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Design Thinking as Constructivist Practice: Implications for T/K–12 Educators


Abstract and Figures

Design thinking (DT) has demonstrated promising use in a wide variety of fields. Rather than a method, DT represents an approach that requires relinquishing preconceived notions of solutions, having a high tolerance for ambiguity, seeking to identify needs before engaging in problem-solving, being human-centered, and engaging in a reflective process. This concept paper was based upon the author's personal experience as active scholarly practitioners at T/K-12 school sites, a literature review, proposed a framework, and argues that DT represents an approach to advance constructivist practice in the classroom and across school operations. Scholarly significance included a philosophical framework for DT and implications for classroom and school practice.
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Design Thinking as Constructivist Practice:
Implications for T/K-12 Educators.
A conceptual paper for the
Constructivist Theory, Research and Practice Special Interest Group
Shawn Thomas Loescher
Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at
Arizona State University and
Urban Discovery Schools
Chloe Medina
California State University San Marcos and
Urban Discovery School
Annual Meeting, Virtual
APRIL 2021
Design thinking (DT) has demonstrated promising use in a wide variety of fields. Rather than a
method, DT represents an approach that requires relinquishing preconceived notions of solutions,
having a high tolerance for ambiguity, seeking to identify needs before engaging in problem-
solving, being human-centered, and engaging in a reflective process. This concept paper was
based upon the author's personal experience as active scholarly practitioners at T/K-12 school
sites, a literature review, proposed a framework, and argues that DT represents an approach to
advance constructivist practice in the classroom and across school operations. Scholarly
significance included a philosophical framework for DT and implications for classroom and
school practice.
Objectives and Purpose
Design thinking (DT) has become a predominant way of approaching problem solving in
many industries (Yee, Jefferies & Michlewski, 2017). Rather than a focus on process
improvement (George, 2010, Senge, 1990), DT focusing on evolutionary improvement cycles
that pay attention to user-experience across the ecosystem being addressed (Loescher, Morris, &
Lerner, 2019; Biffi, Bissola & Imperatori, 2017; Silverman, 2017). Rather than suggesting a
singular way toward improvement, DT supports a rhizomatic methodological approach and an
orientation towards problem solving that embraces ambiguity (Loescher et al., 2019; Biffi et al.,
2017). Scholars have taken up the process of examining DT use in educational settings
(Gallagher & Thordarson, 2018), including as a manifestation of constructivist practice
(Loescher, 2019; Lee, 2018; Biffi et al., 2017).
Purpose and positionality. The purpose of this conceptual paper is to review the
emergent literature on DT in education, position DT within a philosophical framework, and
discuss the scholarly significance of this framework to future studies and practice. Educational
systems have been designed to reify and even expand current socioeconomic, racial, and
marginalized community disparities (Stovall, 2016; Anyon, 2014). With the onset of global
crises such as COVID-19, famine, social unrest due to increases in socioeconomic disparity, and
the increased marginalization of communities that do not conform to Eurocentric colonial valued
norms, DT may have increased relevance to education (Loescher, 2020). In this environment,
educators need to engage in a new approach to their practice and rapidly respond to emergent
problems associated with distance learning (Zhao, 2020). The authors argue that DT holds
promise to reimagine the educational experience of communities through a social reconstructivist
Theoretical Perspective and Framework
Design thinking (DT) is an extension of the design sciences through the interpretive lens
of postmodernism (Loescher et al., 2019). DT has been used to engage in complex problem
solving around wicked problems (Henriksen et. al., 2018; Biffi et al., 2017; Coyne, 2005).
Wicked problems (Rittel & Weber, 1973) are characterized as being complex social issues that
have no singular solution and require an evolutionary approach called out as a process of “re-
solving” (p. 160) issues. DT may be an appropriate way of approaching wicked problems as the
design approach has several aspects that allow for creative thinking that spans ecosystem designs
(Silverman, 2017).
