INF536 Assessment 4

When Theories of Design Thinking and Theories of Learning intersect

Image by Ben Harris.  Retrieved from

Image by Ben Harris. Retrieved from


Literature Critique of

Brown, T. (2009) Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. New York: Harper Business.  Summary by Get Abstract. Retrieved from:


Gobble, M. M. (2014, May-June). Design thinking. Research-Technology Management, 57(3), 59+. Retrieved from


Kumar, V. (2012). 101 Design methods : A structured approach for driving innovation in your organization. Retrieved from CSU library


Kuratko, D., Goldsworthy, M., & Hornsby, G. (2012). The design-thinking process in Innovation acceleration : transforming organizational thinking. (pp.103-123). Boston : Pearson.


Leifer, Larry; Plattner, Hasso; Meinel, Christoph (2013). Design Thinking Research : Building Innovation Eco-Systems. Available in the CSU library


Melles, G., Howard, Z., Thompson-Whiteside, S. (2012). Teaching Design Thinking: Expanding Horizons in Design Education.   Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2012, Vol.31, pp.162-166


The Design Council (2013). Design for public good. Retrieved from:


Walter, H. (2011) “Design thinking” isn’t a miracle cure, but here’s how it helps. Fast Company, March 24.  Retrieved from



All teachers are designers – they design learning experiences for their students and they design learning spaces to inform, inspire, showcase and celebrate student achievement.   One of the biggest challenges teachers face today is to recognise themselves as DESIGNERS, rather than just DELIVERERS of learning experiences set out in syllabus documents.  The purpose of this paper is to critique the literature listed above to determine what can be applied by teachers to help them imagine, design and create spaces for learning that are most likely to meet the ever-evolving needs of learners well into the future.

Generally, the fields of architecture, engineering or fashion are associated with the word “design”.  However, Razzouk & Shute (2012) describe design as a natural human activity, a process that many of us don’t recognise we are naturally using in our daily lives.   Kuratko, Goldsworthy, & Hornsby, (2012, p.108) see design as “…the mixing of what currently exists with a possible future to be built.”   While the 20th century concept of design tended to focus on product development or aesthetics, design in the 21st century focuses more on services, behaviours and social systems.  As Brown (2009, p.42) says, “…the striking development of recent years has been the migration of designers toward social and behavioural problems”, rather than designing products.   ‘We are designing verbs,’ [Bill] Moggridge says, ‘not nouns’. (Brown, 2012, p.134).  The Design Council (2013, p.4) echoes this in its Design for Public Good report, saying “…vital new design disciplines (are) focused not on objects but services and systems.”

Therefore, in addition to theories of learning, theories of design can also help inform the services and systems we create in the education sector.  Themes in the design literature that have implications for learning spaces include the idea that we are all designers; design thinking is a process that people can follow to help them think like designers; and the design thinking process can be applied to different contexts outside of traditional “design” fields.  Analyses of these themes unearth some tensions, contradictions and surprises that may result from the intersection of these two fields.

Herbert A. Simon, professor and 1978 Novel Laureate in Economics, says “Everyone designs who devises a course of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” (Kuratko, Goldsworthy & Hornsby 2012 p.103).  The parallels between the designers that Simon describes and the teaching profession are obvious:  the essence of learning is “changing existing situations” and the essence of education is “design(ing) courses of action” aimed at bringing about learning.

Brown (2009) says that we ALL need think like designers, to articulate the latent needs that we many not even know that we have.  He believes it is right to put designing into the hands of people who may have never thought of themselves as designers, because design thinking taps into capacities that we all have.  Kelley (2012) and Robinson (2011) agree, believing that the creativity that is associated with design is innate in all of us; that it is something you practice, not just a talent you are or are not born with.   Reports such as Design for Public Good (The Design Council, 2013) recommend that organisations (such as the education sector) should adopt design thinking at different levels – designing for discrete problems (one-off design projects), design as capability (where employees not only work with designers, they learn how to use design thinking themselves), and design for policymaking.

