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Design Thinking as an Inclusive Approach to Education



This paper argues and advocates the use of the Design Thinking approach for school education with a special focus on inclusivity. It demonstrates that inclusivity is at the center of Design Thinking Approach as empathy is its first prerequisite.

It bases itself on the seminal work on ‘Design Thinking’ by Tim Brown who Co-Chairs a global design company called IDEO which has created sustainable, successful, and scalable solutions in diverse fields including school education (curriculum design, teacher-training, management-training, designing school buildings keeping in mind the learners’ needs, etc.).

The paper evaluates the value of this approach, especially in the context of catering to the needs of the most marginalized, which are often excluded from the process of education. User-centric approach, multiple and rapid Prototyping, Empathy, Feedback, and Iteration are discussed as fundamental pillars of Design Thinking approach which are significant to ensure true inclusivity in the process of education.

Innova school networks in Peru have been cited as an important example of the success of this approach in the developing world where still many live under poverty and are grappling with many social evils like class, caste, gender, racism and who are in much need of affordable quality education given the fact that many are not able to access it.


Primary school education in India has seen a qualitative evolution, with an increased focus on use of progressive pedagogy based on experiential feedback provided by children. However, there are many challenges that need to be addressed to ensure that children from diverse socio-cultural-economic backgrounds are able to access formal education and receive a strong foundation in their early learning experiences.

Some concepts and tools come to dominate the public discourse from time to time and influence most activities happening in the public sphere. For example, the ‘Internet’ and the ‘World Wide Web’, have come to disrupt how knowledge is processed and practiced in all fields.

These concepts became a global phenomenon because they did not exclude any group, class, race, caste or gender in their use and envisioning. In fact, they enabled inclusion and provided necessary tools which could be accessible to all sections of society.

‘Design Thinking’ is also one such concept which provides a new and inclusive approach to how problems and questions are approached in an inclusive way. The concept of ‘design’ is usually associated with providing aesthetic value to a product. Then what does one mean by discussing it for the inclusive pedagogy and education sector? Design, in the ‘Design Thinking’ construct, is not merely seen as giving form or packaging to a product or service which figures at the downstream of any service, process or product; rather the term ‘design’ here refers to the process of creating meaningful and inclusive solutions to a problem or a challenge.

Therefore, Design is not just about creating something that looks good but also about creating something that meets a specific need or fulfils a specific purpose. The ultimate goal of a design in design thinking approach is to create innovative and effective solutions that improve people’s lives by providing them an equal opportunity to get involved and making them equal stakeholders in processes and institutions that affect their lives.

The Design Thinking Approach and Inclusive Education

Tim Brown in 2008 for the first time introduced the concept of Design Thinking through his article in Harvard Business Review magazine wherein he emphasized that innovation in the modern history has mostly happened through Design Thinking and is not a standalone work of a genius, as is a common myth often propagated through popular media, but teamwork based on sheer hard work in the form of constant iterations based on feedback from the users.

He discusses the innovations of the celebrated American scientist Thomas Alva Edison in support of his argument. He says, “…Edison’s genius lay in his ability to conceive of a fully developed marketplace, not simply a discrete device. He was able to envision how people would want to use what he made, and he engineered towards that insight…Edison’s approach was an early example of what is now called “design thinking” – a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered design ethos.

What Edison was also doing was not thinking about his innovations only for the chosen few, rather he thought about the common users and their needs who were thus far excluded from the imagination of many scientists before him.

Brown (2008) describes Design Thinking architecture as non-linear and flexible unlike some conventional milestone-based processes which mostly concentrate on the ‘best learners’ who often achieve the milestones by rote learning and memorization. Such a conventional approach does not take into consideration learners who might be facing lingual, physical, or other forms of cultural barriers in accessing education.

In recent years the Design Thinking approach has gained popularity across various industries because it cares about all users, not just a few. Design thinking, in a definitional pursuit, can be understood as a problem-solving approach that emphasizes empathy, human-centered design, experimentation, iteration, and collaboration (Brown, 2008). It has been widely adopted in various fields, including education (see Noel &

Liub, 2017 and Koh et al., 2015) to improve the learning experience of students from diverse sections of society. However, its application in pedagogy, particularly in primary school education, is still relatively new but important. It is essential to incorporate design thinking in primary school education as it has the potential to cultivate empathy, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills among young learners making them more sensitive to diversity around them in terms of language, culture, physical disabilities, gender, etc.

