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Pittsburgh Parenting Blog by Sewickley Academy

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What Is Design Thinking in Education?

One of the notions that is helping to shape thinking in 21st century education is design thinking. Inspired by the work of San Francisco Bay area corporations like IDEO, integrated programs offered by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, and the wildly creative K-12 Nueva School in Palo Alto, California, design thinking offers anyone who uses it a structured, creative and useful way to solve meaningful problems. The more I learn about design thinking, the more it reminds me of a decades-old research method in education called “action research,” a research process in which problems are defined, studied, and solved in a deliberate, slow-and-steady way that acknowledges that the significant challenges facing social organizations (like schools) require an iterative approach involving all of the organization’s constituencies. This strategy is one that we use more and more at Sewickley Academy because even when it is really messy, it works.

Below, I have shared a diagram from www.designthinkingblog.com that gives one take on explaining the what-is-design thinking process. This particular example defines design thinking as a six-step process: understand/observe/point of view/ideate/prototype/test.

What is Design Thinking?

When we seek to understand, we work together as a team to come to an understanding of a problem with which we can then do something. Design thinking isn’t about theoretical work but practical considerations!

Observation is all about data collection. It’s about seeing how things work and fit together. People, places, systems, the environment…how does what we are seeking to understand work right now?

Inevitably, the team will reach a point where what has been observed will coalesce in one way or another. This is point-of-view. Eventually the team has to make up its mind about what it has seen, and use all of the creative tools of mind-mapping and brainstorming (and anything else that stimulates the production of useful knowledge) to make sense of what it has seen and launch forth on the next step…

ideation, in which an assortment of specific plans or approaches emerge from the previous step.

The prototyping stage is about drilling down through the ideas formulated in the ideation stage and selecting one (or at least one) idea to implement.

The final stage of the design thinking process, testing, sees the implementation of what was prototyped as well as regular re-consideration.

Note that all of these steps are interrelated and the process depends on this interrelationship.

Why does this matter in contemporary education? Because our school is a school of the 21st century with a strategic vision of itself firmly embedded in the messy questions of our age. The two recent grade level retreats for the classes of 2017 and 2018 show this. The strategic objective inspiring the sophomore class retreat is entrepreneurship as it was last year. But while last year’s retreat was inspiring (and very well reviewed) by the class of 2016, we learned a great deal from the experience and made iterative changes to that retreat that strengthen the achievement of its learning objectives.

What is design thinking in education?
Sophomores get a lesson in dressing making from the staff at Bar Marco in Pittsburgh. The students collectively prepared their own lunch, using some of the local foods that they learned about the day before. The students also had the opportunity to sit with one of Bar Marco’s owners for advice on how to incorporate an entrepreneurial mindset into their pursuits in school and beyond.  


The same is true of the new retreat for the class of 2018, combining work at Outdoor Odyssey and with Venture Outdoors in Pittsburgh to address our goal to stimulate critical thinking, problem solving, and resilience in our ninth graders.

What is design thinking in education?
Grade 9 students kayak along Pittsburgh's North Shore during the retreat. The group also geocached and went on ropes courses, which brought together the themes of resilience, adaptability, and community building.


In both cases, it was an iterative process that gave rise to the new ideas and will continue to nurture them as they are iterated, prototyped and re-tested.

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Topics: Education