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Design thinking can seem a bit abstract to teachers. It’s not part of traditional teacher training programs and has only recently entered the teachers’ vernacular.

Design thinking is an approach to learning that includes considering real-world problems, research, analysis, conceiving original ideas, lots of experimentation, and sometimes building things by hand. But few schools have the time or wherewithal to integrate these processes into the school day.

But at the Nueva School in Hillsborough, Calif., a small, private school for grades K-8, design thinking is part of every class and subject, and has been integrated throughout the curriculum with support from a dedicated Innovation Lab or the iLab.

“It’s really a way to make people more effective and to supercharge their innate capabilities,” said Kim Saxe, director of Nueva’s iLab, and one of the champions of design thinking.

At Nueva, students are asked to bring the principles of design to every problem, no matter what age or grade. One fourth-grade design challenge included designing an LED lamp for a family member. Rather than immediately jumping in with ideas about the coolest lamp design, students were told to go home and observe their family members surreptitiously and decide who most needed a new light source. They then had to design a lamp that suited that person’s need and interests.

A sixth grade health-related project required students to work with Kaiser Permanente to improve some of their products. Students interviewed real patients to understand their health experiences and to improve them. “I felt that if they interviewed people with health issues that the kids would get some wisdom from them,” Saxe said. “Rather than being an overt health class it would infiltrate them.” And because students pitched their ideas to Kaiser — not just to the teacher for evaluation and assessment — they took the project very seriously.

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Kindergartners are tackling simple design challenges too, learning about materials, and getting a taste of design thinking as part of all their lessons. By third grade the students are actually designing products that have a service component; they research the problem, come up with solutions and design presentations and brochures on their best idea.

The projects teach students how to make a stable product, use tools, think about the needs of another, solve challenges, overcome setbacks and stay motivated on a long-term problem. The projects also teach students to build on the ideas of others, vet sources, generate questions, deeply analyze topics, and think creatively and analytically. Many of those same qualities are goals of the Common Core State Standards, Saxe said. “Design thinking weaves together a lot of the standards that need to be taught in ways that people will really need to use them,” Saxe said.

In addition to classwork, Saxe keeps the iLab open during recess so students can work on their own projects.


A big part of what Saxe loves about her job is thinking about how to foster each student’s individual creativity, helping them think critically about how and where they get their best ideas. One active student discovered his best ideas came after he’d tired out his body playing sports. Another student found that shutting herself in a closet where she wasn’t affected by anyone else was the most productive.

Saxe has developed a strategy for pulling lots of great ideas from her students, but it runs contrary to the group brainstorming method that many entrepreneurs embrace. Instead, students spread out to a quiet, comfortable space for solo-brainstorming. When they come back into groups each student shares her favorite idea and the group builds on that idea. Then each student shares her wildest idea. “Innovation often comes from some seed of an idea that’s tucked into a wild idea,” Saxe said. The group can help tease out what works and what doesn’t.

Other qualities of great design learning educators include being open and curiosity, the ability to question beyond the facts, a positive attitude, high energy levels, and excitement about interdisciplinary approaches. More than anything, Saxe said the educator should “firmly believe that if you tell an answer to a child you’ve deprived them of a great learning opportunity.”

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Nueva’s integrated design thinking program might seem impossible to achieve in a public school, but elements of design thinking are easy to implement anywhere, she said. Even at Nueva, which was highly receptive to the idea, implementation was slow. Saxe was careful not to force teachers to incorporate design elements; instead, she offered trainings and helped to plan and deliver lessons. Since the program started in 2007, the school has steadily added design learning elements to all grade levels and subject areas until the iLab and the classroom are woven together.

One of the things that sold design thinking to the faculty was the idea of attempting to solve a real problem and adding an element of making.

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“Our faculty loved that design thinking increased student empathy,” Saxe said. “We always have them designing for a classmate or someone in the community, rather than just themselves.” Most often students are trying to solve problems they’ve identified in the life of a family member or in the community around them.

