How to Apply Design Thinking to Your Innovation Goal

We’ve already discussed the worried administrator and finding empathy for him or her. Now let’s discuss a method of action.

Design thinking — empathy-fueled, human-centered problem solving — can take on many looks and processes. Stanford’s d.School uses a model evolved from design firm IDEO, while the Henry Ford Institute, LUMA Institute and the Nueva Instituate each have their own systems.

Stanford dschool

Mary Cantwell‘s DEEPdt, developed and popularized by Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation, presents a four-phase process that incorporates the features of above into a flexible, easy to remember non-linear cycle:

  1. Discover
  2. Empathize
  3. Experiment
  4. Produce


  • Learn all you can about the problem at hand
  • Examine the subject from multiple angles
  • Identify users
  • Get in close
  • Pull back a little
  • Take notes
  • Conduct research
  • Formulate questions
  • Make a problem statement
  • Expect to refine it as you learn more


  • Conduct interviews
  • Listen to the users
  • Capture the stories
  • Look for patterns and trends
  • Recognize the outliers
  • Map the core users and the fringe users
  • Identify the needs


  • Ask “How might we . . .?”
  • Try things
  • Be messy
  • Play with ideas
  • Work in visuals
  • Create prototypes
  • Return to the observations
  • Return to the stories
  • Look for inspiration in the interviews and in unlikely places


  • Work up a prototype to share with users
  • Gather feedback
  • Ask vulnerable questions and look for cracks in the solutions
  • Iterate
  • Deliver a better prototype
  • Ship it
  • Be prepared for more feedback


Discuss the value of such a process in resolving tensions between the two parties.

The emphasis on empathy distinguishes design thinking from other problem solving protocols because it is about uncovering and addressing needs. It is not about the cleverness or originality of the solution, the pedigree of the designer, or the profile of the problem.

Know that prototypes are not always physical manifestations. They can also be systems, structures, or guidelines around which a relationship must function.

Discuss how applying design thinking to the challenges of school innovation offers a new paradigm to a tired dynamic. It provides a pathway to salvation from the chart paper purgatory that so oft defines public education’s approach to problem solving.

Reinforce the idea that if you do nothing else, apply empathy. Take the time to understand the point of views of not just the stakeholders, but also the team of individuals seeking a solution.

This post was co-authored by Allison Zmuda and Dan Ryder. Allison is the founder of the Learning Personalized community and a full-time education consultant working with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Dan is a veteran English teacher who presents workshops on technology integration, improvisation and design thinking throughout the state and beyond. Find him at



0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments