Warning: Your web browser is not compatible with some important technologies used on this site.

Design Thinking Introduction

Let's start by thinking about why Design is important?

When we look at curriculum trends around the world we see an increasing emphasis on design. Design is now being recognised beyond the technical studies workshop and the art room as a way of thinking and a set of skills that we want our students to develop in order to thrive in the 21st century.

So, what is it about design that’s getting so much attention?

In this short video, you will be introduced to design thinking and some of the new developments in the design space:

So let's go on to see design thinking in practice. In this next video you will meet 11-year-old William Grame. William was named Australia’s young innovator of the year in 2015. As you listen to William’s story, think about the skills, strengths and he displays as a designer. Why do we want all students to develop these types of characteristics?

In every course we run, we suggest that you document your thoughts and learning in a Learning Journal. Now might be a great time to start one for this course.
Start a Learning Journal here

What did you note about William's dispositions? Skills? Thinking?

Design in Curriculum

Let's move on to think about design in curriculum. Design skills are prominent in most curricula across the world. I'm from Australia and will use the Australian Curriculum, where they are situated in Design and Technology, as an example.

Listen to an explanation of design in curriculum:

While not necessarily relevant to those outside Australia, this next video emphasises the higher purpose of design as a curriculum focus and presents a call to action that is consistent across curriculum in many other countries.

Task: Journal writing

Use your ‘Journal’ to make a few notes about the emphasis on design in the technologies curriculum to empower students to ‘make informed decisions and develop solutions for a preferred future’.
Where else do you see these ideas in the curriculum? What other opportunities are there to encourage students to seek, identify and solve real-world problems?
Learning Journal

Task: 3-2-1

Using a 3-2-1 scaffold or graphic organiser is a quick way to reflect on what you already know about a topic and to guide your thinking and learning.

Attached is a copy of the scaffold to help you do this.
3-2-1 Scaffold

Also think about using this at the beginning of a design challenge with students. It’s a great way to help students identify needs and opportunities to inform their design processes.

Let's unpack 'Design'

Design thinking is something we can all do. It is a way of thinking that gives us confidence in our abilities to create solutions for the problems we encounter in our own lives, the lives of others and the world around us.

Design Thinking gives us a set of tools and processes for identifying needs and opportunities and designing solutions. Listen to Mandi explaining Design Thinking, using the example of difficulty accessing the school car park (probably a challenge in your school too right?)

So, as you can see, design thinking is an inquiry or problem solving process with defined steps that help us to think like designers when we come across problems or opportunities to create better futures.

The process includes:

The Australian Curriculum defines design thinking through 4 key processes.

There are many models and descriptions to define design thinking but the ideas captured in these 4 bubbles really encompass the essence of what design thinking is all about.

Download: Design Elements

Task: Design Thinking in Action

Mandi sets up this task in the following audio:

You’ll need sticky notes for this activity.

We have found that one of the best ways for teachers to understand and adopt new practices is to observe them in action. In this video you will meet Amanda’s year 6 students as they work through a design challenge.

As you watch the video, jot down the actions and behaviours you notice the students engaging in. Write each thing you notice on a separate sticky note.

As this is only a short video, it’s impossible for us to see everything the students did and said during their design project. You might want to jot down thoughts and actions you assume the students must have worked through.

Once you’ve finished watching the video, think about the behaviours and actions you have observed in relation to the Design Thinking Bubble Diagram.

You may like to use the Design Thinking task sheet to arrange your sticky note observations.

Use your own copy of the Design Thinking Task Sheet to arrange your sticky note observations.
Design Thinking Task Sheet

Hear Mandi talk about some common observations:

Example of completed Design Thinking Sheet

Think about the conditions that Amanda has created in her classroom to enable her students to think like designers?
How has she incorporated design thinking processes into her teaching?
When you've had a chance to think about this, Mandi has recorded the responses from other professional learning participants in this audio:

Task: Experiencing design thinking

Design thinking can help us build optimism and self-efficacy in our students by positioning them as effective problem solvers and communicating the belief that they have the power to make a difference.

Design Thinking is a way of generating creative, innovative and effective solutions to open-ended problems. It enables us to turn challenging situations into design opportunities.

Design thinking asks students to be seekers and finders as well as solvers of problems. The important differentiation, here, is that we are talking about students identifying the needs and opportunities for designing solutions rather than only ever asking them to solve problems that we provide for them as teachers.

In this way, design thinking gives us wonderful opportunities to engage our students in solving real-world problems, problems that are relevant to their own lives and also encourages them to develop empathy for others and consider the world around them from perspectives other than their own.

Let's use this range of situations that might pose needs or opportunities for designing solutions:

In this activity we are focusing on the ‘Identify needs and opportunities’ stage of design thinking. Listen to Mandi explain more here:

Choose a couple of the situations and use the following guiding questions to help you think about the needs and opportunities they present.

This might be a good time to pause and make some notes in our Journal. What situations present in your classroom, with your students, for them to apply these questions? How might they identify needs and opportunities for design thinking?
Learning Journal link

Task: Approaches to Design Thinking

In the next 2 sections we will be considering 2 approaches to teaching design thinking, integration across all curriculum areas and specific lessons or units with a design thinking focus.

Use this scaffold (You can download a copy from the link) to make notes about these 2 approaches and consider what choices you will make.