Design thinking is not a theory of design, and it is important to draw a distinction between the two concepts here.   Brown (2009) describes design thinking as a process: a non-linear, iterative process of inspiration, ideation & implementation, while Leifer, Plattner & Meinel, (2013) see design thinking more as a mindset: a method of understanding problems and producing innovative, compelling solutions.    There is a fair amount of cross-referencing in the literature about design thinking, and most authors agree that design thinking is more than just a problem solving process.  While precise definitions of the process or mindset of design thinking vary, there are common elements:  it has a HUMAN-CENTRED, rather than a technology or organisation-centred approach (Kimbell, 2011; Brown, 2009; Melles, Howard & Thompson-White, 2012; Leifer et. al., 2013); it is an ITERATIVE process (Kimbell, 2011; Brown 2009); it is best facilitated within a MULTIDISCIPLINARY team (Kimbell, 2011; Gobble, 2014); and it draws on different types of THINKING:  heuristic, intuitive and analytic (Martin (2009), in Gobbles, 2014); divergent and convergent (Brown, 2009); or abductive, inductive and deductive (Martin, 2009 in Kimbell, 2011).  Walters (2011) writes about what design thinking is NOT:  it is NOT design (design is still needed in the design thinking process, probably at the end of the process to help with marketing & branding); it is NOT magic (it’s a tool to help find answers); it is NOT a quick fix (the approach of risk taking, of relying on intuition and experience rather than solely on the facts can be time-consuming); and it does NOT guarantee success (but it could be possible to reframe failure in terms of learning).

These concepts of design thinking are helpful, but Brown (2009) provides a more practical “how-to” description of the design thinking process, which is useful for people who may be new to the idea of thinking about themselves as designers.  He breaks the design thinking process into four non-linear steps: EMPATHY (getting out of your “comfort zone” and walking a mile in someone else’s shoes (Kelley, 2012); seeing the world through different users’ eyes);   DEFINE (analysing and defining the problem, which may or may not be how it was originally conceived);    IDEATE (as a team, generate a large number of possible solutions to the problem)  and PROTOTYPE (create cheap versions of the solutions as quickly as possible and try them out, learning from failures and building on them – “Demo or die” as Nicholas Negroponte (MIT Medi Lab) says.   John Keefe (in Kelley, 2012, p.118) says “The most effective way I’ve found to practice design thinking is by showing not telling.”)

Gobble (2014) included reference to Nussbaum’s writing about his concerns of how the widespread adoption of design thinking in “non-designer” fields has overemphasized its processes, “…turning it into a linear, gated, by-the-book methodology that delivered, at best, incremental change and innovation.”   She goes on to write that “Nussbaum doesn’t discount the value of design thinking in the past; he simply thinks it’s outlived its usefulness.”  Brown’s description of the design thinking process is useful for people in “non-designer” fields such as education, however Naussbaum’s concerns should act as a warning not to over-simplify and over-regulate Brown’s description of the design thinking process, because the danger is that good design and innovation may not result.

Razzouk and Shute (2012) rightly point out that many design thinking principles and processes are already inherent in good teaching and learning.  Comparison of Hattie’s and Yate’s work (2013) about strong practises in learning and the design thinking process illustrate this:  Teachers are change agents (designers) who seek feedback about their impact and modify their actions accordingly (iterative process); teachers and students can share in learning tasks (multidisciplinary teams); teachers make use of critical planning and formulating learning intentions and success criteria (define & ideate); the process of learning involves deliberate practice, rehearsal, error, reteaching, listening, trying, exploring, and so on (culture of prototyping); and teachers become more effective when they begin to see learning through the eyes of their students (empathy).

It should be feasible to apply a design thinking mindset and design thinking processes to teaching and learning, so that innovative practise results, however there may be some areas of discord between theory and practise.  There are some areas of discord in the literature around the concept of innovation itself that is reflected Kumar’s question “Is innovation the quantum leap or is it the small increments?” (2012)

Walters (2011) talks about the goal of design thinking as being genuine disruption rather than incremental improvement;  Kumar (2012, p.2) writes about “a world of leap frog and disruptive innovation” where practitioners must be empowered to question previously held assumptions, and invert and transcend the tenets of their disciplines; and Brown (2009) contrasts innovation with increment, describing increment as focusing on near-term or existing ideas, whereas innovation is generating new ideas altogether.   Yet, in Rethinking Design (Goh, 2012), Brown describes innovation as fluid, going from the collective impact of many, many incremental changes to the individual impact of disruptive innovation, both of which are equally important.   He talks about how Wikipedia “gets better every day” because it benefits from “lots and lots of incremental improvements all the time”.  Leifer et. al. (2013) would refer to these incremental changes as a remixing process, or a design re-design.

Innovation in classroom practise more commonly reflects Brown’s later idea, with most innovations falling into the small, incremental changes category, with some larger disruptive innovations being implemented from time to time.  Teachers are usually very good at paying attention to the little details of a design, and Paul Bennett reminds us in his TED talk Design is in the Details (2005) that the success or failure of a design often rests in the little details.  He speaks about the skill of searchlight and laser thinking that all designers should practise – focusing on long-term and big picture goals or dreams, while being forever mindful of the finer details.

