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5 Ways to Use Design Thinking as a Solutionary Educator

We’re excited to share this impact-focused post from guest bloggers Elizabeth O. Crawford and Ben Pendarvis. Elizabeth is a professor of elementary education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and an IHE Advisory Council member. Ben is the Outreach Director and Lead Instructional Coach at Open Way Learning. As they write below, “Collaborating alongside other passionate change-makers offers many advantages, such as bringing diverse perspectives, leveraging skills and resources, and sharing new learning.”

Design thinking is a way of thinking, it’s a mindset.”

– Tim Brown, Chair of IDEO

In our work with educators, we have witnessed the profound power of design thinking – coupled with humane education – to cultivate the mindsets and capacities that help people become effective solutionaries who are able to identify and solve problems in ways that do the most good and least harm for people, animals, and the environment. Because design thinking is both a process and set of tools for problem-solving, it also offers a versatile approach that can be applied to virtually any context or discipline. Based on our experiences at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) Watson College of Education and Open Way Learning (OWL), and our partnership working with teachers, we offer the following five ways to cultivate a solutionary culture in your school through design thinking.

1. Put your core values into practice and adopt a solutionary lens.

Like a school’s mission statement, your core values as an educator guide your decisions, actions, and priorities. Your students’ values guide them as well. Humane education encourages students to identify their core values, which then grounds their learning about complex, interconnected issues and helps them navigate how they might put the principle of doing the most good and least harm (MOGO) into practice. Such value-based teaching and learning makes schooling more meaningful and relevant to learners’ lives and increases the likelihood they will be motivated to be solutionaries.

Brooks Rockwell, a UNCW graduate student and Kindergarten teacher at Belville Elementary School, explains: “Core values remind me of my mission and intention; they help to point me in the direction I want to go. I am determined to create a nurturing environment that provides all students the opportunities and representation they deserve. This may sound lofty, but it can be as simple as remembering to choose diverse imagery and messaging regarding who can be a doctor when we are learning about the importance of regular health check-ups.”

Resources to support self-reflection on one’s values include:

After identifying your and your students’ core values individually, share them with your colleagues! This process builds the foundation upon which a solutionary culture may grow and thrive. For example, one of OWL’s core values draws from the open source community. For transformational change to occur, we honor educators’ “why” first, elevate their wisdom to discover “how,” and empower their “what” to be as effective and sustainable as possible.

2. Emphasize the importance of empathy in understanding students’ needs, interests, and challenges.

Empathy is the first step in design thinking as illustrated in Stanford’s design thinking process, which also nurtures reverence and respect for others and inspires motivation for solution-seeking and “wise action” – exactly what humane education aims to achieve.

Source: Stanford streamlined design process (Legacy, circa 2012)

Design thinking tools like empathy maps, empathy interviews, and student shadowing allow educators to uncover new insights from the student’s perspective. They also enable co-planning with students to determine what students think about, feel, would like to do to address an issue, and might say or discuss with classmates. We use an adaptation of the original visualization tool developed by Dave Gray that is featured in Worldwise Learning: Teacher’s Guide to Shaping a Just, Sustainable Future by Carla Marschall and Elizabeth O. Crawford for this purpose.

Source: Marschall and Crawford (2022)

3. Apply design thinking principles and tools to identify and define solvable problems that connect to your students, curriculum, and community.

Problem identification is critical as it sets the foundation for solution-seeking. It ensures we identify the “right” kinds of problems that are solvable at the causal level in order to afford solutionary solutions (Weil as cited in Marschall & Crawford, 2022). OWL offers design thinking tools like “How Might We” (HMW) statements or questions (commonly associated with the design firm IDEO and its founder David Kelley) to support problem definition. For instance, recent work with the Cohasset Center for Student Coastal Research (CCSCR) called Building a Bridge between School and Community to support year-round authentic watershed investigations aimed to strategically respond to the complexities of climate resilience in their communities.

The goal was to build educators’ capacities to bridge this important work into sustainable school learning experiences and pathways based on this problem statement: “How might we credential summer experiences that empower students as change agents who build the sustainable and equitable future we all desire?”

