Guide DesignThinking TopImage
Pacemaker — Sometimes mistakes lead to moments of genius. While making an electric heart model, Wilson Greatbatch reached for the wrong electrical capacitor. The mistake paid off. Wilson Greatbatch’s model created a pulse of electricity that matched the beat of the human heart. Greatbatch realized that such a device could stimulate the human heart and effectively override a weak or arrhythmic heart.

Design Thinking — for Problem-Solving and Innovation

To venture beyond the threshold of the ordinary to original means to sometimes step into uncertainty and away from generic exercises that merely reproduce the work of others.

Process Design

Design thinking is the difference between drifting through school experiences and enjoying the creations and accomplishments of others or finding joy and purpose in the experiences as well as creations of your imagination.

Design thinking is an iterative and recursive process that cycles the mind and hands through periods of ignorance, questions, play, exploration, brainstorming, research, interviews, prototyping, and reflection. Linus Pauling once said that “to have a good idea, you must first have lots of ideas.” The design process is a way both to generate alternative solutions as well as the path for winnowing and testing ideas. The design process begins with wonder.


As a journalist, I am either in the lighting or heating business.

So much of education today is educating about and toward the known, not the new. For humanity, there are a thousand years of the known at our backs and a universe full of opportunity before us. For us all, the question arises, which way does your compass point?

If your compass points toward innovation, be prepared for the most frustrating fun you can have. Originality is both difficult and fragile. To venture beyond the threshold of the ordinary to original, means to step sometimes into uncertainty and away from generic exercises that merely reproduce the work of others. The design process begins with the adventure of wonder and a mindset of curiosity. Isn’t that what education is all about?

Education is meant to provide students a landscape of wonder and uncertainty — curiosity and questions. Students need opportunities for exposure to the places, people, and purposes that inspire ideas and lay out problems to solve. The goal of education is to imagine beyond the universe of existing ideas and inventions. Such imagination requires a sense of wonder.

Wonder is that fabulously good feeling that schools turn many learners against. Classroom instruction needs to confront teaching and learning with a bolder spirit and greater authenticity. We cannot accessorize our way into this spirit. Machines, tools, rooms, and equipment are one part of the answer for how we change education, but how we choose to teach is the most transformative part of our role as teachers and learners.

Kathryn Schulz’s book Being Wrong, advocates doubt as a skill and praises mistakes as the foundation of wisdom. She says that “never having to fail makes you fragile.” Working on the “high wire” of uncertainty is what creative confidence is all about. It requires us to balance a student’s learning between the known and the unknown.

The design process is challenging and sometimes filled with mistakes. Neuroscience demonstrates that the brain has a natural tendency to amplify and overthink mistakes, which is why students naturally try to avoid making them. Overthinking mistakes is an evolutionary response that as learners we must sometimes learn to ignore and work around. Embracing the design process slowly quiets the fear associated with the inherent mistakes and the momentary failures. As we intensify the playfulness of wonder, failure and mistakes cease to be barriers to problem-solving and become necessities.

The design process asks students to employ fearless skill, sharp intellect, and a creative mindset to identify, to innovate, and to solve original problems free from the fear of failure.

There are many ways to represent the design process. Deciding on a format and vocabulary is a useful design challenge in and of itself. Across grade levels, it is helpful to outline the essential process in such a way that the developmental needs of the students are considered. For example, at the earliest years, we focus design on three simple words, Think, Make, Improve. A three-step process is developmentally appropriate. The leveled introduction of the process is a recognition that as students mature, emerging skills and cognitive abilities are added to the process.

Once the essential vocabulary is identified for each developmental level of students, teachers should map the words into a visual organization or form that suggests the design process they want to achieve.

Creating Space for Change

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.

—Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

All spaces hold symbolic and aesthetic power — but even more so when the goal of the space is to foster innovation and creativity within a school. Spaces are the physical dimensions and manifestations of dreams, culture, industry, faith, comfort, and economy. Spaces are the places where humans live, work, worship, learn, and play.

Even the most utilitarian spaces express symbolic messages that cradle our daily work, recreation, activities, and learning. Within our schools, the changing nature of teaching and learning is causing a transformation of the spaces for inspiration, play, creativity, and design thinking. Physical spaces in a school elevate what matters in the life of students, so there are important insights that need to be considered. How will the planned space help develop the best competencies of our students for learning now and prepare them for a future of curiosity, wonder, and ingenuity?

Thomas Freidman says that as a journalist, he is either enlightening his readers or stoking emotion and passion. As teachers, we might say that each day we are either lighting, heating, or building — just slightly different from Friedman’s work as a journalist. The ideal classroom does all three. Our classrooms must become building sites that take advantage of the “lighting” and “heating” we provide. We want students to learn to achieve sophisticated explanations through enlightenment to master empathic ideas through “heating,” and to construct insightful solutions through “building.” The goal of classroom spaces within schools is now focused on how to unbridle the imagination of students so that they can apply the critical competence, academic acumen, aesthetic finesse, and empathic mindset necessary to build a future that begins in the mind as an idea.

Robert Frost suggests in his poem “Mending Wall,” that our walls and our spaces (tangible and otherwise) welcome some interactions and discourage others. How do spaces encourage reflection and rapid prototyping? How does access to materials develop student creativity and spontaneity? How do machines enhance designs and products? How do we plan and build spaces for serious architects and builders of new ideas?

At the CTTL, we understand the neurological drivers of learning and instruction as well as the humanness and productive function of our schools’ techno-social design spaces. We use that understanding to make room for change in our classrooms. We recognize and value that an important way to enlighten and raise our student’s emotional connection to ideas is to provide the space for making and designing. D!Lab provides a collaborative space and the tools for shaping the habits, minds, skills, and creativity of our students.

De Bono, E. Serious Creativity. London: Vermillion Press. 2015.

Friedman, Thomas L. Thank You for Being Late, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2017.

What This Means for Our Students

Alone & Together: Teamwork and communication are catalysts for idea generation; solitude is the environment in which people work through those ideas. Spaces that support the individual while promoting feelings of group ownership encourage a shared sense of group purpose.

Showcase & Workspace: Space holds symbolic power — more so when the goal is to foster innovation. But true innovation spaces are workspaces, too, providing the tools and resources needed for work.

Designed & Undefined: The best spaces are highly designed and organized to maximize functionality, but they hide it. An undefined appearance and an ability to alter settings are key components of innovation.

Risky & Safe: Risk is an essential aspect of innovation, and the freedom to explore is essential to creativity. Creating a safe environment removes barriers to exploration and discovery by allowing students to take risks within a safe, stable environment.