Using Design Thinking to Innovate in Your Own Practice

John Spencer
10 min readMay 24, 2018

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to deliver an opening keynote and closing talk for EdEx, a conference in Eindhoven (in the Netherlands). When Jochem first shared his idea of a weeklong design expedition, I imagined teachers working in a makerspace, designing a product that would mirror the type of work they might do in a STEM class or in industrial arts.

Instead, the leaders at Fontys asked teachers to use design thinking to innovate in their own practice. Teachers began with a problem they wanted to solve or an idea they wanted to pursue. They then broke into teams and chose one person’s idea as the focus area. What would happen when people wanted to innovate within their own context only to find that they had to work on another person’s project?

While there was an initial pushback, each group formed into tight collaborative teams. The intial resentment wore off as complete strangers began to trust one another and share openly as they asked questions, engaged in research and designed solutions. True, they didn’t all get to solve the problems they had brought with them. But they learned a process that was empathy-driven.

From there, the teams focused on a user-centered design process and worked through understanding the key stakeholders, before eventually ideating, testing, and revising elements of their design. There was something powerful about watching teachers using the design thinking process to innovate within their own practice. By the time they launched their finished prototypes, they had created the kinds of educational experiences I would want my own kids to experience. Moreover, the participants left with a toolkit and a blueprint for how to make innovation a reality in their contexts.

Five Benefits of Using Design Thinking to Transform Your Practice

Nearly a decade ago, I met up with my friends Chad and Javier to plan for a STEM summer camp. We began bouncing ideas back and forth and started to make decisions when Javi said, “Our goal is to amplify student voice but we are making big decisions without considering the perspective of our students.” So, we created surveys, interviewed students, and brought them into the process. Javi and I had used a similar process when we planned the service-learning program, documentaries, and mural projects with our students. In other words, we not only asked students to use design thinking but we also used a design thinking approach to design our own programs. Often, we would begin with a problem and consider how the creative constraint might actually lead to innovation. We would focus on empathy as we engaged in research, ideation, building, and implementing. We would tweak the projects through tons of iterations.

Over the last three years, I have had the opportunity to work with teachers around the world on design thinking and I’ve seen similar stories of teachers, administrators, and coaches using design thinking to transform their schools. I always leave those conversations inspired by these pockets of empathy-driven innovation. And, while I don’t see design thinking as a magic bullet, I think it is a powerful framework for creativity and innovation.

#1: Design thinking is a chance to build empathy.

The term “build empathy” might be a little misleading here. Teachers are, on the whole, incredibly empathetic. They know what their students are experiencing and they feel it on a profound level. However, it’s easy to get into a “program mindset,” where you think about ideal systems and you forget about the actual experience of students. Just recently, I ran into this problem with my cohort. Although I had used design thinking for the overall course creation (and UX Design for the systems and structures), I started planning specific lessons without bothering to ask, “What will this experience look like for my students.” In the process, I forgot about the thoughts, emotions, and fears of a pre-service teacher learning how to deconstruct standards for the first time. And, as a result, we had an evening when the lesson tanked.

With design thinking, you actively seek out user feedback. In the LAUNCH Cycle, this occurs in the Look, Listen, and Learn phase (where you are often exploring the problem, paying attention to the context, and interviewing people) as well as the Understanding the Process or Problem (where you might do Needs Assessments, interviews, or surveys in your research) as well as seeking out feedback during the revision process of Highlight and Fix.

When schools embrace an empathy-driven process, they design systems that meet the needs of their students rather than asking their students to conform to their systems.

#2: Teachers gain contextual knowledge of the design thinking process.

When teachers use design thinking in their own practice, they gain experiential knowledge of how the process works. They can then determine new contexts for design thinking with their students. As they experience the pain points and frustrations, they develop scaffolds and strategies that their students can use.

Moreover, they gain a deeper emotional understanding of student design projects. When I was part of the design thinking expedition in the Netherlands, we hit a moment when just about every group looked angry. They were attempting to clarify what exactly they wanted to create and they couldn’t get there. I remember wondering if we had made a mistake by allowing them to wade into those frustrations in the second day. Maybe we were doing design thinking wrong. Maybe we should have provided more scaffolding.

And yet . . . these were the same emotions my middle school students used to experience. Creativity isn’t always fun. Sometimes it’s frustrating, boring, and so hard you want to give up. We tend to view creative work with images of kids skipping in the grass surrounded by rainbows. But real design is gritty. It’s frustrating. It’s nerve-wracking. But it’s also totally worth it after a group moves past the frustration and hits a creative breakthrough.

#3: Design thinking can increase divergent thinking in a school culture.

It’s easy to find the problems with the school system. Spend an hour in a staff lounge and you’ll hear about the lack of resources (a legitimate complaint) or the pressures of the test (an even bigger concern). Teachers are overworked an underpaid. The system can be outdated and slow to innovate. However, when teachers use design thinking, you approach problems as design challenges.

In some cases, the limitations can work as opportunities. Here, the creative constraint pushes you to think divergently and innovate. So, all of those problems you hate are essentially your design features. They are the problems you will solve, the parameters you will work within, and the hidden opportunities you will explore.