The result? Educators, school leaders, and student researchers joining together regularly to continue defining the problem of climate resilience in their local communities, by co-designing, collecting, and comparing research data, celebrating new skills they’re hopeful to pass on to more of their peers, connecting with policymakers, scientists, and climate experts, and presenting at state civic action conferences to bring about real change on their local (and global) problems.

4. Ideate, prototype, and test lesson ideas to gather feedback, make improvements, and strengthen one’s practice.

UNCW graduate students enrolled in a practicum course supported by OWL used empathy mapping followed by HMW statements to inform their lesson design. While observing a fifth-grade classroom, preservice teacher Molly Finn noticed students’ lack of motivation and reluctance to participate in class discussions. Her problem statement began forming: “How might I design a learning experience for students so that they feel excited to complete the follow-up activity and be involved when having discussions?” Once the problem was defined, Molly was able to generate solutions. She explained: “I knew I had to empathize with the students to get them engaged. Using design thinking, I listened to their conversations and incorporated their interests into the lesson.” 

We encourage you to start small with actionable ideas, as Molly’s example illustrates. OWL always introduces an early prototype to educators interested in getting started with big, community-connected projects in their schools. We call this the skateboard prototype (see right), which can be iterated with new lenses or perspectives, key research, and feedback from students. Actions drive change, and the prototype approach can provide a feasible roadmap! 

Source: ”Running hypothesis driven experiments using the MVP” — by x-staticmediagroup

With the goal of educating solutionaries in mind, we might use this problem statement: “How might we design learning experiences that better meet the needs of our students so that they can become motivated solutionaries?”

5. Partner with other humane educators who are willing to disrupt the status quo.

Collaborating alongside other passionate changemakers offers many advantages, such as bringing diverse perspectives, leveraging skills and resources, and sharing new learning. In addition to the local talent within one’s school, there are a host of innovative organizations like the Institute for Humane Education, Getting Smart, Transcend, and Education Reimagined where one can find resources and support to bring solutionary work into the classroom. Start a spreadsheet of names and contact information for experts who work in different spaces in your community and beyond, then crowdsource it across your school and current partners so that you leverage these connections for the greater good.

Let’s Design a Better Future

David Kelley, founder of IDEO, reminds us, “Design thinking is a deeply human process that taps into abilities we all have but get overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices.” The five steps above can support every educator to tap into their innate creativity and design student-centered learning experiences focused on real-world challenges. Not only does design thinking offer a method and set of tools for tackling complex problems, engagement in the process itself is empowering for teachers and students alike. Small actions can lead to big impact, especially as you share in this process, crowdsource your and your students’ learning, and distribute leadership among your students, colleagues, and community. Let’s get started designing a better future together!

Elizabeth O. Crawford is a professor of elementary education at UNCW and an IHE contributing blogger who brings humane education into her methods courses and research. She may be reached at

Ben Pendarvis is Outreach Director and Lead Instructional Coach at Open Way Learning, a former solutionary teacher, and a current IHE student. He may be reached at

Additional Resources and Stories of Change Using Human-Centered Design and Design Thinking

Bell, L. (2019). A day inside Tri-County Early College. 
Briggs, S. (2013). 45 design thinking resources for educators. 
Co-designing schools toolkit. (n.d.). 
Designathon Works. (2023). 
Design for Change. (n.d.). 
Flannery, M. E. (2018). Design thinking: Connecting students to the larger world. 
Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (d. school). (n.d.). Get started with design thinking. 
High Tech High Graduate School of Education. (2008-2023). Empathy in design—Improving as an empathetic designer. 
IDEO. (n.d.). What is human-centered design? 
IDEO. (2013). Design thinking for educators. 
Little Inventors. (2023). 
Kinlaw, R. (2019).We drive it: Inside the North Phillips School of Innovation. 
Kristiansen, A. (2023). Changemakers and problem-solvers. The International Educator. 
Niehoff, M. (2017). Real-life examples of design thinking in the classroom. 
National Equity Project. (n.d.). Introduction to liberatory design. 
Open Way Learning. (n.d.). The OWL empathy workbook [Google Slides]. 
Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. (n.d.). Agency by Design (AbD). 
Technische Universiteit Delft. (n.d.). Co-design with kids – a toolkit for designers.