Introduction: Teacher Professional Development: Design Thinking for Schools

About: Tinkercad is a free and easy, browser-based 3D design and modeling tool for all. Tinkercad allows anyone to imagine anything and then design it in minutes.

This has been written by Autodesk Tinkercad as a resource to support school leaders, teacher leaders, and other teacher trainers in facilitating professional development for K12 educators.

Skills taught:

  • Describe the design thinking process and explain how it relates to what you know about teaching and learning.
  • Demonstrate creative confidence and a positive growth mindset.
  • Use design-related vocabulary and visual literacy to articulate your process and decisions.
  • Apply design thinking methods to a real-world problem of student learning.

Session overview:

Design thinking is a problem-solving framework that begins with stepping into the shoes of your end users. When design thinking approaches are applied to schools, educators are able to see problems of student learning from different angles and apply creativity, prototyping, and experimentation to better meet students' needs. While "design thinking" can be interpreted as a trendy buzzword, many aspects of this mindset are inherent to commonly recognized best practices for teaching. This resource will support teacher trainers in guiding their colleagues through the different steps of the design thinking process with the goal of innovating the learning environment at the classroom, school, or district level.

Estimated instructional time: 6-8 hours, plus extensions for building & testing prototypes and forming professional learning communities around moving the design forward. (This could also be broken down into a series of four, two-hour PDs: "Intro to Design Thinking & Problem Finding;" "Understanding & Defining the Problem;" "Ideating & Storytelling;" "Prototyping & Testing.")


Step 1: Get to Know a Design Thinking Framework

In the world of design, problem = opportunity.

If you have spent any significant amount of time in the classroom, then you're probably thinking that there must be no place more rife with inspiration for the designer than a school!

In introducing the concept of design thinking to your colleagues, it is important to note that there are many different frameworks that are called "design thinking" with mostly subtle variations; the most important constant is that it has a human-centered core - meaning that the first and most critical step in the process involves empathizing with the end user of whatever it is you are designing.

In the context of schools, the end product could be a revised curriculum, a design for more flexible learning spaces, an innovative block schedule, a more personalized approach to teacher professional development, or a new system for structuring student advisory - or for collecting and communicating student data. The possibilities are endless!

But before you start digging into real problems at your school or school district, it makes sense to do a quick, hands-on sprint through the process with a more low-stakes design challenge. This will help your colleagues get a feel for the design thinking methodology before applying it to a more complex problem.

This guide includes a variety of activities for introducing the concept of design thinking.

Speak the language of design thinking

This is not an exhaustive list of every term you may hear in the discussion of design thinking, but it's a good start to getting your colleagues sounding like pros! A glossary of these terms can be found here.

Step 2: Find an Important Problem

Design thinking presents the opportunity to slow down the jump to "solutioning" in order to discover the users' unmet needs that are at the root of the problem.

In deciding upon a problem, you as the facilitator may provide some context to guide your colleagues in working toward a common school-wide goal, or you may provide them with the freedom to explore the problems they are experiencing at the classroom level.

One way of launching this exploration is to ask teachers to consider an analogous situation from a different industry. This document provides some guidance in how to frame this discussion using an anecdote from Henry Ford. You may also print this out for the participants to read independently and jot down some ideas in response. The PDF is attached at the end of this step.

At this point your colleagues should be divided into teams of three to six people to begin finding a problem together.

Some pointers for finding a problem

Instructional Rounds in Education, which calls for networks of educators to observe other educators in order to address a "problem of practice," shares some interesting parallels with design thinking in its slow progression from pure observation to making inferences to - ultimately - developing theories of action in order to address an important problem.

It also provides a set of criteria for finding a worthwhile problem that could be applied to design thinking in education. According to Instructional Rounds, a rich problem:

  • centers on the teacher and the student in the presence of content
  • is observable
  • is actionable
  • connects to a broader strategy of improvement
  • is high leverage - meaning an intervention targeting one student, for example, could scale up to support a larger group

It's okay to be a bit vague too

Like in design thinking, the problem in Instructional Rounds can also start out somewhat vague - even in the form of a question - and become more refined as the process evolves.

