Does Design Thinking Work For Students?

Over the last couple of years there has been an explosion of teachers talking about Design Thinking. Previously unheard of, it is now fairly commonplace to hear the term used in online conversations and at education conferences. For my eFellowship research this year, I investigated whether the student experience of Design Thinking matched up to why teachers were implementing this approach in their classes.

Over the last 2 years I have read about Design Thinking, applied it to creating structures for our new school and then used a teaching approach within my classes. It has felt like a more powerful version of inquiry through it’s focus on developing empathy, students iterating their understanding and then having to use their knowledge rather than just remembering information. Many of the teachers starting to use Design Thinking in New Zealand, Australia and the US have experienced a similar feeling or hunch of Design Thinking’s effectiveness. As a relatively new approach to teaching there has been very little research done on how effective it is as a practice.

The hunch of many is that Design Thinking is effective, but is it actually working for our students? source: Wikipedia

I set out to see whether this hunch of effectiveness was actually right. Whether the teacher aims for starting to use Design Thinking are matching how the students actually experience it in class.

This was done through a series of interviews and surveys with Middle and High School teachers and students from across NZ and USA. The interviews were a mix of face to face and across Google Hangouts, while surveys via Google Forms helped me reach more students than I could have just through interviews. A major thanks to all those who took part including Bo Adams, Katriona Main and Ellen Deutscher who gave me permission to publish their names as part of this.

My first assumption entering the research was that there would be a big difference between how teachers and students defined Design Thinking but overall, these were very similar.


In fact, the most comprehensive definition came from a student:

Design Thinking is human centred problem solving where designers go through a process which highly values empathy, feedback and multiple iterations in order to create a solution that best suits a user based on their needs and values

The outcomes that really could have been predicted before the research were:

  • More experience with design thinking led to deeper explanations about the impacts
  • The more confident teachers were about design thinking, the more confident the students were
  • The more confident students were about what design thinking is, the greater the outcomes being experienced by students

The powerful part of this research was when I started looking into the student voice. Whilst the scope of this research didn’t get to investigate the straight academic outcomes it provided rich qualitative explanations of how Design Thinking has impacted on student learning:


Strong evidence also came through about how students were transferring their dispositional or procedural knowledge from classes using a Design Thinking approach into other situations:



These comments show how Design Thinking as a process is empowering students with many of the skills that are being pursued in education at the moment: empathy, growth mindset and using feedback.

The most powerful student comment in this research shows both what students gain from the use of Design Thinking and a thirst for this authentic, meaningful approach to spread further:

“I am quicker to find things that don’t feel very meaningful to me which bothers me when I know there can be meaningful ways to learn where even as a high school student I can be contributing to bigger projects that really impact people’s lives.”

As someone heavily influenced by a social justice perspective, this comment speaks very loudly to me. I see students as citizens now, rather than citizens in the future, and want to help them develop the skills and knowledge to influence the world around them. The student voice here is saying that Design Thinking is both developing the skills and the desire to impact their world.

Overall this research has some implications for teachers using Design Thinking:

  • Be explicit about why you are using Design Thinking with your students
  • Apply it to your own practice and iterate – this will enable both you and your students to gain deeper outcomes
  • Starting in 1 class means students will transfer these skills elsewhere (which means you may need to be prepared to talk to other teachers about what you are doing!)






14 thoughts on “Does Design Thinking Work For Students?

  1. Thank you – very interested in this research and would love to speak with you about it – just followed you on Twitter – please DM me when you can so we can connect! We are just starting out with DT in my middle school STEAM program. Thanks in advance!

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  3. Hi Steve, I really benefited from your post on design thinking – especially enjoyed your student’s cogent definition. Do you have any thoughts around the question of physical proximity of the participants in the process? In other words, how important is face to face communication in the process (vs online, e-learning types of contexts)?

  4. Interesting read and what you have discovered seems to be general discovery of teachers around NZ especially in primary schools.What intrigues me is that design thinking is the basis of the Technology Curriculum so am wondering are schools not teaching”compulsory yr 1-10 technology education? or are those skills not being harvested in other curriculum areas?I am impressed that you got an accurate definition of design thinking from students…are educators than not moving with the times?

    • I have worked with the Technology Curriculum for several years, and like you Radhika, I am curious how Design Thinking can be utilized in other areas. As a pedagogical approach it fits well with Technology and I have seen a colleague use a similar approach with Art, although she didn’t call it Design Thinking Maybe, as teachers, we are using aspects of Design Thinking, in various areas of the curriculum and we just need to share how we are doing this so that we can get evidence of pedagogy. This will help answer the key question – “Does Design Thinking transfer into different contexts, if so how and when?
      I liked how students were able to research and gain a deeper understanding of Design Thinking. To me, it emphasizes the role of teacher as a facilitator and the future of educators.

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