Students learn the importance of empathy and collaboration.iStock

A new approach to learning is turning the traditional education model on its head.

“Design thinking,” lets students tackle a problem they want to solve by first identifying real human issues, like chronic pain and bullying in schools.

They then research and develop a wide range of possible solutions, which they take back into the field to test with real people. The process has been trending among educators.

“We put the power in the hands of the students,” says Sarah Stein Greenberg, executive director of the at Stanford University. “They’re the ones that actually navigate the ambiguity of uncovering what those needs might be, and then figuring out how they can be satisfied.”


While the standard educational approach typically rewards students for coming up with the “right answer,” and quickly, the design thinking method values the process over the end product.

In other words, students need to be comfortable with failure, and ready to continuously generate and test out new ideas.

She gives the example of a group of students at Stanford who utilized the design thinking method to address the issue of clubfoot in developing countries. Their task: to come up with a brace that children could wear after surgery that would be affordable and of high-quality.

The students began by traveling to Brazil and observing clinicians working in hospitals, and staying with families of children who had the condition. When they returned, they went straight to the drawing board: brainstorming and prototyping possible solutions. The end product which they designed — an injection molded brace — is now being tested all over the world.

And that was just one example of the methodology being rolled out, says Stein Greenberg. As educators seek to learn more about design thinking and how they can incorporate its principles into their classrooms, there have been a variety of conference sessions and certificate programs that have emerged to accommodate demand.

When executed properly, “Design thinking teaches students the value of empathy for others, collaboration with team members, and the many intricacies of creative problem solving,” says Stein Greenberg.

It also prepares them on how to tackle the problems of a world that is growing increasingly more complex.

“Our school system is still trapped in an old paradigm where the model of learning is fairly rigid, with a very strong adherence to a testing based culture,” she explains.

“We want to see students be more prepared for navigating ambiguous problems, and the kinds of tools that we use within design are a way to potentially come up with very powerful and innovative solutions for the future.”

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