers already speak rather than importing language from the tech sector. This adjustment could help these ideas translate to teacher practice in standard disciplines—and not just at schools with the resources to build shiny new design labs. If presented in relatable language, design thinking could help teachers structure and streamline lessons to push students toward critical thinking, authentic real-world problem-solving, and, perhaps most important, actual enjoyment.
To be truly revolutionary, design-thinking training must adjust itself to be valuable to those who stand to benefit the most from its innovations. This means, ironically, abandoning the flashy branding it was built around. To accomplish successful curriculum overhaul, most teachers and administrators know that rigid public standards badly need to evolve. Yet some new structure, based on best practices in education, must enter into that vacuum to ensure consistent education and opportunities for growth across the country. Design-thinking principles can offer that structure for already existing teaching best practices. Teachers already try to, or wish they had the freedom to try to, implement many such practices. If its leaders organized around this opportunity, perhaps our elected leaders could, too.