What if legislators used design thinking?

Design thinking is gaining support in K-12 education. Most acknowledge the model developed by the d.school at Stanford, but the idea has been around for a while, and there are other models that share similar attributes. I learned about instructional design models the last (and I mean last) time I went back to school, and many ID models rely on the process of design thinking. While there, I also took a class in computer science and learned about scenario-based design by one of its early proponents, Dr. Jack Carroll, and much of the literature I read those three years was related to human-computer interface (HCI) design. A related concept is that of human-centered design. All of these practices incorporate tenets of design thinking.

Recently, the concept of design thinking received a push by being included in the ISTE Standards for Educators (see Standard 6, Facilitator). It’s a common pattern where things developed in industry move through higher education to later reach K-12. For design thinking, that time is now. I found it a little ironic that it shows up under the Facilitator standard rather than the Designer standard, but the intent is to help students understand and practice design thinking, so even though teachers can use design thinking principles for developing instruction, students will be able to benefit from design thinking principles in many subject areas. Computational thinking also appears in the standards, but design thinking is applicable in more situations, perhaps even when developing policy.

I have been musing over what might happen if design thinking was applied in different domains, specifically policy. What if legislators changed the prevalent, current practice of negotiation and instead adopted a design thinking approach to finding policy solutions? Recent, some might say volatile, political events in the halls of America’s capital have emphasized how important design thinking might be to those attempting to address the needs of a diverse constituency of citizens. Perhaps most discussed recently is healthcare legislation, in which legislators have focused more on assuaging and persuading constituents than designing a creative and innovative solution for real healthcare issues. Design thinking is focused on finding solutions for real people, not negotiating compromises. That type of approach doesn’t happen often in industry, at least in successful industries, because bad solutions don’t sell. If your product doesn’t meet the needs of an audience, few will buy it. Perhaps legislators at all levels of government could turn to a design thinking model to address this and other important policies, as based on my current observations design thinking is a process that appears to be little known or applied in policy decisions.

What is design thinking?

Whichever model you prefer, there are some commonalities across design thinking models. These include:

  • Know your user/learner. This is a key component of design thinking. You’re designing something for someone, or a group of someones. That’s why design thinking is also human-centered or learner-centered, if you’re designing instruction.
  • Get to the root of the problem. Jumping to conclusions can lead to short-term solutions that don’t address the full problem. Finding long-term solutions requires better understanding the root causes of problems, some of which may be cultural, philosophical, or psychological in nature.
  • Develop prototypes/models and get feedback. The design process is an iterative one, meaning you design some stuff and then test it out to see how it works. And then you redesign it and get more feedback. Prototypes or models often change, sometimes completely, so you need to be open to change. Resistance doesn’t go far in design thinking.

So, how might the application of design thinking look when developing policy, specifically healthcare policy? I’ve never helped develop legislation, but I have used design thinking often[1]. Perhaps the following might provide some ideas for adapting this proven method in the arena of policy.

Step 1: Know your user

To begin with, in terms of design thinking, legislators would actually talk to people who need healthcare—different kinds of people with different needs. The d.school model calls this step developing empathy for the user. They would interview or read about or shadow different people to understand what kinds of healthcare needs they would have and design solutions for those people.

In instructional design, I use an audience analysis process (Dick, Dick & Carey, 2008) that helps me to understand what my users are like and how my instructional product might meet their needs. Sometimes I do this by talking with people in my user audience, but other times, if I can’t get to them, I try to talk with as many people as possible to try to figure out what a typical user’s day is like and how my product fits into it. I might also research users through a variety of resources, online groups, and publications. The ultimate goal is to come up with a story or picture (or stories and pictures) that help me understand whom I’m designing for and what they need.

One approach I use to get to know my user audience better is creating a scenario about the users, a component of scenario-based design. There are usually multiple types of users with different characteristics and needs, so plural scenarios are usually best. Some proponents of scenario-based design suggest you compose a “day in the life” story of your users and how whatever you are designing will fit into that day. You can also find or create pictures or even short videos to help make those stories come alive.

I’ve used these three stories or student profiles often (also see the image below). The first time was with a state education agency that wanted to develop a website to provide curricular support to students, their parents, teachers, administrators, and just about anyone who supports education. That’s a pretty big task with multiple audiences, so with the help of one of the SEA’s staff members, Kathy Boone, we used these three scenarios to consider the best way to design a solution for students with different needs. At the end of the day, the overwhelming consensus was that a phone-based solution would be more appropriate, and focusing on a website alone wouldn’t meet the needs of the intended audiences. That was just the beginning for John, Tara, and Bill, as these three scenarios and a few other I’ve developed have prompted great conversations in multiple districts and SEAs across the country.

