Design Thinking Process

How It Effects Students Learning Outcomes

by | Sep 1, 2015 | Articles | 9 comments


Design Thinking emerged from industrial practice, primarily design technology (Cross, 1982), and is a relatively new method applied to education as another form of active learning (Brown, 2008). The potential of it in an educational context is still not completely explored and understood. In the USA, validity of the concept was accepted to the point of being officially integrated and prescribed within educational policies at certain educational institutions and districts (Swartz & Parks, 1984).

Reading through research papers is very encouraging regarding its validity in creating deeper cognitive skills, better problem solving, enhanced creativity and higher learning outcomes (Oxman, 2004; Brown, 2008; Brown, 2009; Plattner, Meinel & Leifer, 2012). However, browsing through various blogs and educational articles another set of opinion arises which questions appropriateness, success and achievable learning objectives through its application in the present educational context (Nussbaum, 2011; Shapiro, 2013; Morrison, 2013).

From my personal experience of the initial application of Design Thinking methodology in some of my classes, it became obvious that this is something that can enhance learning and enrich both learners’ experiences and teaching practice. Consequently, Design Thinking will be the focus of my personal educational research in the future.

Emerging themes within literature and consequent questions for educational practitioners are: firstly, how reliable are research findings on Design Thinking regarding their methodology and conclusions; and secondly, does Design Thinking require a paradigm shift in the teaching approach that its value can be completely understood?

Browsing the websites of educators that embraced and are promoting Design Thinking applications in schools, the relevance of the process for the learning in present societal context becomes quite obvious and desirable (Randolph 2015, McIntosh2015).

For the purpose of improving personal teaching practice two main questions can be postulated as such:

  1. How does Design Thinking process explain the relationship between students’ understanding and their achievement, controlling the effect of engagement?

As Design Thinking process consists of various steps which are well defined, each of these steps can be broken into a particular task or set of tasks that student should achieve. Student can supply the evidence or set of various evidence for each of the steps in the process. The teacher should collect evidence and give corrective feedback to promote the desired outcome. It has to be pointed out that the whole process contains cognitive, creative, social, emotional, analytical and synthetic components, therefore tasks and evidence can be created for each of these components.

The final outcome can be measured by the complexity of student understanding combined with presentation of a creative solution, while the scaffolding of the whole process and creating ‘check-points’ will contribute to student engagement.

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Applying five essential Te Noho Kotahitanga principles of Rangatiratanga, Wakaritenga, Kaitiakitanga, Nohotahi and Ngākau Mahaki which means respectively Responsibility, Legitimacy, Guardianship, Co-operation and Respect (Penetito, 2012) on Design Thinking can be easily embedded into process as these principles closely relate to some of the component steps. For example, the principle of respect corresponds strongly with the steps of understanding and point of view, while the principle of co-operation relates to all of the steps of Design Thinking process, etc.

The Te Kotahitanga programme within the NZ secondary sector strongly immerses the principles of respect and building of collaborative relationships between students and teachers alike. This programme was created to promote empowerment and self-awareness of The New Zealand indigenous culture and eliminates certain limited beliefs within Maori students about their capacity for achievement and success. Creating a collaborative environment and establishing positive and empathic relationships is equally a part of Te Kotahitanga programme as it is a part of the Design Thinking process.

Providing students with a set of skills that will allow them a higher capacity in problem solving and creative innovation is exactly what the immersion of Design Thinking into a natural Maori context could achieve. While Kaupapa Maori relies on its own cultural values and is critical towards extrinsic influences due to historical context (Bishop, 2008), Design Thinking allows functioning and achieving of complex skills in the New Zealand education system with complete immersion into original Kaupapa Maori entity.

  1. How can application of Design Thinking Principles enhance the students’ depth of understanding of the content knowledge in NCEA L1-3 Science subjects?

According to literature, it is obvious that Design Thinking as an educational methodology in the secondary sector is primarily suited to those curriculum areas where creative problem solving is an imminent prerequisite, such as technologies, media, literature and art, or requires community awareness of social issues, such as the humanities. There is a rising question of its appropriateness in well-structured and logical subjects such as math and science with their well-defined natural laws.

There is an insufficient body of research that can elaborate on the application of creative process in learning of well-established content subjects. It is obvious from previous analysis that Design Thinking in its nature requires project and problem based-learning which is in particular suitable for a cross-curricular approach within schools and collaboration of teachers with various expertise.

In the NCEA setting, when considering all Science subjects at Level 1-3, we have to acknowledge the huge limitations in the way assessments are set up, which are dictating the teaching organisation and execution. While there is some freedom regarding internal Achievement Standards that allows cross curricular-collaboration and flexibility of context within which the content is delivered, external examination style assessment is a huge obstacle in achieving broader and deeper implementation of skills that are required for life. Instead, the certain amount of content has to be reproduced.

Considering the given circumstances, does that mean that Design Thinking should be discarded until completely new circumstances emerge? In reality, the present context creates an excellent opportunity to start implementing Design Thinking on an appropriate scale within schools and subject areas. There are interesting topics within each subject area that can be used to implement Design Thinking process. The evidence of success may not be always obvious within a content driven assessment, however, it should create valuable complex skills that students could apply equally on the rest of the subject content and later in life as they will become accustomed to work and think within unexpected set of circumstances.

Consequently, urgent need is created to conduct research in this area and establish with solid evidence the relationship between application of the Design Thinking process and learning outcomes within Science core subjects at NCEA Level 1-3.