A private K-12 school in the Northern Beaches in Sydney is highly regarded as an innovative school.  It is a well-resourced school and its innovative approach to education is reflected in its physical spaces and teaching-learning practises.  The open-plan, environmentally sustainable design of its buildings are inspiring and unique – what could be considered disruptive innovations that challenge the status quo of traditional school building designs; while its innovative approaches to learning based on syllabus outcomes (such as game–based learning) could be considered incremental, making smaller changes to existing practise rather than inverting and transcending the tenets of existing practises in learning.  This school illustrates that innovation is fluid – embodying both genuine disruption and incremental improvement.

An area of discord between theory in the literature and real-life practise in centres around IDEO general manager David Kelley’s insistence that IDEO’s “blend of methodologies, work practices, culture, and infrastructure” can be replicated anywhere, because design thinking is more about creating an innovative culture than it is a methodology (Gobble 2014).   Melles et. al. (2012) support this idea, writing that the scope for practical application of design thinking is enormous and continues to grow.   However, The Design Council’s overview of the design process that contrasts current practise in “traditional public sector service provision” (eg. education systems) with design thinking illustrates that there are a number of “stumbling blocks” in current practise in organisations (such as designing for the average, and thinking in silo structures) to this idea (2011, p.11).  Walters (2011) recognises that changing the culture of an organisation is tremendously challenging, particularly “…where systems and departments have become entrenched over the years.”

Therefore, while in theory it may be possible for design thinking “…methodologies, practices, culture and infrastructure (to) be replicated anywhere”, the reality is that many of the stumbling blocks referred to in The Design Council’s report are the current preferred method of operation within education systems, questioning the feasibility of Kelley’s idea in practise.  It would be very challenging to make effective use of design thinking within an organisation that does not have the “fertile ground” (Brown, 2009) that allows mistakes to be made, where there is an attitude of experimentation and tolerance for risk taking, coupled with a climate of optimism.  Brown goes on to write about how “…the physical and psychological spaces of an organisation work in tandem to define the effectiveness of the people in it”, which implies that for innovation to occur, there needs to be a synergy between the organisation and the individual –  innovative people within an organisation may not thrive unless the organisation itself is also innovative.  Kuratko et. al. (2012) write that design is a democratic process where everyone in an organisation must be allowed to participate in the innovation process because each has unique insights.  However, individuals within an organisation may struggle to share their insights, unless they have the support of management.  One needs only look at the number of innovative people who have moved outside education systems to try to bring change from outside the system rather than from within.  John Miziolek (in Gobble, 2014) argues that “…any business can commit to successful design thinking” but initiative “has to be led and implemented from the very top by a management committed to the process.”

While there may be some discord between the literature on design thinking, and between the literature and practise; there are principles of design thinking that can successfully transfer to practise.

The process of design thinking as outlined by Brown (2009) can be applied to design of learning experiences – by teachers who design the learning, and by students as they experience it, particularly when using inquiry based learning approaches.  Although they may not be explicitly aware of the design thinking process, innovative teachers implicitly use this process when designing and facilitating learning for their students.  Educating all teachers about the design thinking process may help them refine their planning and programming, reminding them about the importance of using a human-centred, empathetic approach (i.e. through the eyes of their students) to the design of learning experiences and spaces, rather than an over-emphasis on achievement  of prescribed syllabus outcomes.

One example of applying the design thinking process to a learning experience is currently taking place in a Year 5 Literacy program, using an approach referred to as multi-literacy (Quinlan, 2014).  The class teachers and school librarian worked collaboratively to empathise with the students about their attitudes to reading, their reading habits and areas of interest, through the use of surveys and 1:1 conversations with each student; they brainstormed ideas for learning opportunities together, using their own ideas, and ideas that students had suggested in their 1:1 conversations; then they presented these ideas as learning tasks in a learning contract made up of six tasks, and children chose which three of those learning tasks they wished to explore (one task was titled DIY, inviting children to create their own learning experience).  The process of designing the multi-literacy learning contracts was iterative, as the three teachers involved collaborated on the design of tasks through several conversations via email, before presenting the learning contract to the students.  The students themselves have added to the iterative nature of the task design, negotiating their own interpretations of the tasks with their teachers as they work through them.  Students are currently working in groups – brainstorming, collaborating, critiquing, negotiating, compromising – as they create drafts of work products in response to task descriptions (prototyping), which they may or may not eventually choose to go on and publish.

Brown (2009) maintains that the ability to build on one another’s good ideas in adulthood (he sees this as one of the key tenets of design thinking) begins in childhood, by nurturing the natural creativity inherent in children, but more importantly keeping it alive as they advance through the education system.  The pre-requisite for this is to create an environment in which the children KNOW they can experiment and take risks and explore to the full range of their potential.  The Year 5 teachers are trying to create this kind of environment through the multi-literacy approach.

