How to Bring Design Thinking to Your School for Free (Without Hiring a Fancy Consultant)

How to Bring Design Thinking to Your School for Free (Without Hiring a Fancy Consultant)

Alice Barton

It’s time for another rousing edition of “Because You Asked,” a space for you to ask those questions weighing you down--the ones you don't even want to ask your friends. Got an edtech question that you want addressed? Send us a note, and it might just show up on our site. A month ago, we offered one Dallas educator different methods to inspire kids to complete their homework. This week, the submitted question centers around bringing design thinking to your school or district--but on a dime.

"I keep reading about these design thinking consultants who will come to your school and help you redesign your programming. But to be honest, those things are way too expensive, and our budget doesn't really allow us flexibility for that. Please, please give us some cheaper options. Can we just do it ourselves? Are there good people to talk to or places online to go for stuff?"--Broke in Cincinnati

It grinds my gears when schools think that they need to drop $30,000 to lead design thinking workshops with their teachers. But as my colleague Leonard Medlock says, you have to be careful when finding free alternatives online, because it can lead to a “proliferation of design thinking sans any notions of empathy or learning from failure.”

Keep in mind, design thinking--problem discovery and solution generation using empathy and rapid prototyping, described as “human-centered design”--isn’t something you can just implement in a classroom lesson plan with your students right away. You’ve got to work on the skills and mindsets yourself first, and develop an openness to iteration and a willingness to be truly honest.

The following is a group of resources that are useful for developing those skills, and can be used when leading professional development with teachers. But remember--even though you aren’t paying for a consultant, it’s hard to learn about design thinking on your own. So, let’s get you a PLC (or professional learning community) first.

Don't Pay for Experts, Just Tweet at Them

EdSurge has published educator-written articles on using design thinking to create new school models, including this piece by Alpha Public Schools principal Will Eden. However, before reading those articles, understanding exactly how you intend to use the design thinking process is crucial. What’s the problem that you’re looking to solve? Not sure?

To help you figure that out (and essentially check off the first step of the design process), I recommend getting in touch with educators who have already been down that road, specifically on the design thinking #DTK12Chat Twitter chat. Each weekly chat (Wednesdays 9-10 PM est) features a moderator with a wide range of design thinking experiences, and can be the PLC you need when learning about how design thinking can be implemented in a K-12 environment.

Learn (about Design Thinking) by Doing

Once you’ve got a PLC that you can bounce ideas off of, it’s time to start collecting those resources where you can learn the specifics of design thinking--how it works, what are the crucial steps, and what it looks like in practice. But how you go about choosing your resource depends on your typical learning pace.

For the crash-course, get-in-and-get-out aficionados, take a look at the Stanford’s 90-minute introduction to the design thinking methodology. In this fast-paced project, you experience the design process for yourself as you’re guided through a redesign of the “gift-giving experience.” Translation: you pair up, interview each other, identify real needs, and develop a solution, all around making gift-giving supremely easier, faster, and more suited to your partner’s needs.

For the casual sit-and-get online course takers, check out Design Kit: The Course for Human-Centered Design, an online course by nonprofit Acumen in connection with This course revolves around IDEO’s Design Kit (PDF here), a guided collection of steps and case studies intended to lead you through the design process. While the guide does have sections geared towards business ventures and startups, most of the “mindset” and “methods” information can be translated into a K-12 environment, and the Acumen course will help you figure out how. The course starts on August 20th--so sign up soon!

For the “let’s learn together” crowd, throw yourself headfirst into learning while doing with the Teachers Guild, a beta site that connects teachers to learn together while engaging in and giving feedback on each others’ projects. What I love about this “course” is that you actually interact with other educators who are in the same boat: there’s a desire to learn about design thinking, but a need for it to be free. Check out this Collaboration example, hosted by Google for Education--it’s still in the “Discover” phase, and as of this article publishing, 176 educators have contributed. You can be #177!

Supercharge PD: Free Curriculum Resources

At this point, you’ve got a PLC, you’ve got some basic skills and knowledge. Onto the key part of your question--how can you bring design thinking to your school or district?

First up, take a look at the Stanford’s collection of K-12 specific resources. Most pertinent to you is the section labeled “Helpful resources to train others about design thinking,” which includes workshop materials from the K12 Lab Network Educator Workshops. All resources are in PDF form, ready for you to print out. The collection also includes Design Thinking Projects & Challenges,Visual resources, and videos that Stanford employees teach with.

Additionally, there’s one killer resource that I used when I used to design PD for teachers: the IDEO “Design Thinking for Educators” Toolkit. This workbook (available in English, Spanish and Portuguese) came out of a partnership between design firm IDEO and the Riverdale Country School, a pre-K through Grade 12 independent school in New York City. The workbook is broken up into five steps (see above), and can easily be tied to professional development segments over the course of several weeks in the summer, or over the months during the school year.

Onto you, educators! What other resources or strategies do you suggest?

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