What does this actually look like?

Students are on their smartphones all the time. True, but are there ways you can tap into the creative and connective power of their devices? Homework isn’t working but your school requires teachers to assign homework. Is there a way you can change it up by making it authentic, optional, and student-centered? Is it possible that this constraint might just be the way you end up totally redesigning the way we do homework?

You have limited time and a rigid curriculum map. That’s tough, but is it possible to work within the map to do a PBL unit? Does the map explicitly prohibit the teaching of additional standards or does it merely tell you which ones you need to focus on in each week? Are there time-wasters you can scrap to free up the schedule (like multiple choice tests)? What type of PBL units can you do that would actually align to your standards?

A little nuance here: sometimes there are very real challenges that you need to rail against. Injustice exists and you can’t simply innovate your way out of it. As educators, we have to fight hard for the kind of schools our students deserve. Sometimes we use the hammer to chisel something beautiful. Other times we use it to tear down injustice.

But often the challenges we see are not massive injustices. They are small restrictions that require a different way of thinking — if we are bold enough to take the creative risk.

#4: Design thinking empowers teachers for grassroots innovation.

I’m not a fan of the question, “How do I get staff buy-in?” for the same reason I dislike the term “instructional leader.” There’s this assumption that change should begin with those in formal leadership positions who will share a vision with a staff and lead them toward innovation. This top-down, hierarchical approach often leads to resentment from teachers who view it as “just another program.”

A little nuance here. I have never been a principal or a district-level administrator. However, I recognize that leadership matters. The best leaders I have worked for have been the ones who were able to facilitate innovation through focusing on both the systems and the culture that lead to deeper collaboration.

Design thinking is a powerful way to facilitate this grassroots collaboration. Here, it’s less an issue of “teacher buy-in” and more of an issue of empowering a community to change the systems from within. With design thinking, teachers work interdependently to design projects, programs, systems, and structures. Here, teachers depend on each other to share ideas, engage in research, build consensus, and navigate ideas together. As they move through iterations, they depend on each other to give feedback and revise their shared work.

This is admittedly tricky. Genuine collaboration takes time and requires trust. And this is where the leadership plays a key role in freeing up the time, giving the permission, and helping to build the culture that can support this type of collaboration.

#5: Design thinking can help schools model iterative thinking.

One of the most common questions I hear when conducting design thinking or project-based learning workshops is, “What if this fails?” To be honest, this has been a question I battle with as well. I tend to be a perfectionist. I want a guarantee ahead of time that a new approach will work. However, that’s not how innovation works:

Innovation requires us to take creative risks, knowing that every risk is an experiment. It might work. It might fail. But each time something doesn’t work, we get the opportunity to abandon it (and learn from the failed experiment), tweak it, and refine it. This idea is at the heart of iterative thinking. It’s the notion that we are constantly working to refine our craft. It’s a recognition that there is no such thing as perfection — and that’s okay.

With design thinking, we make the distinction between fail-ure and fail-ing. Failure is permanent while failing is termporary. This is why we included the “Highlight what’s working and fix what’s failing” stage into the LAUNCH Cycle. This stage pushes us to admit that every project, program, or product has elements that are working and elements that need improvement. And that’s okay.

It’s easy to do creative work when you know ahead of time that it will succeed. But the best creative work you do is the kind that will leave you feeling uncertain and scared. And when you choose to embrace that take creative risks, it has a profound effect on how you teach. It helps you develop a growth mindset while also modeling the power of creative risk-taking for students.

Using the LAUNCH Cycle to Innovate in Schools

A.J. Juliani and I developed the LAUNCH Cycle based on iterations of design thinking models that we had used in our own classrooms. Although there are many models out there (and you might find a different model that works best for you), we found that this cyclical approach, which emphasizes a research component, can complement some of the core ideas of program development and action research. Check out the cycle below:

We created an acronym to help make it easier to remember:

L: Look, Listen, and Learn
In the first phase, students look, listen, and learn.The goal here is awareness. It might be a sense of wonder at a process or an awareness of a problem or a sense of empathy toward an audience.

A: Ask Tons of Questions
Sparked by curiosity, students move to the second phase, where they ask tons of questions.

U: Understanding the Process or Problem
This leads to understanding the process or problem through an authentic research experience. They might conduct interviews or needs assessments, research articles, watch videos, or analyze data.

N: Navigate Ideas
Students apply that newly acquired knowledge to potential solutions. In this phase, they navigate ideas. Here they not only brainstorm, but they also analyze ideas, combine ideas, and generate a concept for what they will create.

C: Create a Prototype
In this next phase, they create a prototype. It might be a digital work or a tangible product, a work of art or something they engineer. It might even be an action or an event or a system.

H: Highlight and Fix
Next, they begin to highlight what’s working and fix what’s failing. The goal here is to view this revision process as an experiment full of iterations, where every mistake takes them closer to success.

Launch to an Audience
Then, when it’s done, it’s ready to launch. In the launch phase, they send it to an authentic audience. They share their work with the world!



John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something new every day. Some days, I make stuff. Other days, I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.