Design Thinking in Education | Part One - Empathy


By +Ben Rouse

Have a walk around school and take a moment to ask why?


Why do we teach these subjects?
Why are the timings of lessons structured in this way?
Why are classrooms set out like that?
Why do the children behave so well for that teacher?
Why did we purchase those books?
Why doesn’t the librarian sit in lessons?
Why aren’t those children excited?
Why does that teacher look tired?
Why is that class having so much fun?
Why do we have a teacher desk?
Why is no one in the staff room?
Why are all the IT support male?
Why do we want to use digital technology for learning?

How much of the school environment is designed to support learning? Does it work? Who does it work for?



The golden circle taken from Simon Sinek's book "Start with Why". Check out what he has to say here https://www.ted.com/speakers/simon_sinek

Let me give you an example:

A school delivers assemblies in a hall, designed in early 20th century, via a projector hanging from the ceiling that displays on screen that rolls down from the ceiling above the stage. There are some sockets on the side of the stage that half the people who present know how to use with their laptop in order to connect and show their presentation to the assembled children or carers.

Because of the position of the sockets the presenter spends their time turning to click an arrow key to move the slides forward, turning away from the children to move on to the next slide. Most of the presentations are delivered by the senior leadership team at the school. The children attend around two assemblies per week.

What bothers the presenters?

“Having to turn around and take your eye off the children and interrupt your flow can lead to distraction and muttering.”

“Having to call IT support to connect my laptop every assembly.”

“Having to turn my neck constantly to see the slide I am on.”

Based on this a solution was found! Now, an electronic lectern (at considerable expense) sits facing the children with wires going along the floor under rubber cable trunking to a PC in a cabinet on casters, which doesn’t move because it needs to be connected to the sound system.

Each presenter can see their slides in front of them as they address the children, the screen shows the current slide and the lectern shows the next slide too and speaker’s notes. No more cricked necks! However, most presenters don’t know how to get their presentation displayed in this way so now an IT technician is booked for every assembly to be on hand to support. Which, for evening events involves paying overtime.

If design thinking was applied to this situation then a few things can be approached differently. Design thinking is based on empathy for the user (though this term feels inappropriate for education). Therefore a design thinking school would ask the children about assemblies. They would have gathered every bit of information about assemblies and may have found that most were boring and repetitive. They may have found that they often run over into lesson time. This feedback from both teachers and children I would imagine. A good design thinking culture in the school would have led to an open and frank session of asking why…

Why are some assemblies boring?
Because the person delivering them doesn’t find out until a week before.

Why doesn’t the person find out until a week before?
We allocate them at the beginning of the year but most people don’t remember.

Why don’t they remember?
They are on a paper calendar but they are often changed.


Why do they get changed?
We become aware of events throughout the year which interrupt the schedule

Why does the schedule not take account of these events when it is written?

This activity is a design thinking staple. The 5 Why’s is an effective way of finding the problem you should be solving instead of the superficial problem you might first see. How often are problems identified and ‘solved’ within a single meeting?

Therefore the design thinking school will spend time and effort solving this problem:
How might we ensure that assemblies are relevant and useful when scheduled each year/term?
Instead of this one:
How might we stop getting a sore neck when presenting assemblies in the hall?
How might we (HMW) statements are a key component of design thinking. If you are a leader (hint: you all are), in your next meeting ask several people to deliver a lightning talk about their area of responsibility in the school. While they do make sure everyone else has post-its™ and Sharpies™ ready to write as many HMW statements as they can. The group can theme the HMW statements together. You will be excited and surprised at what you find.

Use this template to help you form useful HMW statements:

How might we action what for whom in order to change something.

Armed with the themes and the HMW statements the person who spoke can get out into the school and find out more about that particular issue. The immersion and empathy begins in earnest, think of Undercover Boss but not quite so covert. Design thinking offers democratised decision making in schools, where key components of learning and the learning environment can be designed for the right people.

So now you have a great HMW statement to work around and have spent time shadowing students, cleaners, staff and interviewing them too, you are building up a messy project nest of paper, pictures, post-its and comments in a communal area of the school. Not in the principal’s office where people might not go but next to the coffee machine or in the staff room. Better still in the canteen or reception, wherever you can expose your data collection to as many relevant people as possible.

If you feel your empathy stage has generated enough ethnographic data you can begin looking for connections. The themes that arise will be the focus of your idea generation in the next phase.


Empathy Maps are used while shadowing a colleague or child through a school day. Once complete, stick them up somewhere public so everyone can engage and learn offering post-its for comments.

Design thinking has opened my eyes to asking why and spending more time getting to the right problems before ideas are generated. It is something you cannot turn off once you start. If you would like to get started we are offering design thinking workshops around developing technology for learning so drop us a line to discuss how it can work for you.

To see how design thinking is being used in education check out The Teacher’s Guild. In the next part we move from empathy to ideation, creating a culture where ideas can flow freely once you have discovered the real barriers to your problem through empathy.



About the author : Ben Rouse | AppsEvents, UK Director


After implementing G Suite at my secondary comprehensive school in UK I was accepted onto the Google Teacher Academy in London in 2013. Since then I have been involved in technology for learning training and implementations in schools in UK and Europe as a Google for Education Innovator and Trainer.

I taught Mathematics for 13 years and had middle and senior leadership roles in schools before becoming an educational technology integration specialist for a Mutli-Academy Trust in UK.

I now work with AppsEvents to help organisations implement G Suite and Technology for Learning effectively.

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