In design thinking, a problem can also be based on a strong feeling or hunch that has arisen from personal experience or connection with the problem. For example:

"Students' use of technology is currently limited to consuming media, and it is also negatively affecting students' social-emotional development."


"Teachers feel overwhelmed by expectations that they teach new technologies at the same time they are learning them."

(If you're interested in the second example, here's a real-life story of how an educator used a design thinking mindset to address this issue.)

Even if the original problem starts out as somewhat subjective and anecdotal, the beauty of design thinking is that the various phases will add layers of objectivity and research, and, as a result, may even transform the problem into something entirely different.

But don't be too vague

A few don'ts...

  • don't try to pack too much into the problem
  • don't focus on something just because it is part of an initiative that is already being implemented (and don't use problem-finding as way of auditing whether your colleagues are complying with a new initiative.)
  • don't be so vague that it would be difficult to validate as a problem

Do have fun and keep an open mind as you build your creative confidence together!

Step 3: Understand the Problem

"It's a wall!" "It's a fan!" "It's a spear!" "It's a rope!" "It's a tree!" "It's a snake!"

In the ancient Indian parable of the blind men and an elephant, a group of men who are blind and who have never come across an elephant before, try to understand what the elephant is like by touching it. Each man feels a different part of the elephant's body, but only one part, such as the trunk or the tusk. And then they argue, at length, about what it is. One moral of the story is that sometimes when confronted with something new, we see only what we want or expect to see and filter out evidence that does not fit our preconceived notions.

The elephant in the story could also be a metaphor for the type of problem the design teams have identified in the last step - it is big, complex, multi-faceted, and open to myriad interpretations. The goal in this step of the process is for your colleagues to make as many objective, fact-based observations as they can about the problem WITHOUT trying to prove a point or solve anything or form any conclusions.

You should also emphasize that the key to this phase is empathy. Developing an empathetic understanding of the users you are solving for gives you a chance to have a more meaningful perspective.

Outcome for this step: Collect objective data that is relevant to the problem

There are all types of ways to gather data in schools - many of which you probably already have experience doing. The following are some suggestions for gathering data that could be relevant to the various goals and constraints of the design teams. Depending on the time allotted for your session, you may offer this as a menu of options or assign certain activities.

Before the session or as an extension to the session:

  • To get a bigger-picture snapshot of what is happening at the school-wide level, classroom observations (that are peer-led and include non-judgmental data gathering) can be a great source for information, especially as it pertains to the types of tasks students are working on and their level of engagement in these tasks.
  • Shadowing a student is a fun and deeply illuminating way for educators to empathize with their students and take new kinds of action at their school.
  • One quick and relatively easy way to tap into students' perspectives about their needs, desires, and feelings about the learning environment is student surveys.

During the session:

  • Teacher design teams can share and begin to analyze any data they brought with them, such as classroom observations, student shadow field notes, or survey results.
  • In advance of the session, you might also ask your colleagues to bring student work with them - especially work students haven’t yet mastered or examples that are puzzling in some way. Looking at student work is a great way to conduct data inquiry collaboratively.
  • Sometimes teacher teams require some time to calibrate and reflect upon the connection between their beliefs and practices. The Gap Analysis Protocol is another way to cull meaningful data together while also establishing a shared purpose.
  • Wouldn't it be fun to invite students for some part of the session? That way your colleagues can gather firsthand perspectives from a relevant user group. Alternatively, your colleagues could also conduct empathy interviews with each other - either to practice interviewing skills, or because educators are one of the user groups they are researching. Here is a great guide for doing this that was written within the context of user experience research for web design.
  • Conducting secondary research is another useful way to not only collect data on the design team's problem, but also to connect that problem to a larger, more global context.

Step 4: Define the Problem

Are the design teams experiencing information overload yet? In this step it's time to begin clearing the noise to get to the heart of the problem they are trying to solve.

