Teaching Design Thinking to Solve Real-World Problems

As people, cultures, and economies around the world change and evolve, new problems arise regularly. Fortunately, design thinking can help. Making its first appearance in the late 1960s, this creative problem solving method has become a part of business and industry, and it is now making its way into classrooms, from the elementary level to university settings. Discover how design thinking project ideas in the classroom help solve real-world problems.

The Design Thinking Process

The d.school, more formally known as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, at Stanford University lies at the center of the design thinking movement. With a goal of developing, teaching, and implementing design thinking, the d.school pioneered a useful framework for the process that keeps it flowing from problem to solution.

  • Empathize: In getting to know individuals and groups, design thinkers develop empathy for them.
  • Define: Design thinkers define a specific problem based on what is learned about an individual or group.
  • Ideate: Potential solutions to a problem are generated through brainstorming, and the more ideas, the better.
  • Prototype: Based on the information gathered in the first three phases, a product is created to address the problem. According to the d.school, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand pictures.”
  • Test: A prototype undergoes testing by a person or group, generating valuable feedback for improving the product.

Design Thinking in an Educational Setting

In an educational setting, design thinking encourages students to channel innovation and resourcefulness, something that real-world problem-solvers like architects, designers, and engineers do every day. Design thinking can be used with all age groups and across many subjects, from social studies to mathematics. Fortunately, for teachers on a limited budget, these projects don’t require expensive supplies or an abundance of space. The focus lies merely on the creative problem-solving process.

Design thinking project ideas for preschoolers often involve simple supplies like toothpicks and marshmallows. Elementary school children benefit from more complex projects like creating an animal habitat, generating a list of classroom rules, or re-imagining their school’s playground or cafeteria space.

After entering high school, kids become more interested in real-world problems. Design thinking ideas for teenagers might include exploring immigration or poverty through mediums like music, art, and writing; creating a mathematical board game; designing an eco-friendly home; or inventing a new sport.

Design Thinking and Creative Classroom Design

According to Deborah Carstensen, MECE and former director of the Learning and Belonging Preschool at the University of Montana, “Teachers who plan to implement design thinking into their curriculum should consider their classroom design.” A design thinking approach says that the users of a classroom — the students — should have some input in its layout and function, even students as young as preschoolers. To encourage creativity and imagination in class, teachers can incorporate:

  • Flexible furniture like rolling tables, chairs, and room dividers
  • A combination of individual and collaborative learning spaces
  • Guest speakers on a wide range of topics
  • Fun team-building exercises like device building and scavenger hunts
  • Alternative teaching methods like podcasts and TED talks
  • The introduction of color and texture through wall art, sculpture, and natural elements

Are you looking to incorporate design thinking into your classroom? Use Stanford’s framework for many of your class projects, and turn to CORT Furniture Rental for temporary room setups and creative space design.