Design thinking promotes a student-centered approach to learning. In conventional education models, teachers are the primary source of knowledge, and students are expected to absorb information passively. Students were often seen as a monolith block in the conventional system which did not take into account the disparities amongst them having serious consequences for their learning experience.

Moreover, a lot of times the young learners are not seen as worthy of seeking feedback from or to learn from. Often, they are seen as absorbing vessels and more so when they come from traditionally disadvantaged groups. Also, in this case the power gap between a teacher and a young learner becomes even larger than it usually is, as a result the exercise of agency from the child coming from a vulnerable section of society becomes almost negligible.

All learners, notwithstanding the backgrounds they come from, need to develop skills that will allow them to thrive in a world that is constantly evolving. One can argue that human societies have always been evolving and that this evolution condition in itself is not new. This is true to some extent that there have always been changes in the economic, political, technological apparatus of societies however the fact remains that the scale and speed with which changes are happening today in our society is unprecedented especially in the context of technological phenomena like Artificial Intelligence.

Therefore, in today’s fast-changing world we cannot afford to ignore our large population which is disadvantaged and therefore won’t be able to make use of technological advances due to lack of exposure to education. Our education system needs to take them along. There is a greater urgency, like never before, to rethink and remodel our education delivery processes especially given the fact that one of the objectives of the education system, which is to prepare learners for an industrial economy has changed to skilling them for knowledge economy (Trilling and Fadel, 2009).

We need to revise the objectives and outcomes of our learning processes in light of the changes that are happening in the larger world. As a country of more than a billion people we have to tap into the immense human resources that we have and this can only happen if principles of social justice, especially in the context of quality, inclusive education are applied in their true spirit.

Design thinking is fundamentally about thinking like a designer about any service, product, or process (Brown, 2008). It is about approaching things as an ever-changing system. Students are encouraged to identify problems that are relevant to their lives and work collaboratively to find solutions. This approach not only makes learning more engaging but also helps students develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for their learning.

This approach recognizes that each learner is unique, with their own strengths, challenges, and preferences. By designing learning experiences that are tailored to individual learners, educators can create more effective and engaging learning environments.

Design thinking, for one, provides a framework for considering the young ones as important stakeholders capable of providing useful feedback which can in turn be used for designing and further improving pedagogy for them. Of course, the mechanism for this feedback needs to be different than the ones for adults since it is difficult for young learners to articulate their learning experiences clearly and therefore in such cases, for example, collecting the desired data using observation methods might be useful.

Also, young learners can be encouraged to provide constructive feedback by initiating classroom talks wherein they have to formulate sentences using phrases like, “I wish, I wonder, I like, I imagine.” This can ensure that the feedback mechanism is not too evident to them, that they are comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas, and are not conscious of the power relations involved in this process. This free positive learning environment should result in increased trust between the learner and a teacher.

In cases where learners are preschoolers who can barely construct proper sentences, visual tools like asking them to draw a picture of an activity they enjoyed or a concept they found difficult to understand can be helpful. Positive reinforcement can go a long way in boosting their morale and building a positive environment for meaningful exchange between a learner and a teacher.

Tim Brown (2009), writes in his book Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation that “Empathy is the cornerstone of a human- centered design process.” Anyone who works with a Design Thinking approach needs to be empathetic to the requirements and context of its users; it is only then that a meaningful inclusive mechanism can be put to use.

Design thinking puts a strong emphasis on understanding the needs, perspectives, and experiences of learners. This empathetic approach allows educators to design learning experiences that are tailored to the specific needs and interests of their students. While the Design Thinking approach needs empathy to be successful, it can also be a powerful tool for fostering empathy in children, as it invites them to think deeply about the needs, experiences, and background of others.

It motivates children to observe and listen to others. This can help children develop empathy for their peer group by allowing them to see things from another classmate’s perspective. In this approach, children are encouraged to work in teams, which can help children develop empathy by teaching them how to work together by taking into account the unique challenges and barriers that may be faced by their classmates from different backgrounds and abilities.

Therefore, it can be a useful method to stir children to practise empathy by encouraging observation and listening, promoting collaboration and teamwork, teaching problem-solving skills, and creating real-world experiences.

In a rapidly changing world, students need to be able to adapt to new challenges and opportunities. Besides focusing on inclusivity, the Design Thinking approach provides them with the tools to use challenges as opportunities.

