Preschool program at The Baldwin School of Puerto Rico

Design Thinking

“Look at usual things with unusual eyes.”    - Vico Magistretti


The field of Education is subject to competing and transformational forces of change.  While technology in all of its manifestations is a driver of change, it is the shift to a global information economy, its redefinition of relationships, disciplines, boundaries, and behaviors, that has had an ever greater net effect on school program development and curricular/pedagogical prioritization. The International Baccalaureate (IB), with its emphasis on guided inquiry, develops a number of critical capacities for our age—analytical, synthetic, evaluative, rhetorical, and research skills—that aide students in sifting through and making meaning of an over-abundance of information. IB teaches students to communicate effectively in multiple media and to collaborate across fields and disciplines, proficiencies well suited for the complexities and ambiguities of the 21st century. Now that Baldwin School has established a baseline of practice through the implementation of IB, we seek to optimize learning and further refine our method of inquiry.  We also wish our students to develop thinking strategies based in empathy; that is, strategies that commit a knower to understanding the needs of others prior to pursuing solutions to problems.   

Design Thinking is a century-old problem-solving methodology originating in the fields of engineering and architecture. It is a widely adopted approach to process and product development in innovation-driven industries.  More recently, Design Thinking has made its way into law, health, and education as its emphasis has shifted from enhancing the material environment to deeply engaging and developing user-end experiences. Design Thinking dovetails neatly with the priorities of Constructivism, the central organizing theory in both modern education and IB with regards to best practices for instruction and assessment—learner-centered, skills and concepts-based, solutions/context oriented, feedback informed.

As a method for problem solving, Design Thinking seeks first to deeply understand the needs of the end user/client to which any potential solution must attend.  In understanding their needs, the Design Thinker is better able to isolate the root problem to be addressed. Only after a problem is defined, and contributing factors clearly identified, does the Design Thinker turn to generating potential solutions.  Ideally, a team responsible for developing solutions is composed of individuals capable of looking at a problem dynamically and from many vantages.

While expertise is useful, it can also hamper efforts to arrive at novel, even unconventional solutions, which may be exactly what a problem calls for (see the early history of Proctor and Gamble’s wildly successful Swiffer line). In this sense, Design Thinking combats “group think” and a tendency, to paraphrase Maslow, to conceive of every problem as a nail, and every solution a hammer. In its developmental phase, Design Thinking is iterative and involves rapid prototyping and continuous feedback loops. It is an inherently creative process, but not for its own sake. Only after ideas have been shaped, prototyped, field tested, and critiqued, is a solution recommended to the end user, e.g. the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation waterless toilet concept now being installed in resource-challenged communities around the world. 

What does any of this have to do with education? Traditional approaches to teaching and content treat problems as one dimensional and unilinear. Students learn, incorrectly, that there is generally only one approach, one algorithm, for considering and solving a problem and, correspondingly, only one defined answer or solution. Pre-service teacher education programs and widely-used textbook series reinforce this notion.

Rarely, in any intellectual discipline, is this the case. For example, most mathematical problems can be conceived of and solved in a number of ways. Multi-digit subtraction problems involving positive integers, that stalwart of elementary school arithmetic education, can be solved by regrouping, borrowing, or addition (the Australian method). Many problems in physics can be solved using concepts and methods from numerous mathematical sub-disciplines, e.g. deducing the algebraic formula for displacement from a velocity-time graph via geometric principles, etc. The human sciences, literature, history and the arts invite multivariate perspectives, methodologies, and solutions.  In an exceedingly complex world that is more and more dependent on capturing and making sense of expansive data, both descriptively and inferentially so as to predict and design future outcomes, knowing how to think and solve problems purposefully and creatively is an absolute necessity. 

In schools, the best examples of Design Thinking are usually found in makerspace—learning laboratories purpose built for Design Thinking and that support a studio concept. These spaces place a premium on the thinking behind development, on the tools that facilitate rapid prototyping, on interdisciplinarity, and on collaboration both within and across teams. Baldwin School is in the final design phases of a 17,000 sq. ft. Innovation Center that will support natural sciences and mathematics, and devote thousands of square feet to Design Thinking and makerspace.

Space creates capacity. Without clear programmatic aims and staff development, it is only so much glass and concrete. Furthermore, it’s important that we decouple Design Thinking from makerspace. A problem need not be physical or hands-on to employ Design Thinking. At Baldwin, we intend to implement a dynamic entrepreneurial and community-based model; an inclusive learning ecology that leverages relationships and intellectual capital for collective gain. 

We have already begun meeting with entrepreneurs, scientists, and NGOs with the goal of building a network of experts who can lend us their expertise and insight. We intend to solicit real-world problems from local businesses. We will expand on our work with local public schools through our Summer Institutes, developing programs of Design Thinking for talented high schoolers in the metro area.   

At Baldwin, we are building a better future for our students and Puerto Rico. We will need help to innovate. Support for our Capital Campaign is crucial to realize our Innovation Center and its leading-edge programs. Should you wish to find out more, please reach out to me at


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