Design Thinking Resources for the PSE Classroom

Teaching in the University classroom with design thinking practices has been transformational for me, and I believe for my students. The resources you’ll find here are samples of assignment guides, course outlines and assessment practices that I’ve been using in courses focused on marketing, branding and innovation. My hope is that by posting them here they can come to life outside my class as well and that they might be generative for other faculty members interested in using design thinking practices in their own work with learning communities!

I’m thrilled to share the Design Thinking Based Learning: A Teaching Guide with our Scholarship of Teaching and Learning community. This guide was developed with the generous support of the Mount Royal University Essential Institute for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning grant program (2019 – 2020), and features 15 different learning techniques that can help all instructors integrate design thinking based learning into their practice. Variations for online and individual learning programs are included, as is a detailed description of design thinking based learning as a pedagogical approach.This teaching guide focuses on providing support for a scaffolded, cross disciplinary and evidence based practice of design thinking based learning through a comprehensive review of the design thinking literature.

Design Thinking is the deliberate practice of mental ambidexterity aimed at shifting reasoning and sensemaking practices within a culture of changemakers.

Design thinking is all about innovation, creativity and a change of perspective. To think like a designer, or to deliberately design how we think at all, requires dreaming of new ideas, taking the time to bring them to life and to test their strength, and being open to growth and failure as part of a learning process. Design thinking is a method and a mindset, a framework and a process, but most of all it is a deliberate approach to cognitive processing that keeps people at the centre of every process. As Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO explains, “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” (IDEO, 2020). 

It is not hard to see why design thinking is becoming a critical problem-solving method in business and innovation (Liedtka, 2018). But what is less often understood are the significant benefits associated with design thinking based-learning for both learners and educators. Design thinking based-learning offers effective solutions to common challenges to course design, class structure and learning delivery. It can also be used as a framework for significant learning experiences inclusive of all levels of the Fink taxonomy (2013), and as a catalyst for 21st century and future focused skill development and learning objectives (World Economic Forum, 2020). Integrating design thinking based-learning into existing pedagogical approaches can:

Give students the opportunity to view a learning challenge from a different perspective.

Allow students to create and pursue a line of inquiry with a human centered approach.

Encourage innovative thinking and creative problem solving.

Support the development of self-paced and collaborative learning skills.

Result in learning that is significant, meaningful and experiential.

Enable a growth mindset among learners.

We know that using the mindset and methods of creative practitioners such as designers can transform the way that organizations and communities develop products, strategies, services and understandings. When we apply these mindsets and methods within a framework called design thinking, we use a series of divergent and convergent thinking practices to better understand key issues or problems, to foster empathy and user centered perspectives, to create multiple innovative and creative solutions to a single challenge, and to build and test possibilities in collaboration with the communities we are serving. For those of us whose goal is to foster creative, innovative, experiential and meaningful learning in our classroom, a design thinking framework can help us get that done at a very concrete level.

Design thinking is understood as a driver of positive and disruptive innovation (Kelley, 2013) – a series of organizational resources, theoretical perspectives and creative protocols that can seed positive innovation and organizational transformation in established corporate cultures (Brown & Wyatt, 2010). The use of design thinking as a driver of innovation and organizational transformation has been scrutinized for decades (Brown, 2009; Cross, 2011; Liedtka, 2015) in the fields of organizational behaviour, innovation and creativity management, and cultural industry studies. However, most of these investigations have addressed design thinking as a form of process creativity, which has contributed to the blurring of boundaries between this impactful mindset and studies of individual practices within organizations, teams and learning communities. What has driven recent growth of attention to design thinking in contexts outside of the creative industries (including higher education) [1] is a change of perspective: design thinking is increasingly characterized as a distinct innovation practice [2] (IDEO, 2019; Hassi & Laasko, 2011), one which can support and foster the development of creative problem solving and innovative leadership skills (Plattner, Meinel & Leifer, 2012) [3].