The goal is to translate the data the teams have gathered into a more narrowly defined and actionable needs statement. The suggested activities in this step are sequenced in a logical order; if time allows, it would be best to at least touch upon each of them in some way, as they are all important to the process of writing a needs statement.

This handy guide will provide you with more details for how to facilitate the following activities for defining the problem. It is also attached as a PDF at the end of this step.

Outcome for this step: Gain new insights on the problem based on data analysis

  1. Categorize ideas and find patterns.
  2. Get down to the root cause.
  3. Map out stakeholders and context.
  4. Create a persona or empathy map.
  5. Write a needs statement.

Step 5: Ideate

Incomplete ideas. Opinions without supporting evidence. Sloppy sketches without descriptions. Yuck! This sounds like a teacher's worst nightmare!!!

Please tell your colleagues not to fret, but do congratulate them for reaching the Ideate step, which is typically the third phase of the design thinking process, and the one most associated with the work of a designer.

This is the chance for the design teams to let loose and cast a super wide net. In the ideation phase:

  • Quantity generates quality.
  • You build on one another's ideas ("Yes and...")
  • The internal critic is muzzled. Don't try to ideate and evaluate at the same time - evaluation comes later!

Here are some more pointers...

Outcome for this step: Create strategies for addressing the problem and categorize them

Practice using "how might we?" tactics: Begin by convening the whole group and asking each team to share one of their needs statements from the previous activity. After every team has shared, they should rephrase their needs statements as a question beginning with “How might we...?”

How Might We (HMW) questions are short questions that launch brainstorms.

You might also practice together using the following example "needs statement" and tactics adapted from The Stanford that appear in the slideshow. The teams can even compete with each other to develop the best solution for the teacher using any one of the tactics.

* Credit: Adapted from Stanford resource

Generate more HMW questions based on the problem: After practicing, design teams should look again at their own HMW questions and either add more or revise/eliminate ones that are too narrow or too broad. Do any of them suggest only a single answer? If so, they should cross it off the list or rephrase it in a way that can lead to multiple answers.

Brainstorm possible solutions: Once it is clear that each team has several HMW questions to work with, allow them unstructured time to begin thinking about possible solutions. Encourage them to come up with as many solutions as possible (remember "crazy" is still okay in this phase) and to have a way of documenting them so that they can return to the entire list later.

Interrupt!: When you feel like there is a good buzz in the room and that the teams have made some progress, you might jump in and reconvene the whole group. Some ways you might constructively interrupt:

  • Ask the teams to tally up the number of possible solutions they have already generated and share the amount. This sense of competition will reinforce the concept that quantity is more important than quality in this phase.
  • Introduce a new constraint that requires the teams to modify an existing solution or invent a new approach. For example, what if the solution had to be low-tech? Or, what if it had to happen in the month of October?
  • Challenge the teams to think of an analogous problem to the one they are exploring - a situation outside of the school context where there is a similar problem with a successful solution. What could the teams learn from it?

Categorize ideas: As you are wrapping up this part of the session, you should have the teams take an inventory of all the possible solutions they created and begin to categorize them in some way, for example: the idea I love, the idea most people will love, the most practical idea, and the craziest idea.

Step 6: Tell the Story

Ever had an idea that was hard to explain? Your design teams are probably in this predicament currently - whether they know it yet or not. By now they have spent ample time with each other spinning out wild and crazy ideas and even beginning to refine them into potential solutions. They may have several options they want to move forward with or perhaps one that the whole team has agreed upon. The next step is for them to begin testing out their hypothetical solution by sharing it as a story with audiences who are unfamiliar with it.

Outcome for this step: Share the story of the problem and proposed solution

Share some advice from the entrepreneurial community: An effective solution is one that is wanted by the user, easy to use, and affordable. An invention that is unused has no value. But how do you find out before you devote so much time, effort, and resources into developing an idea? Many startups approach this problem by creating simple prototypes - in the form of slideshows, storyboards, or even napkin sketches - in order to use as a means of checking in with users and other stakeholders to glean their feedback and use this input to continue to iterate, adapt, and refine the initial solution.

