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Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a set of principles first outlined in 1969 by American Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, an economist, political scientist, and artificial intelligence pioneer. Simon’s work on decision-making and organizational dynamics—in which he redefined the concept of “design” as a way of thinking, rather than simply a blueprint for physical objects and systems—gave rise to a multi-phase, human-centered model for understanding problems and developing solutions. 

The essential phases in the Design Thinking approach as it is practiced today are empathy (observing something about people or the world), definition (identifying a problem or challenge), brainstorming (considering many possible ideas), prototyping (quickly iterating potential solutions), and testing/reflection (evaluating results and seeking feedback before repeating the cycle). The process is both a way of working and a way of understanding, aimed at challenging assumptions and redefining problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent. It can be applied not only in solving concrete challenges or answering unmet needs, but also in envisioning entirely new insights, products, or creative works.

Remarkably, only a few decades after research by Simon and other theorists of design became more widely known in the 1970s and 1980s, many of the world’s most innovative and successful companies (Apple, Google) have adopted Design Thinking as an engine of unprecedented growth—as have the countless designers, programmers, creators, and leaders who fueled their rise. Major universities (Harvard, MIT, Stanford) teach the Design Thinking process to students in a broad array of fields, from computer science to architecture, from business to urban planning and beyond. Design Thinking—the topic of millions of scholarly and popular articles, books, professional conferences, webinars, workshops, infographics, handbooks, white papers, and much more—is seemingly everywhere, seen as one of the most important frameworks today through which to understand the world, and to make it better.

In progressive learning environments such as Shore, Design Thinking is now taking its place in classrooms from Pre-K on up as an essential model for learning, problem-solving, creative expression, and collaboration. The Design Thinking process can provide a structure for activities as diverse as coding, creative writing, lab experiments, discussions of primary sources, and art; and it helps support a classroom culture rooted in empathy, teamwork, and comfort with failure. Says Innovation Lab Manager and Design Thinking guru Cam McNall, “I see it as a toolkit, a way to break down almost any challenge or process, make it approachable, and experiment with solutions from a place of curiosity, creativity, and collaboration.”

Design Thinking’s mantra—“Fail early, fail often”—is displayed prominently in the iLab, where McNall emphasizes with students of all ages that in Design Thinking, failure is the best learning tool of all. That perspective fits right in with Shore’s overarching educational philosophy, which emphasizes risk-taking and resilience in the face of challenge. “Throughout the school,” he explains, “we work hard to get kids to focus on the process, rather than the final grade. That enables them to be open to trying something new, potentially failing, and then trying again with a different perspective. There’s real strength in being able to get away from viewing the end result as the be-all, end-all of their work. There are so many wonderful discoveries to make along the way.”

It’s not just about building things in the iLab, underscores McNall. Design Thinking dovetails with Shore’s emphasis on a social-emotional curriculum that nurtures interpersonal skills such as collaboration, empathy, and grit. “Any time you want to get to a new place, Design Thinking will help. It can apply to discussing literature or creating an experiment in science.” By privileging concepts such as empathy, Design Thinking asks students to put aside their own opinions and ingrained beliefs purposefully, in order to understand things more deeply and meaningfully. This requires both imagination and humility. “Fundamentally,” says McNall, “it’s cultivating the ability to wonder, to ask questions about our assumptions and thought processes, to listen and work constructively with peers, to break down and compartmentalize tasks. These things are huge, not just for hands-on work, but also for resolving conflicts, managing our time, identifying causes of stress, and figuring out how to be successful at school and in life.”

At heart, Design Thinking’s purpose is nurturing a mindset of discovery and creativity that applies whether the task at hand is an inquiry into history, a science experiment, a computer animation, the assembly of a simple truss bridge, or the fabrication of a complex architectural model. “Every teacher at Shore wants the same thing: to enable breakthrough moments for our students,” says McNall. Design Thinking is a tool that seems tailor-made for the purpose.