Design thinking is both a method and a disposition toward problem solving (Henriksen et
al., 2018). While the specifics of the methods vary between organizations, there are several
common attributes (Mosely, Wright & Wrigley, 2018; Yee et al., 2017). Variations on the
methods tend to be inspired by a small collection of originators, such as IDEO and Stanford
(Elwood, Savenye, Jordan, Larson & Zapata, 2016). Included are common practices shared
across variations which might be summed up as engaging in empathy, visualization of collected
data, conducting wide-ranging ideation sessions, and building low-fidelity prototypes followed
by a test and feedback cycle (Loescher et al., 2019; Silverman, 2017). To successfully engage in
these methods, DT practitioners also share common dispositions and attributes including being
human-centered, beginning with no predetermined outcome, practicing flexible reflexivity, and
rendering visible the collective data (Biffi et al., 2017; Yee et al., 2017; Orthel, 2015).
As DT is a non-linear approach to problem solving (Loescher et al., 2019; Biffi et al.,
2017; Coyne, 2005). Rather than a lock and step process approach, DT is based upon
evolutionary and continuous improvement models (Cousins, 2018). This embraces the
postmodern approaches of Deleuze and Guattari (1987) that argued for a multiplicity of options
and realities as a basis for engaging in the human experience. This approach is consistent with
constructivist methodology in that it embraces the ambiguity of postmodernism and takes a
rhizomatic approach to learning and problem solving (Loescher et al. 2019; Biffi et al. 2017,
Elwood et al., 2016).
Many organizations that adopt DT start by engaging in the process steps that are outlined
by IDEO (Yee et al., 2017). IDEO’s five-step process consists of empathize, define, ideate,
prototype, and test. As an approach, DT is often reinterpreted by each organization. For example,
Yee et al. (2017) conducted a review of DT in various organizations and found that it was
common practice for them to start with an IDEO five step model and move to a process that was
more aligned with local culture and workflows. Other educational organizations have kept a five-
step reflective process but have adopted phrasing more aligned with their own pedagogical
principles based upon constructivist practice (Loescher, 2019; see Appendix A).
Being a customizable process suited to the organization and not existing as a fixed set of
beliefs and practices lends DT to constructivist practice (Loescher et al., 2019; Henriksen et al.,
2018; Jordan, 2016). Therefore, the reimagining of the process is part of the adoption of the
innovation of DT (Yee et al., 2017). This creates both a systemic and customizable approach that
engages learners in a process of sensemaking that focuses on growth (Loescher et al., 2019;
Jordan, 2016). This is also applicable to school site operational models to heightened community
engagement (Gallagher & Thordarson, 2018).
The concepts of DT have been used in a variety of school activities, but the concepts
behind them are not always as known to educators and school leaders (Loescher et al., 2019;
Gallagher & Thordarson, 2018; Razzouk & Shute, 2012). DT has been used by schools as an
organizational tool for engagement and as a means of developing a framework for consistent
constructivist practice in the classroom (Gallagher & Thordarson, 2018; Orthel, 2015; Scheer,
Noweski & Meinel, 2012). For example, Wiggins & McTighe (2005) introduced curricular
design concepts that have been widely adopted and adapted by educational practitioners. Within
school site practice, developing curriculum and instruction in reverse chronological order with
deconstructed interpretations are critical concepts from the traditions of DT (Gallagher &
Thordarson, 2018; Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). As with many educational interpretations, some
organizations have adopted DT as a method and approach without the associated naming
convention and refer to the approach as “designerly ways” (Henricksen et al., 2018).
Modes of Inquiry and Data Sources
Scholars have argued for a philosophical alignment that spans ontology and methods
(Loescher, 2020, April; Koro-Ljungberg, Yendol-Hoppey, Smith, & Hayes, 2009; Crotty, 1998).
To clarify this alignment, it has been argued that a theoretical alignment be established to ensure
the integrity of philosophy and actions being taken (Koro-Ljungberg et al., 2009; Crotty 1998).
To develop this framework for DT, the authors engaged in hermeneutics and critical inquiry as
their methodology with a comparative document analysis strategy to develop this conceptual
paper. Data sources were a review of the literature and were grounded in the authors experience
as scholarly practitioners as school site leaders with a focus on urban education. These data
sources were compiled as a means to engage in critical reflection (Charmaz, 2017; Creswell,
2015; Denzin & Lincoln, 2011) to situate DT within a broader philosophical framework.
