6 Ways You Can Use Design Thinking To Look At Learning In Totally New Ways

Michael Cohen
Jan 26, 2018 · 8 min read

When I was young I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. An artist.

I also remember being shot down, questioned, and doubted. I remember the only people to ever support and encourage me were my parents. Even my painting professor questioned my future in the art world.

The good news is that I didn’t listen. The reason is that I felt then, and know now, that my God given talents to create, curate, and construct ideas intop experiences or physical items. These abilities are what allow me to fulfill my mission in life and provide maximum value to those around me. Whether it’s visual designs, project workflows, or launching a company, my level of self-awareness of what I am good at and what I can do for those around me gives me a level of motivation and drive that at times makes me feel unstoppable. I don’t always succeed, and I will never be done growing, honing, and refining my craft. But there is one thing that is certain,

“In life, no one can stop you if you eat failure for breakfast.”

How many of us can articulate our unique skills and abilities? Even more how many can communicate them with confidence? These are questions that many want to answer, and desire that their future professions will be inline. It’s a huge task. The level of self-awareness, mentorship, an experimentation required can intimate and overwhelm the most eager and motivated individuals. The challenge for many of us, especially in the world of education is that Generation Z is looking for answer to “what is my purpose?” more than any pervious generation. The rise in social media, YouTube, and the influencers that come with it are showing these young minds that if you love something, even if it’s jumping off buildings, make globady goop from scratch, or traveling the world, then you can make a profession out of it.

For Generation Z, passion equals profession (and getting paid!) more than ever before.

To successfully mentor young people in and out of school, we need to answer these questions for ourselves first. Some of us are lucky. We play our cards straight, pay the game of school and end up in our dream job, our sweet spot so to speak.

Cue Ikigai inspired illustration:

I stumbled upon the answer to my life mission (at least I hope so!) nine years ago. As a designer, I have always enjoyed solving problems for others. As a designer the problem is clear. How do I help a company, organization, or individual visually attract their target audience in a way that would draw them to engage with their store, event, or service?

When I was asked to teach a design course for high schoolers, I didn’t think much of it. After year two, I realized that the essence of my desire to solve problems for people was an deep level of intrinsic motivation to help others grow and succeed. I never in my life would have thought I would become an educator. If you asked me in high school, I would have told you not a chance in the world. If you told me as a Creative Director for a non-profit, I would have smiled as said that does not seem to be in line with career path. Truth be told, God has bigger plans for us, and that right place at the right time began what will soon become a 10 year journey in the world of education.

From a teacher, to a Director of Educational Technology, to what some consider a Thought Leader in Creativity and Design in Education, I have for the most part had a humbling and empowering experience growing as an educator, and helping others grow as well. In the fall of 2016 I left my school to go on the road so to speak, engaging in workshops, featured talks at conferences, and consulting schools on how to scale creative practice. After a year or so of keynotes, events, and many miles traveled at 30,000 ft., I felt a slight void in my work. I love working with teachers, empowering them, guiding them, inspiring them, and without question giving them the tools that they need to help learners thrive. What I missed was working with students. I had weekly interactions but nothing I could really invest myself in. When a school reached out to me to see if I would be interested in coming on board as their Director of Innovation (aka do whatever you want to promote new skills and independent creative thinking for students), I didn’t think twice. That’s because, thought leaders should be practitioners too.

If you can’t implement your ideas and backup your vision with action, it is hard to stimulate real change. When you spend all your time in the ideation phase, it is extremly challenging to create change that is sustainable and scalable.

Now don’t misunderstand that as a criticism of thought leadership or the incredibly talented people who spend their days speaking, writing, and publishing content online on important topics and niches in education. The world of education needs full time thinkers. We need them to have the freedom, flexibility, (and energy!) to figure out creative ways to not just empower, but actually engage students in learning that is hands on, experimental, and focused on producing something beyond memorized information.

I’m fortunate to be in a sort of hybrid role where I get to spend time supporting a school, its faculty and students, as well as speak, write, and create content that I hope brings value to others.

So how did I do this? Design my dear Watson.

It’s hard to articulate the essence of design in a world where the visual and physical dominate the definition. That’s why I like to take it back to the 80’s the 1580’s that is, when design was used to describe the act of devising and designating something, whether it was an idea, an experience, or a product. You see, good design is less about the “thing” and more about how it provides a value to someone in the most non obtrusive way possible. In Education these terms exist as well and it is up to us to help the experience of school evolve to reflect the needs of the world and the skills and ways of thinking that the future of work is demanding.

The role I see design playing in this interface between thought leadership and practitionership, is how school fosters experiences that embrace inquiry, experimentation and newness. Education in many ways is paralyzed by an overemphasis of pedagogical practice and educational research preventing the level of risk and exploration that is allowing other industries like medicine, manufacturing, and communications to innovate and thrive.

That is where design comes in. Education has revamped teacher practice, curriculum and core standards, and even methods and tools of instruction. What it has yet to address or even acknowledge is the evolution of its clientele, children, and how their 3pm-10pm experiences are completely at odds with their 8am-3pm experiences. It’s the employment of empathy that will let ideas generated from educational thought leaders thrive, because the practitioners will have the creative space and license to support students in new and relevant ways.

Many of the thought leaders in Education today have a pulse on the world and emerging trends and tools. They know when the World Economic Forum is taking place (psst. it happens in January check out ) and the hot topics being discussed by world leaders, expert researches, and innovative individuals. They also follow keynote events from leading technology companies, and they understand how employing empathy and the desire to provide unique value for others is driving the world’s most successful companies. That’s why it starts with Empathy. It starts with knowing that kids don’t just want to learn digital citizenship, they want to know how to manage the struggls of technology use. They want to know how to leverage social media to be successful in life like the Snapcat stars they watch, and the company’s using it to beat their competition. They want to learn how to Define problems and not simply define words and terms. They want to learn how to have the level of awareness to see and “Find the Gap”, identifying problems that are not obvious at first glance. They want opportunities to Ideate and figure things out beyond the scripted worksheets and essays about “dead guys” (literal quote from an 8th grader). They want a chance to do something no one, not even themselves thought was possible. They want to have opportunities to Prototype their experiences that allow for failure because calculated and purposely failure stimulates significant growth. Our students deserve to know that the word Test refers not just to 50 multiple choice questions, but the ability to improve a process or product that provides value for someone else.

And most of all, we owe it to them to Ship It. In the world of Startups and Technology, Ship It means that it’s viable but that the only way for it to reach its true potential is to get it out there and get users to interact with it and provide feedback. Students NEED these type of experiences!

The problem is they don’t realize they need it. They couldn't even think up such ideas because they have been trained to sit quietly, comply, and memorize for a test. Anything outside of this scope is met with resistance,

because if it’s not on the Test, and they can’t get a good grade, then they wont get into a good college, and their life is over.

Our students need to see that not all learning and work is due in 2 weeks and then done, never to be worked on again. They need to experience the feeling of creating something that requires them to research, aquire knowledge, and develop an understanding in an applied fashion that provides value for someone beyond their classroom walls.

Students need thought leaders and practitioners just as much as cutting edge companies need CEOs and skilled dedicated designers and engineers. So where do we begin?

It starts with you.

It starts with someone willing to take a big idea and implement it in their classroom. To help develop foundational literacies in new ways. To master math concepts though challenging activities. To learn the value in history and science by leverage and do something with it.

Is this a pie in the sky idea?


Are our children and students worth it?


Michael Cohen

Written by

Cultivating Creative Practice in Education - Designer, Problem Solver, Storyteller, M.S.Ed, Apple Distinguished, Creator — The #EducatedByDesign Project