It advocates experimentation and iteration in the development of new ideas and solutions. This approach values failure as an opportunity for learning and growth and invigorates educators to continuously refine and improve their teaching strategies. This is where one of the most important pillars of the Design Thinking approach comes in: Prototyping.

Prototyping is often misunderstood as a process of creation of a refined product which should be as close as possible to the final product so that it can be finally put to test with a small number of users for their experience of the product. However, Brown (2008) says, “Prototyping doesn’t have to be complex and expensive…Prototypes should command only as much time, effort, and investment as are needed to generate useful feedback and evolve an idea.

The more “finished” a prototype seems, the less likely its creators will be to pay attention to and profit from feedback. The goal of prototyping isn’t to finish. It is to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the idea and to identify new directions that further prototypes might take.” This envisioning of Prototyping exerts much less pressure on the designers to come up with a fine product in the first instant.

Instead, it encourages multiple and rapid prototyping which is solely designed to seek feedback to make the product or policy better from the point of view of all stakeholders.

If we translate this ideation of prototyping to designing a meaningful pedagogy for young learners from diverse backgrounds, then it would mean to keep experimenting with new methods of teaching and quickly tweak them in accordance with the response or feedback received from the learners.

The teacher in this case needs to be open-minded, flexible, and unbiased as opposed to being wedded to certain methods or regressive ideas. IDEO, the organization headed by Tim Brown, describes a designer’s mindset as, ““beginner’s mind, with the intent to remain open and curious, to assume nothing, and to see ambiguity as an opportunity.

It is not always easy to see ambiguity as opportunity especially when we have been conventionally trained to look for clarity and certainty. Therefore, to many, a design thinking approach can look vague and lacking direction. However, it has now been proven to be highly effective even in situations which are highly complex and challenging.

One can learn from the kind of education related solutions that IDEO has worked on in the past and how they have provided creative alternatives to conventional approaches to pedagogy which children feel enthusiastic about.

For example, one of the questions that IDEO is working on is “How can Design advance Learning and Education?” in order to answer this IDEO is partnering with changemakers around the world to design tools and experiences for learners of all ages especially in the developing countries where quality education might be only accessible to the elite and the economically downtrodden, physically disabled, women, people of colour, are left behind.

For example, IDEO has redesigned a network of affordable schools called Innova in Peru that are catering to more than 50,000 students. It has now become the largest network of private schools in Peru. The work included designing everything starting from the curriculum, teacher strategies and training, to school buildings (IDEO, 2014).

The World Economic Forum selected Innova as one of the 16 schools defining the future of education. So, what did IDEO do differently to Innova schools that completely transformed them from being a network of 5 average schools to expanding into 63 schools making a mark in the world. IDEO researchers did not have a model ready to suggest to Innova schools based on their own understanding of how the school network should sustain itself successfully.

Instead, they co-designed the schools in collaboration with students, teachers, and the management of Innova School. They visited other inspirational schools and tried to learn from other analogous sectors such as retail, hospitality, and healthcare. Therefore, it was not the standalone genius of IDEO researchers which provided the solution, rather they created a space for all stakeholders to contribute and co-design this project. It is the collective experiences and knowledge that led to this excellent outcome.

Since education in Innova schools comes at an affordable cost for both the students as well as the management, they could scale it up from 5 to 63 schools. This solution is already being used in other South American countries like Mexico and Colombia, showing a ray of hope for other developing countries which are struggling to provide affordable quality education to their burgeoning population.

One thing that the Design approach focuses on is constant feedback and iterations so that the design keeps updating itself organically and does not get obsolete. In the same spirit, the Innova school, even after figuring prominently in the world education map, is not complacent about its model’s success.

As the IDEO (2014) puts it, “They’re constantly scanning the world for inspiration on how to best educate their students, while building out the new innovations. They realize that design thinking can become an integrated part of their daily management of this growing network of schools.”

The case of Innova schools is an excellent example of how design thinking approaches can be successfully applied to the spectrum of challenges in education processes and that it can be explored as an approach to design inclusive schools entrenched in complex social and economic settings.


Inclusivity and design thinking are closely intertwined. This article has argued that the design thinking approach is a valuable approach to enabling education having numerous benefits for students, teachers, management, and the society. By promoting student-centered learning, empathy, and practical skills, design thinking prepares students coming from diverse backgrounds for success in both academic and professional settings.

By incorporating design thinking into school education, we can create a generation of innovative problem-solvers who are equipped to tackle the challenges of the present and the future for all regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or disability.