Results and Point of View
Theories may be mental models that guide our assumptions and influence our data
collection, analysis, and interpretation. A theoretical perspective is a philosophical disposition
that guides the logic and assumption of the researcher (Crotty, 1998). The theoretical perspective
should align with the methodology and methods being utilized (Koro-Ljungberg et al., 2009;
Crotty, 1998). The authors have summarized our theoretical alignment of DT in education Table
1 (see Appendix B). To situate DT, the authors have expanded the Crotty (1998) framework to
include an aspect of the four branches of normalized educational philosophy (Gutek, 2004).
The disposition of DT was that it sought out a more ideal future state of being through an
evolutionary process of understanding that leads to a new understanding of problems and
solutions. The rhizomatic approach of DT facilitated exploratory opportunities for learners to
advance their understanding of problem complexity (Biffi et al., 2017). This means that it also
takes into consideration that the present state of being may not be the most appropriate starting
point for a discussion to engage in a whole ecosystem approach to problem formation. This
placed DT within the ontology of idealism. In this way, DT sought a more ideal future state that
rejected the position of realism that there is one ideal perfect future state.
This may position DT within an epistemology of subjectivism which is aligned with the
normative educational philosophy of social reconstructionism. Social reconstructionism is most
readily aligned with the works of Freire (2011) and positioned DT in education inside of a
theoretical perspective of postmodernism and critical inquiry. This in turn supported DT as a
methodology and approach that engaged in an enhanced constellation of constructivist methods
that can be utilized for pedagogical, governance, and leadership purposes.
As with many constructivist practices, the question of measuring learning outcomes may
come into question. From this perspective, DT did not move education away from current
assessment models. Rather, it repositioned current assessment models as one of a variety of
measures that must be considered in the development of learners (Wiggins & McTighe, 2015).
This may require educators to look at their assessment models and ask if the purpose of the
assessments being used are to facilitate learning or growth or as an end result to place a student
on a scale of learning (Loescher et al., 2019). It may also have implicit implications for
educational organizations where models of grade suppression must be considered rather than
traditional models of grade averaging. In this way, new levels of understanding and learning can
be honored.
Within classroom practice, DT required teachers to reposition themselves from subject
matter expert and imparter of knowledge to that of a co-learner (Loescher et al., 2019; Biffi,
2017). This supports rhizomatic explorations of overarching complex questions for learners
(Biffi, 2017; Coyne, 2005). Regardless of grade level, this complexity is something that is
embraced within the learning environment and allows for the teacher as a co-learner to guide a
process of repositioning of exploration, growth, and self-realization (Loescher et al., 2019;
Freire, 2011). Collectively these practices can create dynamic constructivist environments with a
focus on generative thinking that creates a deeper understanding of procedural learning concepts.
DT also involved a flattening of the organization that is more inclusive for problem
formation and idea generation (Gallagher & Thordarson, 2018; Yee et al., 2017). This flattening
supports environments of inclusion and has implications for school culture and operations.
Within the literature it is suggested that schools must adopt a culturally responsive approach, that
learning through failure must be adopted at the adult processional practice level, and that
problem of practice must be co-constructed by both school leaders and the broader school
community (Loescher et al., 2019). In this way, the school culture also then embraces the
constructivist approach of DT as a way of modeling behaviors for students.
Scholarly Significance
In this conceptual paper the authors have explored the literature on design thinking (DT),
presented their methodology for analysis, and discussed their point of view. The authors have
argued that DT represents an operationalization of constructivist practice that holds promise for
the adoption of school systems and pedagogical practice. Scholarly significance for the use of
DT included the presentation of a theoretical framework to situate DT within a broader
philosophical context. The purpose of the theoretical framework was to demonstrate the author's
arguments for the appropriateness of DT in school settings and the alignment of DT within
constructivist practice. In addition, the authors presented their arguments and findings of how
DT has implications for teaching, learning, and school site operations. It is the overarching
argument of the author’s that DT represents a viable implementation model to advance
constructivist practice and leadership styles within education.
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Figure 1. Design thinking methods model adopted by a California school system.
Table 1
Theoretical Alignment of my Research
Constellation of
Constructivist Methods
Critical Inquiry
1. Critical Pedagogy;
2. Design Challenges;
3. Restorative Justice;
4. Thinking Maps;
5. Cooperative
6. Reciprocal teaching;
7. Focus groups;
8. Problem formation;
9. Multiple solutions
10. Deconstruction;
11. Tactile learning
12. Problem-based
13. Inquiry-based
14. Realia.
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