As we are a large high decile urban Auckland girl school, we cater for an extremely multicultural and diverse group of students with quite a large number of international students (mainly from Asia and some from Europe). Maori and Pasifika students are not represented in a high proportion as in some other Auckland schools; however, their cultural presence and identity are very strong which overall creates a very balanced and rich school community. The main community that this inquiry will focus on are Y11 – Y13 students enrolled into Science subjects NCEA Level 1-3.

Initially, the research will be conducted only in my classes after the students have been being exposed to the Design Thinking process during one school year. As and when other science teachers start to apply Design Thinking into their teaching practice, they will contribute to the same surveys and collect data for evaluation on a larger scale and over a longer period of time. This larger body of data should provide more elaborate evidence and more definite answers to postulated research questions.


As Design Thinking is a well defined process, research data and evidence will be collected in two ways:

i) At the end of a project / topic – SURVEY A and interviews

Design Thinking Effects on Learning Outcomes:

Class Discussion: What is the effect of the Design Thinking on learning outcomes of this project?

ii) After exposure to the Design Thinking process – SURVEY B and interviews

Relevance of Design Thinking:

Class Discussion: To what extent did the Design Thinking process contribute to your personal understanding and knowledge of science subjects?

Surveys will be conducted via Google forms to collect quantitative data regarding both research questions. Google form responses are automatically stored as data in a spreadsheet and presented graphically which allows analysis to be performed easily and quickly.

Interviews will be conducted as class discussion during class time to collect qualitative information regarding both research questions. This should allow collection of information and observation that will create a holistic presentation in conjunction with survey data. Thus collected data should provide reliable answers to presented research questions.



Collected evidence should provide information regarding research questions from the students’ perspective about their engagement and developing understanding in Science subjects. This should give insight into student involvement with the process, their satisfaction and correlation to accumulated knowledge of the topic. At the same time some new and unexpected aspects of the process could arise which should be used to explore further the methodology and its improvement, as well as various possibilities for application within the science curriculum.

This data can then be compared at a later stage with official NCEA achievement records to see if there is a correlation in implementation of the Design Thinking process and final learning outcomes. If direct correlation is established, that would create evidence for beneficial outcomes if applied across the whole department. Such a role modelling is just a step away from implementing cross curricular collaboration within the school and with the wider community when appropriate.

The expected impact is to impart essential problem solving skills, as a creative but defined methodology that students can apply to real life challenges whenever appropriate.

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Feedback from students during class time

I have conducted class discussion with Level 2 Biology students that were involved in a trial run of the Design Thinking process on the chosen topic of protein synthesis. They were asked to give feedback regarding having Design Thinking methodology after explanation that I would conduct research about its effectiveness in the near future.

The feedback was generally positive, although dichotomous to some extent. Students thought that it was an interesting approach; they liked being directly involved and appreciated direct creation of the models. Dichotomy occurred when some students thought that the teacher still needs to supply notes on the topic, to which other students strongly objected. Similarly, they were not so concerned with conducting research as such, as much as what consequences it would have if students did not improve learning outcomes. Obviously, this generation of secondary students is strongly ‘assessment conscious’, which is their primary focus.

These observations from student feedback can require the adjustment of research to perhaps focus on junior science students that are already more exposed and accustomed to a collaborative style of learning and application of digital technologies due to implementation of BYOD in junior classes. Teaching this group of students would have much broader flexibility and possibilities to implement Design Thinking within science or in a cross-curricular manner. However, more ‘trial runs’ of Design Thinking in senior classes should be done to gather more feedback and to clarify if this adjustment to research should be implemented.


Reference list:

  • Bishop, R. (2008). Te Kotahitanga: Kaupapa Māori in Mainstream Classrooms. Handbook Of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, 439–458.
  • Brown, T. (2008). Design thinking. Harvard business review, 86(6), 84.
  • Brown, T., & Kātz Barry. (2009). Change by design: how design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. New York: Harper Business.
  • Cross, N. (1982). Designerly ways of knowing. Design Studies, 3(4), 221–227.
  • Cross, N., & Cross, A. (1998). Expertise in engineering design. Research in Engineering Design, 10, 141–149. doi:10.1007/BF01607156
  • Design Thinking Is A Failed Experiment. So What’s Next? (2011, May). Retrieved July 19, 2015, from
  • Educator Duo Reflects on How Design Thinking Has Transformed Their Teaching – The Teachers Guild. (2015). Retrieved September 1, 2015, from
  • Forbes. Retrieved August 20, 2015, from
  • NoTosh – The Design Thinking School. Retrieved September 1, 2015, from
  • Oxman, R. (2004). Think-maps: teaching design thinking in design education. Design Studies, 25(1), 63–91.
  • Penetito, K. (2012). Te AkoWhaiora Through learning is well‐being
  • Plattner, H., Meinel, C., & Leifer, L. J. (2012). Design thinking research: studying co-creation in practice. Heidelberg,: Springer. Promoting educational research. Retrieved July 19, 2015, from
  • Swartz, R. J., & Parks, S. (1984) Infusing the teaching of critical and creative thinking into content instruction: a lesson design handbook for the elementary grades. Pacific Grove: Critical Thinking Press & Software.
  • Why ‘Design Thinking’ Doesn’t Work in Education. (2013, June). Retrieved July 19, 2015, from

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