“If you want to break away from the status quo, that means that, by nature, your idea is something that is new to other people,” said Vicky Wu Davis, an educator and tech entrepreneur who spent over a decade in the video game industry. “That means other people haven’t thought of it yet; or if they have thought of it, they haven’t gotten through the next few steps.”

“So in order to get people on board, you’re going to have to figure out how to excite them about it,” she added. One strategy for not only engaging an audience about a new idea, but also to help make the idea easier to understand is to express it visually. Wu Davis, who is also the founder of the youth entrepreneurship organization Youth CITIES, believes that using a creativity tool like Tinkercad can be a powerful way to produce an engaging visual model for expressing a complex concept and could even be used as an aid for germinating an idea. Read more about this in the Tinkercad blog.

Practice storytelling around a design: This "bonus" slideshow provides a fun exercise to get the design teams thinking about how to verbalize the connections between a problem, a design, and a solution. It also offers an opportunity for them to begin telling the story of their design to someone from a different team, and to stop and reflect about the process so far. The "bonus" slideshow also includes some demonstrations of how Tinkercad can be used for prototyping, and how startups use visuals and other storytelling techniques to share their vision.

Tell the story from problem to solution: There are many free online tools in addition to Tinkercad that could be used to support the design teams' storytelling. For example, Canva has a template for making a stylish digital storyboard, or you could also print out templates such as this for the design teams to sketch out their story. They could even create a pitch deck to communicate their idea. No matter which route they go in telling the story, be sure to remind them that the story's protagonist should continue to be the persona they created in the Define phase.

Once the teams are done composing their stories, there should be time for each team to present to the larger group for feedback and validation. If possible, it would be beneficial to also invite other stakeholders, such as students, community partners, or school leaders to hear the teams' ideas and offer feedback.

Step 7: Post PD - Build and Test the Prototype

Are your design teams ready to get building and bring their ideas to life with real users?

There are a few ways to facilitate this phase, and it does not necessarily require that your colleagues remain as a large group. This part could be completed post PD and incrementally during teachers' common planning time or it could even be done as a more intense, daylong experience in the form of a hackathon.

Outcome: A possible way to address the problem in an actionable format that could be tested - it is a means of exploring the problem, not the final product

So what are the teams building? Prototypes can come in a variety of forms. Now that the teams have gotten to the heart of the problem, their first prototype could come in the form of a change in instructional practice in their own classrooms, or it could be something bigger such as redesigning a learning space in the school, changing the school schedule, or adopting a new system or tool.

The Boston Public Schools created this great infographic as way of supporting educators in matching instructional priorities with innovative practices. More about this here!

Prototyping doesn't always mean you have to start from scratch or reinvent the wheel. For example, School Retool provides this awesome resource for helping educators design small “hacks” towards bigger changes that could be designed more specifically for particular problems and contexts.

So once they begin testing, how do they know if the prototype is working? Here is a guide from the tech world that could be helpful in thinking about methods for gathering feedback and maximizing learning.

Step 8: Post PD - Formalize Feedback Cycles As a Way of Testing

Critical thinking and peer criticism - called "the Crit" - are integral to the work of designers and actually form the foundation of design and architecture education. There are final crits, but there are also frequent interim crits. This is part of what keeps the process iterative and collaborative.

As you know, it is also common for teachers to form professional learning networks around improving their instructional practice. Typically, however, teacher networking doesn't extend beyond school walls. If keeping this process within the confines of your school is an unsurmountable constraint, it could still be helpful for the teams to create a formal feedback cycle schedule for themselves.

A more powerful way for the teams to continuously gather feedback would be to connect with other educators from different schools or districts as partners in critiquing their designs. Depending on the problem the teams are addressing with their designs, this could also be an opportunity to invite professionals from other industries into the work.

Step 9: Always Be Iterating!

Be sure to keep us in the loop by leaving a comment at the end of this Instructable! We love feedback too :)

And don't forget to check out these resources for making facilitation a breeze!