May 10, 2013

Design Thinking and Diversity: A Professional Development Case Study

Category: Equity
groups of students outside making human fort activity

What do a New York public school, the Howard County Public School system in Maryland, and a small private K-8 school in California all have in common? Each is re-conceptualizing the standard school curriculum by using design thinking, a learning approach that is collaborative, action-based, and experimental, as a way to meet the needs of today’s learners. Design thinking can be a powerful tool for developing higher-order skills such as complex problem solving, creativity and critical thinking. But it can also be an unfamiliar and intangible concept for teachers to grasp, making professional development and pre-service training all the more important in preparing educators for employing design thinking strategies in their classrooms.dmlsra-2013-green_2_copy

Dimension Charter School (a pseudonym) in Northern California has also been experimenting with this methodology as a way stimulate student learning. Aaminah Norris, a PhD Candidate at UC Berkeley in the Graduate School of Education, observed the school’s professional development exercises and classroom “design challenges” for more than 14 months. During her time at the school, Norris explored the connections between design thinking and diversity by observing the ways in which teachers were trained to use design thinking to create an inclusive school environment. Norris presented her findings to a group of junior scholars and mentors at the 2012 DML Research Associates Summer Institute. In the video below, Norris discusses the teachers’ experiences with the design thinking exercises and how they struggled to apply it to their own disciplines and their original understandings of teaching. Below are a few excerpts, but the whole video illustrates design thinking’s potential to foster student engagement when teachers and youth undergo the same learning experiences.

It’s a site where equity, inclusion and diversity is very important, and they weave it throughout all of the professional development activities, so it got me to put all of these pieces together. They’re not fitting together neatly, but I am enjoying the messiness of it.

Humanities teachers are trying to figure out, “how does this work within my discipline?” What they tend to do is bring in stuff — they will show a video or a PowerPoint and will teach the kids how to do their own PowerPoint presentations — but there’s very limited interaction with it. It’s very didactic.

I’m really curious to dive deeper into it. I don’t want to just say, “design thinking is the solution to everything.” This is why I am researching this to actually find out what is here and what it can actually do. Where can it be tweaked? I feel that with any methodology you can do some transformation and make it better.

I’m hoping that over these different iterations that I have seen, the teachers and the students will hone this design methodology to best fit their school space.

Production credit: Marc Bacarro
Banner image credit: Courtesy of Aaminah Norris
For more information on this research, please visit