Approaches to Design Thinking

Maintaining your Journal

Make some notes in your journal about design thinking and what you now understand about it and how we might approach teaching it.
Learning Journal link

How can we integrate design thinking?

Much of what we do in the classroom involves some aspect of:

Once you start tuning into this you’ll notice design thinking everywhere, as well as lots of opportunities to strengthen and enhance student’s experiences with these processes.

You’ll also be able to help your students become more attuned to how they are using design thinking to solve problems and embrace challenges every day.

We’ve developed some resources to help you do this and we’ll talk more about those later in this lesson.

But let’s start by becoming more aware of the opportunities to incorporate design thinking in our everyday teaching practice.

Have a look at some examples we have prepared of activities that incorporate one or more aspects of design thinking.

Download your own copy here:
Integration Examples

What does design thinking look like in the classroom?

Let’s look at 2 of these examples:

The first example for F-2 is:

Provide students with a selection of 2D shape blocks and challenge them to make as many animals or characters as they can.

To complete this task, students need to observe the shapes and think about possibilities for arranging the shapes together to form new designs.
We can see that this requires students to identify opportunities, generate ideas and visualise possible solutions.
They will be actively manipulating and arranging the shapes into new formations as they plan and develop their solutions.

Another one of the examples comes from Year 5-6/7:

Plan a fitness routine to music for the whole school to participate in at the beginning of Sports Day.

This task requires all 4 elements of design thinking. Students might start by identifying the criteria for a successful whole school fitness routine. E.g. suitable for all ages, venue big enough for whole school, weather constraints etc. They would then generate ideas for the routine and start to plan and develop it. They might test the routine with a small group of students and use this test to tweak and improve the routine prior to Sports Day.

Over to you now…

Here’s a scaffold to gather your thoughts about which elements are used in the activities listed.

Print it out, or work on screen, to record your thoughts at the appropriate level/s.
Response Sheet

It takes a little effort to get your head around it, but once you do, you will be seeing these elements everywhere! We do!

Where does design thinking fit in my day?

So, where are the opportunities to integrate design thinking into your school day?

There are many demands on our teaching time. How are we supposed to address all those curriculum outcomes for one thing? Integration is an important strategy to help us address this issue. We can strengthen our explicit focus on design thinking by making the most of opportunities to integrate it across the curriculum.

Here you’ll find a selection of scope and sequence documents from the Australian Curriculum.
The Arts




Humanities and Social Sciences


Health and Physical Education

Select a learning area and print out a section appropriate for your current teaching focus. If you are not teaching in Australia, you might want to print out your own curriculum document or use an Australian example to help get your head around this transferable idea.

Use 4 different coloured highlighters (one for each element of design thinking) and mark possible opportunities for integrating design thinking across the scope and sequence.
Here’s an example.

Download a copy here:
Integration Example

You might like to make some notes in your journal about your plans for integration of design thinking over the next week. What will you try? Which elements fit?
Learning Journal link

Intentional integration

When you used the Double Bubble strategy in lesson 2 you may have identified that the focus on a design thinking skill becomes diluted in an integrated lesson. This is a real danger when integrating any skill or knowledge. It is easy for the other lesson purposes to overwhelm the attention on design thinking. For example, you might present students with an open-ended problem to solve in a mathematics lesson on volume and area. This would be a great opportunity to teach the design thinking elements of ‘visualise and generate ideas’ and ‘plan and develop solutions’. Students could use the problem as an ideal situation to apply their design thinking skills.

But this could also lead to confused chaos!

Introducing new content and expecting students to make new connections to processes used in other contexts could become a recipe for disaster!

There are a couple of issues running here:

Scaffolding design thinking for integration

Making sure that your students understand the reasons for and value of learning to ‘think like designers’ is an essential first step.

You might use this poster with the 4 elements of design thinking to introduce and explain what skills they will be practicing throughout different lessons in the year/term/weeks you have decided to make design thinking an explicit focus.
Design Thinking lesson plans

We can see significant value in having a year-long focus on design thinking, but also appreciate that there are competing demands for time and focus. You may also be required to focus on other types of higher order thinking, general capabilities and other thinking skills like computational or creative thinking, so make a decision about what works best in your context.

Note: Access our extensive computational thinking resources here. Computational thinking is one of those important 'competing foci'.
Computational thinking resources
And, there is also a course, Demystifying Computational Thinking, that you might find useful.
Demystifying Computational Thinking

Introducing your students to design thinking.

To ensure that you’re not met with blank looks when you talk about Design Thinking links across the curriculum you will need to do some explicit teaching about it.

Some options:

Use the video Design and Technologies what are they for? as a starting point for discussing the purpose and goals of the design and technologies subject.

Show the video Above and Beyond

Ask students to compare and contrast the approaches that the 2 students take with their designs.

Introduce the 4 elements of design thinking using the poster.
Design Thinking elements
Use the Y-Chart Graphic Organiser to have students identify what each element might Look like, Sound Like and Feel like.
Use these as part of a classroom display to highlight design thinking, its elements and the message that ‘In this classroom we are learning to think like designers'.

Once you have established basic understandings of design thinking and the reason for the focus on it, you’re ready to give this a go.

Getting started!

Use the scaffold we have provided to get started with integrating design thinking.

Remember not to mix unfamiliar tasks and new content. Choose a familiar task that can be easily enhanced with design thinking. How did it go?

Think about the regular activities in your week; literacy block, maths groups, class meetings etc and consider where the 4 elements of design thinking are evident.