3 Student Scenarios

Step 2: Get to the root of the problem

Many teachers will tell you that one of the greatest difficulties in introducing problems to students is helping them to identify just what the problem is. The same is true with design thinking. You have to avoid your initial gut reaction—which can often be superficial—and instead be prepared to dig deeper. In my coaching work, I find that new coaches have to grow beyond jumping to conclusions right away without trying to better understand the root causes of a situation that may conflict with or negate initial solution ideas. The most effective coaching occurs when coaches take time to build a relationship to better understand the complexities of a problem, or an individual. Understanding the user is critical to design thinking.

My professional friend and co-author of our textbook, Dr. Peg Ertmer (1999), describes the differences between first-order and second-order barriers to change. First-order barriers are those things that are external to a person and you have the easiest control over. These are things like allocations of time or access to technology and other resources. Second-order barriers are internal to individuals and more complex to resolve. People’s philosophies and personalities can be the root of second-order barriers, but they’re also the most important barriers to change. In terms of problem solving, you can implement a first-order solution without also addressing some of the second-order barriers, and the result will not likely last long.

Many problems are complex, and simple solutions aren’t sufficient to address them. As one of my mentors, Dr. Sharon Harsh, has taught me, “complex problems require complex solutions.” Oversimplifying a complex problem won’t lead to sustainable solutions. They can provide a temporary solution that looks like the problem is being addressed, but ultimately these simple solutions fall apart. Education and healthcare policy are rife with stories of simple solutions that have been unable to address the complexity of the issues they are intended to solve.

Sample Scenarios:

What if we applied these first two parts of the design thinking process to healthcare? Consider the following two scenarios based on fictitious interviews:

Hello, Mr. P., thanks for coming in for your annual check-up. That’s really important for a person with a family history of cardiac issues. Right now, you’re healthy and things are looking good. Your faithful cardio routine and close watch of your diet are probably some of the best preventative measures you can employ with your health history, and I know you are trying to avoid relying on medication. That day may come, however, as sometimes our own personal genetic histories can thwart even the best preventative measures. You’re not at that point, but I assure you that if medication becomes necessary, we’ll find the best possible solution and thoroughly discuss the pros and cons before beginning any regimen. I see your kids are doing well. Keep up those annual check-ups that are covered by your healthcare, too, and hopefully they won’t need anything more than a sports physical now and then. Be sure to keep them in the loop on your family’s health history, and you should all do well.

or this one…

Mr. J., I’m glad you’ve taken the time to debrief with me after your last surgery. As you know, while we went in for a blood clot in an area where you’ve had some issues in the past related to repeated patches of melanoma, we did find evidence of an aggressive tumor in your brain. Unfortunately, this glioblastoma, or GBM, tumor is often highly malignant and can’t be cured. Our goal is to help you and your family work through the complications of this issue in the best way possible for all concerned. You’ve overcome several difficult health concerns in the past, including some paralysis in your arms that has required ongoing physical and occupational therapy, but you are entering into a new phase of your life. We have no way to actually eradicate this issue, despite your wealth and admirable healthcare coverage. Our goal is to make you as comfortable as possible by addressing some of the symptoms and complications of this disease. I know you want to stay in your home with your family as long as possible, which may require some physical modifications to your home and ultimately the need for some equipment like a hospital bed. We have excellent and experienced staff who will consult with you and your family to determine the best care that can be provided as you deal with this health concern.

These two fictitious interviews tell us a little more about the intended audience of healthcare. These two scenarios also suggest two very different kinds of healthcare needs, from a relatively healthy person and his family who needs little to no routine healthcare beyond preventative care to someone who may ultimately require significant physical, emotional, and psychological support to live the rest of his life with dignity. And these are just two scenarios.

Legislators interested in using design thinking would, of course, have to learn about numerous healthcare needs. They could interview or survey many different people, or talk with doctors and other healthcare providers, or read studies or briefs about the range of healthcare needs in this country. And those needs would shift based on age, gender, previous conditions, and even locale. That means healthcare needs in Wisconsin might be different from Arizona from Florida from West Virginia.

It would also take more research to get to the root of the problem, or perhaps even to understand factors that influence healthcare needs for different people. In the scenarios above, Mr. P. and his family’s religious affiliation may influence their decision to not pursue medical birth control options for Mrs. P. and her daughter (not unlike my own mother). Mr. J. may have a military background and strong sense of self-sufficiency that may discourage him from participating in obtrusive forms of treatment, as he sees personal strength and not relying on others as a distinguishing part of his moral character (not unlike my own father). So, depending upon the audience, healthcare options may be necessary but not desired, or vice versa. A comprehensive solution requires acknowledging and supporting these and other individual differences.

Steps 3 & 4 and 3 & 4 and… Develop prototypes/models and get feedback

As an instructional designer, I have to be careful of assuming I know what my audience wants and how they want to learn. That’s why it’s important to develop sample activities and materials that can be used with people who represent the target audience to see if I’m on the right track. Sometimes I am, and sometimes…well, I always mean well. And I’m open to feedback.

