Professional Development

What is design thinking, and how can it be used as education faces disruption?

Rooted in early Silicon Valley product design, the philosophy has evolved into an effective educational tool for youth. Here's how it's being deployed at local programs Dual School and Strive.

Zack Jones and Linda Schirmeister-Gess lead an exercise with Wilmington Green Box interns in 2019.

(Photo by Holly Quinn)

The first thing to know about design thinking is that it is not a single set of rules.

A project using design thinking can be executed in countless ways, because it’s not about developing a product or project and telling people it’s what they need — it’s about learning what is needed, and developing from there.

“I define design thinking as a creative problem-solving process,” said Zack Jones, executive director of Dual School, a project-based learning incubation program for teenagers that was held pre-COVID-19 at the now-closed 1313 Innovation in Wilmington with an additional program at William Penn High School.

“One of design thinking’s benefits is that it provides some structure to something that may typically feel random and unstructured,” Jones said about the philosophy rooted in early Silicon Valley product design. “It encourages you to start with empathy and to define a specific problem, come up with several ideas, choose one to prototype, and then build it out and test it and get feedback.”

Design thinking graph

(Image by Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation, used under a Creative Commons license)

“It’s actually counterintuitive to most,” Jones said. “So many programs are encouraging young people to become an entrepreneur, create a project. They start with the idea and skip the empathy phase and problem-defining phase. They’re just like, ‘This is my idea.'”


Strive, a frequent Dual School partner that teaches youth leadership skills via sports (among other youth-facing programs), also deploys design thinking.

“We didn’t really call it ‘design thinking’ until we started working with Dual School, but it was the same thing,” said Linda Schirmeister-Gess, director of advancement for Strive. “We called it ‘child centered,’ or ‘customer-centered.’ It was the same intent and approach.”

Design thinking was essentially baked in to Strive from its start, when it was founded as the Sports Challenge Leadership Academy in 1996, she said.

“From the beginning, it was, ‘Let’s find out what the need is before we start saying this is what a summer camp should be,'” said Schirmeister-Gess. “And in doing that, we found that young people want more connection, young people want to learn how to control their minds while they’re doing a sport, young people actually want be challenged more. It wasn’t about what the market was dictating and what everyone else was doing. That’s what made Sports Challenge different from the beginning.”

Often, whether it’s used in business, healthcare or urban planning, design thinking is about coming up with the most beneficial solutions — making it a natural method for developing social ventures, or what Dual School calls “passion projects.” For students accustomed to rote learning and being told how to do and interpret things, design thinking is a way to get more out of education by embracing projects that they really care about. Past projects have included a resource tool for high schoolers, a park renovation project, a children’s book about implicit bias, and a financial literacy program for teens and parents.

“It’s a motivator and a pushing factor to keep going and try to do the best that I can. I feel like I’m really getting a lot more out of this ensemble than I had ever expected of myself,” said William Penn High School student Emily Arias-Tapia in Dual School’s video “Why You Need Dual School During Your School Day”:

Strive, which canceled its summer sports program this year, is instead focused on helping where their help is needed, including The Warehouse, Kingswood Community Center and the Rodel Foundation. The upcoming school year has become a focus as it draws near.

With Delaware schools likely using a hybrid in-person/remote model or — like University of Delaware (with some exceptions), Wilmington University and Delaware Technical Community College — an all-remote model, design thinking may become an important tool for creating a successful school year for students across the board.

“Online education really failed in the spring,” said Schirmeister-Gess, “for many different reasons, but one of the reasons is that I don’t know if anyone truly sat down with and met with constituents. Did we hear from the kids? Did we hear from the parents? Did we hear from the teachers? That’s what we’re trying to come in — how do we take this customer-based approach where the customer is actually teachers, parents and kids?”

What might the fall look like if design thinking is the approach? We can’t know until needs are assessed, and that’s the point. The disruption of the education system is an opportunity for change.

“Now we need to come up with different ways to measure participation and learning rather than just, ‘Are they sitting here in front of the screen and taking this test?'” said Jones.

Dual School, like many other programs, has gone virtual, and they’ve found that it has opened up the program in ways that will have a permanent impact on the program. Not only are students connecting from different schools and different backgrounds, they’re receiving interest from all over the world.

“We have a small speaker series where every week we invite back a Dual School alum, and last week we had two students join from Nigeria,” Jones said. “It doesn’t really make sense at this point to market to any one locality, so we’ve started to reframe at least how we’re going to welcome people in. Students are looking for a way to engage. They may not be looking for a 12-week incubator, they may be looking more for a community of young people with a weekly meetings with a speaker.”

For its upcoming virtual cohort, Dual School has received applications from 29 states and 15 countries.

“We’re in the midst of transitioning from [a localized program] to something that’s really international,” Jones said.

And, of course, the needs of the students will be at the forefront.

Companies: Dual School
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