This is the first time that the Year 5 class teachers have used a multi-literacy program with their students, so one would expect them to be learning about the effect of the multi-literacy approach as they experience it in its first iteration.  Melles et. al. (2012) reflected on the presentation of their first course in design thinking in Teaching Design Thinking: Expanding Horizons in Design Education and learnt that students found it difficult to move from a narrow perspective to a broader one, as they tended to find a narrow focus for their design problem quickly, rather than looking at the design issue more broadly.  They also noted that there was poor networking among students as they worked through the design process, and not surprisingly also named time constraints as a limitation.

These findings can be applied to the Year 5 multi-literacy program as class teachers will need to consider how they can best encourage students to experiment, take risks and explore to their full potential.  Iterative feedback would be one approach they could use here, from both peers and teacher, such as that presented by Ron Berger from Expeditionary Learning in the clip Austin’s Butterfly (2012).  Time is often mentioned as a constraint, and teachers will need to evaluate whether or not more time will need to be allocated to multi-literacy tasks, based on what they observe in terms of student engagement, work progress and learning gains.  Walters (2011) writes that is important to ascertain what metrics you want to use to judge whether a program has been successful or not, and Leifer et. al. (2013, p.12) raise valid questions about how to understand and assess learning experiences based on principles of design thinking:  “If we aim to teach thinking concepts, processes, practices & dispositions, how do we set goals and how do we understand & assess learning experiences?”  Should assessment focus on individual or team experiences?  These are questions that the teachers will have to think about, to help them develop tools and processes for assessment of learning through a multi-literacy approach.

Hattie & Yates (2013, p.xi) write that “…achievement in schools is maximised when teachers see learning through the eyes of students, and when students see learning through the eyes of themselves as teachers.”  Design thinking literature and classroom practise suggest that if both students and teachers see learning as a design thinking process – a human-centred, iterative and social process that draws on different ways of thinking and perceiving – innovative learning spaces can be created to meet the ever evolving needs of learners well into the future.





Bennett, Paul (July 2005). Design is in the details [Video file].  Retrieved from


Berger, R. (2003), An ethic of excellence. Heinemann Educational Books. Introduction. Retrieved from:


Brown, T. (2009) Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. New York: Harper Business.  Summary by Get Abstract. Retrieved from:


Expeditionary Learning (March 9, 2012).  Austin’s Butterfly: Building Excellence in Student Work – Models, Critique, and Descriptive Feedback [Video file].  Retrieved from


Goh, E. (April 5, 2012) Rethinking Design with IDEO’s Tim Brown.  In idealog.  Retrieved from


Gobble, M. M. (May – June, 2014). Design thinking. Research-Technology Management, 57(3), 59+. Retrieved from


Hattie, J. & Yates G. C. R. (2013). Visible learning and the science of how we learn. Routledge.


Kelley, T. (2012). Reclaim Your Creative Confidence. Harvard Business Review, 90(12), 115-118.


Kimbell, L. (2011). Rethinking design thinking: Part I. Design and Culture, 3(3), 285-306


Kumar, V. (2012). 101 Design methods : A structured approach for driving innovation in your organization. Retrieved from CSU library


Kuratko, D., Goldsworthy, M., & Hornsby, G. (2012). The design-thinking process in Innovation acceleration : transforming organizational thinking. (pp.103-123). Boston : Pearson.


Leifer, Larry; Plattner, Hasso; Meinel, Christoph (2013). Design Thinking Research : Building Innovation Eco-Systems. Available in the CSU library


Melles, G., Howard, Z., Thompson-Whiteside, S. (2012). Teaching Design Thinking: Expanding Horizons in Design Education.   Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2012, Vol.31, pp.162-166


Razzouk, R., Shute, V. (2012). What is design thinking and why is it important? Review of Educational Research, September, 82 (3), 330–348.


Quinlan, J. (August 2014).  Design Thinking and Multiliteracy.  In notyouraverage JoBlogs.  Retrieved from


Robinson, K., (2011).  Out of our minds : Learning to be creative.  Fully rev. and updated ed.  Oxford : Capstone Publishing.


Seidel, V., & Fixson, S. (2013). Adopting design thinking in novice multidisciplinary teams: The application and limits of design methods and reflexive practices. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 30, 19–33. or


Starck, P.  (March 2007).   Design and Destiny [Video file].   Retrieved from:


The Design Council (2013). Design for public good. Retrieved from:


Walter, H. (2011) “Design thinking” isn’t a miracle cure, but here’s how it helps. Fast Company, March 24.  Retrieved from


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