There is a lack of interdisciplinary innovation and strategic design implementation in the classroom. In developing teaching strategies and curricula that prepare students for an increasingly globalized world, recent studies have pointed to design thinking as a potential remedy to many multifaceted problems in education.

Design thinking is an iterative, hands-on practice to redefine challenges and deepen understanding of innovative solutions. This methodology helps students become more adaptive and work in an ever-changing environment. Tom Kelley, a partner at the global design company IDEO, and design thinking writer, Jonathan Littman, mapped out the design thinking’s five-step process. The process includes analyzing the background and foundational information about the problem, engaging in observation, visualizing potential solutions, assessing and testing prototypes, and applying new ideas.

Working in a post-disciplinary society where out-of-date descriptors can be limiting, the process developed at IDEO inspires the next cohort of innovators and design thinkers. The design thinking process embraces ambiguity, allowing students to use their imaginations and think outside the box. The use of divergent thinking throughout the design process lends itself to the advantage of working in multidisciplinary teams where students view the problem from multiple perspectives, bringing their unique funds-of-knowledge to aid in thinking creatively. Moreover, brainstorming innovative solutions to challenges necessitates viewing the problem from various points of view. So, interdisciplinary teams lead with curiosity and a growth mindset, which results in innovative solutions.

Design thinking enables students to manage challenges with a failing forward mindset, which means making mistakes is the key to discovery. Using design thinking as a structure for an inquiry-based curriculum increases motivation through active, hands-on engagement. Education benefits considerably from design thinking since, as educators streamline learning through the design thinking model, learning becomes less of a theory and more of an idea in action. An example of this could be presenting problems that warrant multiple solutions and posing questions that require open-ended responses.

Design thinking in schools promotes educator engagement primarily through its generative nature and the interconnection of practice and belief. Both as a method and mindset, design thinking encourages interdisciplinary collaboration when creating human-centered tools, curricula, and understanding. The capacity to innovate and create can be accomplished by employing an empathetic, adaptable, and iterative design method. Through the design thinking process, students learn and develop the following skills:

  1. Emotional Intelligence

Design thinking develops students’ emotional intelligence by using empathy as a tool to understand the world around them. Examining different perspectives in a safe environment that encourages exploration challenges students to immerse themselves in the material in a way that is relevant to their lives. Design is more than just a skill; it can also be a thought process used to develop 21st-century skills and navigate change, such as advancements in technology or variations in social structures. Rather than seek prescriptive solutions, students become equipped to tackle complex problems with innovation and emotional intelligence.

  1. Collaboration

As a teamwork strategy, design thinking results in greater openness and faster generation of ideas, better feedback loops, and less competition over whose idea is better. This allows students to understand the value of active listening. When solving complex problems, the antidote to fragmentation is shared understanding and commitment.

  1. Innovation

The root of innovation is curiosity. Awareness of when to be expansive, think broadly and openly, and when to be reductive, choosing between options, and seeing why things might not work is critical to making innovation work. Furthermore, design thinking compels students to develop higher-order thinking abilities found in the amalgamation of curiosity, critical analysis, and imaginative exploration attributed to the creative process.

  1. Creativity

Creativity is essential to the innovation and design process. Creativity is innate in all human beings, but it can also be developed as a skill set through practice. Creative and design thinking lets students work through complex problems from numerous positions. Consequently, students of all liberal arts disciplines benefit from this creative expansion of thinking, which is why it should be accessible to all students.

  1. Leadership

Design thinking develops the leadership skills necessary for navigating complex problems. As educators prepare students to become future leaders equipped to enact transformational change, the design thinking process teaches students to embrace ambiguity and become adaptable to ever-changing environments.

A few ways design thinking integration may function in the classroom could be asking students to work in groups to develop a prototype or creating a feedback process where students reflect on the processes used and what learning outcomes resulted from the project. When presenting a challenge or problem to the class, it is important to present it as an actionable question. Using visualization exercises to generate ideas as a team will challenge students to think outside of the box and collaborate with others to brainstorm potential solutions.

When educators intentionally integrate design thinking methodologies and strategies into the classroom, students work through interdisciplinary challenges without fear of failure. Design thinking helps students understand people in the context of their everyday lives and use what they learn to inform how they interact with the world. The purpose of learning design thinking is not for all students to become designers per se but to practice creative problem-solving and thinking in new ways.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Kelley, T, & Littman, J. (2005). The ten faces of innovation: IDEO’s strategies for beating the devil’s advocate & driving creativity throughout your organization. New York, NY: Currency/Doubleday.

Nash, J. B. (2019). Design thinking in schools: A leader’s guide to collaborating for improvement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.


About Author:

Catie-Reagan Palmore, Ed.D. is a recent graduate of Baylor University’s Learning and Organizational Change program. Her dissertation explored the role the fine arts play in university students’ development of 21st century skills. She received an M.S. in Strategic Design and Management from Parsons School of Design, a B.A. in Theatre Arts from Virginia Tech, and a Women in Leadership certificate from Cornell University. Her research interests include interdisciplinary arts integration, design thinking, and visual culture. Currently, she serves as a Therapeutic Art Instructor at an eating disorder residential treatment center.

Read more posts from Catie-Reagan Palmore.

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