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Bringing Design Thinking into the classroom to prepare the next generation for the challenges of the future

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Paul Kim, is a teacher at Colorado Academy and Co-Director of the Redi Lab, and is best known for using the design thinking process to teach History.  He is our design thinking guest blogger.

Paul is an innovator in the education space, who is not afraid to change things up and find new ways to connect with students.  Below, Paul lays the case for using design thinking in school.  In doing so, he offers a glimpse into the how and why.  How can you bring design thinking into your daily life and why it’s so critical.

Paul is forward thinking – explaining that with AI on the horizon our students need to excel at thinking critically, analysing situtations and offering value where computers cannot.  Read below for his insights and for hope about the future of education!  (He also has a Tedx talk on the subject!)

Differentiation by Design

by Paul Kim

When educators discuss differentiation, they are usually referring to how a lesson might be designed to meet the diverse learning needs of students within a classroom. But exponential change and acceleration over the past decade may reflect the need for a new focus in the discussion of differentiation in schools. Given the shifting capacities of both artificial intelligence and human intelligence, perhaps educators should be discussing differentiation in the context of teaching students how to act less like the “machines” – the software and algorithms – that have become so ubiquitous in modern life.


Events like the 2016 defeat of Go grandmaster Lee Sedol by Google’s computer program AlphaGo and the ongoing evolution of Amazon’s Alexa as well as Apple’s Siri suggest that the work of educators should be recalibrated to help students grow the characteristics that distinguish them most from machines. Making our classrooms into spaces where students are encouraged to be curious, empathetic, discerning, and creative would do this.


During the first 20 years of my career, I assigned an essay on 1st day of school and I did the things that most teachers do with homework, projects, and tests while emphasizing critical thinking skills. I honestly think that I can say that important things were being learned in my classroom but at the same time I knew that I could create an even better learning experience for my students.


So five years ago, I decided to use design thinking to overhaul my world history curriculum and transform it into a course called Global Perspectives in the 21st Century. As a part of this process, I taught my students how to use design thinking as a tool in their studies. My hope was to create more open-ended, personalized lessons to help students develop adaptable minds and a sense of agency – to help students think about big ideas.

Changes I have made in my classroom by using design thinking include:


— the elimination of tests

— a pass – fail grading policy during the 1st trimester to encourage metacognition

— mind mapping to explore historical questions that cannot be simply Google searched

— disassembling and reassembling bicycles to learn process and logic

— programming Lego robots to grow familiar with computational thinking

— writing and performing spoken word poetry to inspire creativity

— projects to redesign cities using insights from different perspectives


In general, the goal through all of this has been to engage students in deeper learning as they study the world. In specific terms, I believe that the use of design thinking in classrooms can lead to student outcomes such as these:

empathize students will: ask better questions • gain insight into different points of view • be less impulsive •

be more observant • learn to deconstruct ideas – issues • understand the logic within curriculum • move beyond the obvious in their thinking • learn to listen more effectively

define students will: purposefully evaluate & synthesize ideas – information • organize ideas – information logically & creatively • practice saliency determination • identify root problems, issues, & causes • better understand nuance • recognize patterns & context • become persistent in thought processes


ideate students will: become more creative & innovative thinkers by using imagination as a generative tool • learn the value of failure while learning to work fast under pressure • understand the relationship between questions & analysis • grow as visual thinkers • practice collaboration • have fun


prototype students will: understand that there is more than one way to complete a task • develop a wider range of their academic skills • grow as strategic thinkers • think in abstractions & metaphors • become smart risk takers • make & break stuff • write better • become more resilient


test students will: learn how to better use feedback • present ideas – information with more purpose • experience the realities of collaboration & honest assessment • evaluate ideas – information with a more critical sensibility • strive for more comprehensive understandings • become more self-aware



To track progress in my efforts as a part of the design thinking process, I have consistently asked students for feedback in different forms. The following are quotations from some of that student feedback:


“I feel more creative…. I am challenging and analyzing what I’m being told more.”


“[This class helps me] develop the mindset not only as a student but as a person to not be satisfied with the obvious and to stretch for further connections.”


“It is very engaging and requires a healthy amount of knowledge and risk taking.”


“I am learning to think for myself. We learn to not just go to Google for the answers but to look other places.”


“It really screws me up in other classes where there are black and white answers.”


We live in an amazing world at an amazing time. The past decade in particular has been unique in its exponential impact as witnessed by the rise of the iPhone, Facebook, and IBM’s Watson (for more on the impact of 2007 click here). Design thinking itself has had a role in this, as most Silicon Valley technology firms use the process to innovate in their work. Given the demonstrated value of design thinking in improving the learning capacities of technology, it is no surprise that design thinking is also being used to strengthen schools across the country. I hope that my own story as a teacher who has found design thinking to be a positive, disruptive force multiplier in the classroom contributes to the spread of a design thinking ethos in our education system.


One thought on “Bringing Design Thinking into the classroom to prepare the next generation for the challenges of the future

  1. Pingback: Week 10 – Kurt's Designs Journey

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