Saxe became a design learning believer because of a personally transformative experience rediscovering her own good ideas. But she recognizes that teaching with design thinking takes some specific qualities. “I think it takes a fair amount of flexibility and resourcefulness,” she said. “They have to be willing to deal with uncertainty themselves. If you are going to let someone go into an area and identify the needs, you have to give up control.”

  • Love the Grade 4 assignment to secretly design a lamp for a family member.

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  • Michelle Vajgrt

    I absolutely love his post. I can relate well! The public high school I attended had an engineering program curriculum (EPIC) that used design thinking in the classroom. We did simple projects like building a Putt Putt boat to extreme projects like building a robot for a national competition. We were able to use your exact definition in our classrooms ( real-world problems, research, analysis, conceiving original ideas, lots of experimentation, and sometimes building things by hand). I would love to see more schools move towards this learning process!
    Thanks for your interesting blog posts, I throughly enjoy reading them.

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  • Barbara Gereboff, Ph.D.

    At neighboring R C Wornick Jewish Day School (Foster City,CA), we have also been diving into design thinking. Our fourth graders engaged in a classic design thinking process to create turbo generators to light a model city that they had wired. Our design process is linked to State standards and intentionally multidisciplinary (i.e language arts and science and mathematics were all connected to the electricity design project).

    • Joanne Funk

      Can you further explain “design thinking?” I assume this refers to a process used by engineers and others who invent or innovate. Is there an agreed upon process that we should be thinking of when we read about design thinking?

  • Janis Flint-Ferguson, D.A.

    About seven years ago I took part in a conference in Reggio Emilia, Italy, where the preschool program–yes, the preschool program–is engaged in this kind of learning. Preschoolers were given all sorts of “real world” tasks and encouraged to come up with ways of meeting the needs–creating a book to welcome new students into the preschool, designing a chair, even deciding how best so set up the new space for a conference center. Yes, not the same scientific focus as can be done with older students, but design thinking nonetheless–thinking that gave the preschoolers a role in their community. Encouraging students to take part in the needs of family or community is a great way to encourage creativity and deepen internal motivation while helping our students see themselves as part of something larger than the classroom. Great post!

    • James Thompson

      Reggio Emilia was one of my first introductions to PBL. I worked as an Atelierista in a Reggio Emilia inspired school about 15 years ago. I feel like there is a natural connection between the tinkering/hacker/maker movement, PBL classrooms and the focus on Design thinking. I am surprised that it isn’t mentioned more often. Good on you for connecting it.

  • Plenty of background info:

    Or look up the recent interview on 60 Minutes with David Kelly talking about a lifetime of product design at Stanford and IDEO with clients like Steve Jobs. Great approach for engaging kids, students and anyone for that matter in the design thinking process.

  • Paula M. Wells

    upto I saw the draft ov $4082, I didnt believe that my best
    friend woz realey bringing in money part time on their laptop.. there sisters
    neighbour haz done this 4 only about seven months and at present repayed the
    debts on their cottage and bought a great new Chevrolet. go to, jump15.comCHECK IT OUT

  • KC

    I have always believed that if school were hands on my son would “fly”

  • MaryBatiste

    upto I saw the paycheck four $9688, I have faith
    …that…my neighbours mother was like they say really bringing in money in
    their spare time online.. there best friend has done this for under fourteen
    months and recently took care of the morgage on their place and purchased a
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  • deserteacher

    When we understand students, using guidelines from child development theory, the classroom is greatly productive. The trouble is organizing the classroom to meet kids’ needs requires more planning, resources, and greater activity to implement on the part of the teacher.

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  • Aaron Wilson-Ahlstrom

    It’s absolutely true that it’s challenging to teach design thinking in any school (public or independent), and that the state content standards make it hard to spend time and go in depth in any one content area. But it’s also absolutely true that it can and is happening in public schools. We have a network of public charter Henry Ford Academies, where students are engaging in design challenges in grades K-12, and we’ve also worked with other public school districts like Riverpoint Academy in Spokane, WA ( to help them integrate DT into their teaching and learning frameworks. See more here:

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Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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