Design Thinking in Education

Brain research and experienced educators tell us that learning works best when it is relevant and connected to the real world. So, it is no surprise that design thinking, a problem-solving framework first used by the world’s most innovative organizations and design firms, is gaining momentum as a teaching and learning tool.

Marked by its versatility, design thinking involves five phases: discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation, and evolution. Applicable to all grade levels and content areas, the process can help students build valuable 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, collaboration, and persistence, while solving real problems in their communities.


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In April 2013, the Partnership brought together local educators, business leaders, and community partners for an evening on Design Thinking in Education at Burlington’s Main Street Landing. The event included a presentation by Jess Munro, former designer for global design firm and design thinking pioneer IDEO, followed by conversation at an informal reception. In addition to the Partnership, the evening was sponsored by Digalicious, FreePress Media, MyWebGrocer, AIGA Vermont, People Making Good, and #BTVSMB.

This public event preceded a workshop for 25 Burlington and Winooski educators and community partners, also facilitated by Jess. In this smaller group, participants focused on developing ways to bring design thinking into high school classrooms.


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In December 2013, the Partnership brought Jess back to Vermont for another workshop with 10 students, 20 educators, and 7 community partners. During this two-day program, participants were first trained in the design thinking process. Later, they practiced teaching this process to other educators and community partners and began identifying opportunities to use design thinking in our own schools and communities. Jess will continue supporting the projects they came up with through the end of the 2013-2014 school year. These include:

  • Exploring flexible scheduling at WHS through interviews and conversations with students, staff, and the community
  • BHS physics classes partnering with the city and local organizations to improve energy efficiency in Burlington (learn more!)
  • BHS 9th grade humanities classes solving real problems in their communities
  • Helping local nonprofits in Philanthro-me, one of the 2014 Year End Studies (YES) course offerings
  • BHS English Department using design thinking strategies to restructure the 11th and 12th grade English curriculum in order to increase relevance and engagement for all students

“I can’t think of a more useful, or fun, educational experience for students than using design thinking in high school. If we’re truly serious about preparing kids for careers in the 21st century, then teaching them design thinking skills is a perfect place to start.” -Rich Nadworny, Steering Committee Member and Burlington Parent

“Today’s students will face problems in their adult lives that we can’t even conceive of today. These problems will be complex, and will require the approaches of a variety of traditionally isolated disciplines. This century calls for citizens who see problems as opportunities—and have the skills to address them.” -Dov Stucker, BHS Teacher and Former Partnership Fellow

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