Given the evidence, why don’t we integrate design thinking based-learning into more classes? It might be because instructors and administrators are unaware of the benefits, apprehensive about the implementation, and assuming that it is a process for designing a product or service, not designing how we think. The purpose of this teaching guide is to provide instructors with the background, tools and context they need to successfully integrate design thinking based-learning into their classrooms. Increasingly, PSE instructors are seeking new ways to integrate experiential, WIL and active learning practices into their classrooms. Mount Royal University provides an ideal environment to experiment with these collaborative and engaging pedagogical approaches, with small class sizes and close connections to our student teams. Design thinking based-learning provides a complementary approach for many of these frameworks, and this teaching guide is intended to provide guidance on implementing design thinking based-learning effectively in the online, face to face and remote classroom environment.

This teaching guide is divided into three parts: what is design thinking based-learning, and what use does it have as a pedagogical framework; how can we integrate design thinking based-learning into teaching in the post-secondary classroom; and, what is the impact of using design thinking based-learning with students as partners in post-secondary or higher education learning environments.

In part one, we will introduce the design thinking framework, and provide evidence for the ways that it promotes and improves learning in undergraduate education. In the second part of this guide we will share on 15 different exercises that can be used in online and face to face classroom settings and provide some context for how they align with the larger design thinking framework. Finally, we will explore the alignment of design thinking with pedagogical approaches commonly used in our PSE context (including experiential learning) and provide pilot study evidence for the impact that design thinking based-learning can have on critical skill acquisition and creative competency development among undergraduate students. 

Together, we will answer these questions.

What is design thinking and how does it translate into a learning model or pedagogical approach?

How will design thinking based-learning improve learning? What is the theoretical basis and pedagogical rationale for design thinking based-learning?

What is the evidence that design thinking based-learning promotes and improves learning? And how convincing is that evidence?

Which students are most likely to benefit from design thinking based-learning? And for which learning tasks is it most appropriate?

How can discipline-oriented PSE instructors integrate design thinking based-learning into their classrooms? How are design thinking based-learning learning tasks structured?

We face challenges in teaching and learning at the post-secondary level: we struggle to move our classes beyond the understand-and-remember model of direct instruction and, as Fink has outlined, we face difficulty when trying to figure out “what teaching activities [we] might use besides the two traditional standbys: lecture and discussion” (2013, p.xi). The future of our students requires us to support the development of their innovation, creativity, interpersonal and self-directed learning skills. But to do that we often focus on the introduction of new content or new programs in higher education contexts: solutions that require enormous commitments, resources and departmental or institutional support. In this teaching guide, we’ve outlined a new path forward – one that may have an equally positive impact on student’s development and acquisition of the critical characteristics identified in the Education 4.0 Initiative while requiring far less institutional resources or commitment. Adopting design thinking based-learning techniques, integrating a design thinking mindset, or including design thinking methods in teaching and learning at a post-secondary level can help instructors across disciplines to support the enhancement of innovation and creativity skills, the establishment of interpersonal skills, the acquisition of self-paced learning skills and student engagement with collaborative or problem-based learning practices. 

I hope that this teaching guide helps you find a new way to integrate design thinking-based learning as a pedagogical approach in your classes, and that this new set of tools proves a valuable addition to your teaching and learning practice.

Learn how to implement design thinking based learning as part of your classroom practice with evidence based teaching and learning techniques:

Learning techniques: Establishing empathy

1. Digital storytelling

2. Informance

3. My fake podcast

Learning techniques: Problem identification

4. Analagous inspiration

5. Question formulation technique 

6. Participatory interviews

Learning techniques: Generating ideas
through ideation

7. Backwards idea generation

8. Ideation triads

9. Mix tape mashup

Learning techniques: Making thoughts
visible through prototyping

10. Process document

11. Low fidelity prototypes

12. High fidelity prototyping

Learning techniques: Testing to learn

13. Think-aloud interviews

14. Structured controversy

15. Special forces testing squad