Questions for Reflection:
How do you deal with complex issues in your classrooms?
How does empathy figure into these issues?
How do you address these issues with your colleagues?

What is Design Thinking?

You may have started to hear the term Design Thinking more often lately but what exactly is it? It is described as many things:

  • A framework for decision making
  • A process for solving complex or ‘wicked’ problems
  • An iterative process that leads us to develop novel solutions
  • A process that asks us to begin with the user (our students and colleagues) in mind
  • A process that creates an environment that allows people to take risks in seeking the best solutions

And really, it is all those things – as long as the people involved in the process are willing to follow it. As teachers, we tend to want to jump to a solution as quickly as possible and very often these are solutions that we have jumped to in the past and don’t always solve problems in ways that make sense for all of our students. Design Thinking guides us along a process that asks us to stay with a problem long enough so that we can truly empathize with our students and colleagues in order to develop and test out the best possible solutions.

In the 2019-2020 school year, a number of teachers across Quebec are going through a design thinking process to solve complex problems in their communities. These projects are facilitated by the English Pedagogical Consultants (EPC) working group. Some of the teachers spoke about their experiences with Emilie Bowles, RECIT consultant from the Riverside School Board.

Listen to what Caroline Mueller, teacher at Lester B. Pearson School Board has to say about using a design thinking framework with her colleagues:


Carmen Bodmer-Roy, teacher at Lester B. Pearson School Board, talks about how the flexibility of the design thinking process they are using, the Engineering Design Process (see more on that below), helps teachers to take risks as they try new things in ways that they may not have been able to do before.


Listen to Stephanie Blanchfield, teacher at Lester B Pearson School Board, talk about how her favourite part of the process has to do with empathy – or placing the user at the center of the process.

The Importance of Empathy

Caroline, Carmen, and Stephanie talk about empathy and really, Design Thinking is rooted in empathy. When we consider an issue from the user’s point of view – in education we usually consider this to be students but it can also include other members of a school community such as parents and teachers – we can extend our own understanding of a problem so that our solutions apply to the largest number of people as possible, if not everyone. This is also closely related to Universal Design for Learning, where we strive to remove obstacles and provide access to learning for the largest range of learners possible.

How can Design Thinking be connected to Collective Teacher Efficacy?

Caroline, Carmen, Stephanie and the other teachers in this project are using a design thinking process called the Engineering Design Process, developed by Scott Compeau of the Engineering department at Queen’s University. It is a very flexible framework that encourages users to move around within it as they develop their solutions.

The teachers involved in this project have come together to work towards shared goals and solutions to complex problems they share in their classrooms. This is Collective Teacher Efficacy in action! They meet on a regular basis to talk about, test out, and develop solutions based on evidence they collect from their classrooms as well as from the theory that Scott presented to them before they got started in their projects. Here is the presentation, which includes a great working definition of Design Thinking as well as Scott’s original framework.

For more information on Design Thinking for Education:

What happens when teachers become design thinkers? By Molly McMahon

Design Thinking for Educators – What kind of challenges can be addressed using Design Thinking?

Learning resources for this tile were developed by Carmen Bodmer-Roy (Teacher, LBPSB), Caroline Mueller (Teacher, LBPSB), Stephanie Blanchfield (Teacher, LBPSB), Emilie Bowles (RECIT Consultant, RSB), Scott Compeau (Connections Engineering Outreach Program, Queen’s University), and Tracy Rosen (RECIT Consultant, CSSMI), 2019/2020. Thank you!

If you would like more information about these resources or if you have something you would like to add to this tile, please contact Avi Spector.

All materials are expected to be reused and shared according to this Creative Commons license: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 except for Scott Compeau’s material, which was used with permission.