10 Things That Happen When Students Engage in Design Thinking

John Spencer, a great friend and amazing thinker, has a course on “Design Thinking for Teachers”, that is happening now. I know John is very thoughtful about his work, and has helped many educators embrace “Design Thinking” in their classrooms, in a way that is easy to connect with, yet powerful for students. If you are interested in signing up for the course, please click the following link:

Design Thinking for Educators (Course)

To get a discount for this course, please use the discount code “spencer”, when purchasing.

To learn more about John and his thoughts on innovation in education, empowering students, and how Design Thinking can unleash these things in your students and your classrooms, check out his post below, that was originally posted on his blog.


In a recent post, I wrote about why I want to see students become innovators:

While one-size-fits-all works great for socks, it’s not ideal for minds. Kids need to dream and wonder and imagine. They need to design and build and tinker. This is why I love design thinking. It’s a flexible framework that guides students through specific phases in the creative process.

What happens when kids become design thinkers?

The following are some of the benefits I have noticed when kids engage in design thinking.

  1. They move from engaged to empowered. Design thinking honors student agency, because they are the ones asking the questions, doing the research, generating ideas, and creating the final product. When they own the creative process, they own their learning.
  2. They become problem-solvers. Real problem-solvers. The kind of problem-solvers who actually create the solutions. It’s not always easy. It can take time. Sometimes they get frustrated by all the mistakes. But by the end, they view themselves as problem-solvers — and this is the kind of self-concept that continues outside of school.
  3. They grow more empathetic. Design thinking begins with a place of humility. You aren’t just making something. You are making something that serves an audience. This requires deep empathy. It might be a service project or a product or something you are publishing. Each approach requires a different kind of empathy. If this happens in a culturally responsive way, students can also learn cultural humility.
  4. They remain curious. Design thinking begins with this sense of wonder and curiosity. It honors this natural desire to explore and to ask tons of questions. Too often, students internalize the idea that learning is all about answering questions. However, design thinking reminds us that learning begins with inquiry.
  5. They learn how to work collaboratively. Traditional school work requires students to be dependent on their teacher as the source of all information. Individualized learning shifts to independence. But design thinking teaches students to work interdependently, balancing the needs of the group with the need for personal expression.
  6. They view themselves as makers. By sharing their product with the world, they participate in a global community of creativity. They can also share their creative journey in what Austin Kleon describes as “showing your work.” In the process, they are more likely to appreciate the creativity around them.
  7. They value the diversity of creative mindsets. Here students experience a bigger definition of creativity. In design thinking, students might be hacking a system, solving a problem, engineering a solution, tinkering, tweaking a process, testing ideas, gathering data or dreaming up new ideas. In the process, they learn to value the creative mindsets of everyone around them.
  8. They learn the power of creative constraint. For all the talk of “thinking outside the box,” this is a chance for students to learn how to “think inside the box,” working with specific limitations as they prototype. Here, they learn that limitations are often the very design features for their finished work.
  9. They see the value of iterations. Too often, students are punished for getting the wrong answer. They are stuck in grading systems where they get an average on their scores. With design thinking, they have an entire phase devoted to refining their work. This doesn’t mean they don’t need to have any deadlines, but it does mean they have the time and the permission to keep working on a product until they are ready to send it to an authentic audience.
  10. They become creative risk-takers. Design thinking encourages students to engage in creative risk-taking at every stage. In the research phase, students can engage in divergent thinking, learning that every question matters. In the ideation phase, they get over the fear that their ideas might be “dumb” as they generate and combine ideas. In the creating and revising phases, they realize that the only true failure is giving in to fear of failure.

In other words, when students embrace design thinking, they develop a maker mindset. They define themselves as problem-solvers.

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My Journey with Design Thinking

When I first began teaching, I knew that students would thrive in a creative environment. I wanted them to embrace the maker mindset. However, I felt crippled by fear. I was afraid that I didn’t have enough resources. I was scared that their success in a creative project wouldn’t translate into higher test scores. I was concerned about classroom management issues (I had mistaken being busy with being engaged).

That’s why I needed a framework. This is ultimately why I embraced design thinking. My students needed a different way to think about creative work. They needed something that would provide structure but also respect student agency and choice.

It’s a bit of a debate where design thinking originated. Some claim that it started in the sixties with The Sciences of the Artificial. Others point to Design Thinking, which focused more on urban planning and architecture. Still others point to Robert McKim’s work in Experiences in Visual Thinking. Like all great ideas, it has been an evolution, influenced by thousands of people. My work around Design Thinking has been influenced by people like Tom and David Kelley, Tim Brown, John Maeda, Peter Rowe (as well as organizations like Stanford d.school and IDEO).

But ultimately, I found that there were tweaks and iterations I needed to make to the existing design thinking frameworks. This is ultimately why I worked with AJ Juliani on the LAUNCH Cycle, a student-friendly design thinking framework for K-12 classrooms. We added a few key elements, including a broader starting point, an explicit stage of inquiry, a media literacy component and a final phase where they launch their work to an authentic audience.

You can learn more about it in our book Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in All Students or you could check out the video below:

Design thinking prepares students for a creative life — whether that is in business, in the social or civic spaces, in the arts, or in engineering. But it does this by allowing them create things that matter to them right now. It’s not some far off “grown up” thing. It’s something they can engage in right now as they create things that matter to them.

So, while it’s easy to complain about standardized education, we can offer strategies like design thinking and project-based learning as alternatives that empower students to be the creative thinkers we know they can be.