It can be difficult to receive feedback on something you’ve worked on, perhaps something you’re extremely passionate about, but ultimately you have to give that product up and share it with its intended user. A product’s no good if it’s not used, or worse—if it’s used but is not enjoyed or is found ineffective. Waiting until the end to determine if a product is effective or not is too late. The best products go through a cycle of prototyping with user testing to determine the best solution. There’s no right number of times to go through this cycle. It may just depend on how much time or money you have. However, these steps can actually end up saving money by resulting in a superior product.

Evaluating products as they are being developed is considered formative evaluation, and the way you gather that information varies, based on the type of product and who will use it. When designing digitally delivered instruction, I often use the process of a think aloud, where someone from the target audience works through a scenario or situation with some of the content or media I’ve developed and talks out loud about what they are thinking and feeling as they interact with it. Of course, you can turn to focus groups, interviews, surveys, and a wide range of ways to gather input, but the most important aspect is getting feedback from a real user, not other designers or content experts. Content experts, and I include myself in this group, are often so passionate about their content that they tend to be biased and overlook the actual needs and desires of the intended users. The best news about usability testing is that expert Jakob Nielson (2000) recommends that you only need about 5 unique users, as after that variances in responses level off. Five people—that’s not so hard to find and a worthwhile investment.

In terms of legislation, healthcare or otherwise, these steps are where I believe policymakers may benefit most from using design thinking. How many members of the intended target audience routinely get to review and provide feedback on legislation as it is developed? I’m thinking zero might not be an inappropriate answer. In the recent national healthcare struggles, consider how policy makers do or don’t gather input from users and adjust to dissenting opinions or different viewpoints. How do legislators collect information about patient experiences rather than other legislators? What is the process in which outside voices are considered? Even dissenting input can generate a rich dialogue and support healthy debate through ideas from different viewpoints. Contradictions or negative feedback about a product aren’t personal if they come from the intended audience. Feedback like this should be considered constructive and can improve the ultimate product.

Finally, the design cycle doesn’t end with the launch of the product. In some ways, it’s just beginning. Design models often include summative evaluation after the product is launched, but this type of feedback is then used to improve the product over time. Consider how legislation might be improved if it didn’t stay static after all the signatures. If routine evaluation data was collected, it could be used periodically—perhaps annually or biannually—to improve legislation based on real user data rather than having to go through what appears to be more like a circus with much posturing and grandstanding that comprises the current legislative process. That’s not solving anyone’s problems.

In summary, I know this has simply been a thought exercise and doesn’t take into consideration all of the complexities of healthcare or legislation. But I do wonder if there might be a better way to develop products and services that impact so many of us. Design thinking works, and there are many ways you can apply it, and many fields to which it can be applied. If we’re suggesting its important for our K-12 students, perhaps we might eventually get a generation of legislators that have these powerful skills in their tool belts.


Dick, W., Carey, L., & Carey, J. O. (2008). The systematic design of instruction. 7th edition. Pearson.

Nielsen, J. (2000, March 19). “Why you only need to test with 5 users.” Alertbox. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/why-you-only-need-to-test-with-5-users/ 

Ertmer, P. A. (1999). Addressing first- and second-order barriers to change: Strategies for technology integration. Educational Technology Research and Development, 47(4). 47–61.

[1] I am not a healthcare policy expert, but my nephew Patrick Ross is. I appreciate his support in reviewing this post and ensuring my comments are as realistic as possible, and keeping me focused on design thinking, not healthcare policy.

Why Black Rockettes are Important

As a former musician and musical theater geek, the only award show I look forward to each year is the Tony’s. This year was no exception, even though, as one might say, “I had no horse in this race.” It wasn’t like the year when Phantom went up against Into the Woods, splitting awards for “Best Musical” and “Best Book of a Musical.” Or when Avenue Q so unrightly won “Best Musical” over Wicked (Wicked is still on Broadway after more than 20 years. Where are those damn puppets now? Old and moldy.) But this year had an interesting twist, one that seemed innocuous at first.

The 71st Tony Awards were held in Radio City Music Hall and included their famous “Rockettes.” They’re a marvel. Their talent and precision is mesmerizing, especially for an old band director. I actually got to see them live at an Easter show many years ago. Most of it was stupendous until…Rockettes…dressed as nuns…holding Easter lilies that lit up in the shape of a cross. That was surreal. But I’m not from New York. But then, neither is my nephew.

My youngest nephew lives in the country. I guess I’m close to the country now, but he lives in Summers County, West Virginia. It’s a small place, very rural, more country than where I live, and he’s an anomaly. Of mixed race, most people reasonably assume he’s black. He’s also quite accomplished, even at a very young age. He’s just finished the sixth grade and is moving to middle school. This year, again, he’s won many awards for his academic success. He also wins awards every year for his citizenship, for which his mother is most proud. So being black shouldn’t matter.

But it does. He’s grown up with a multi-age group of friends and relatives, which is not uncommon in rural areas. He has friends that are several years older as well as some that are younger than him, but he’s still usually the only black one. They’re a tight group of friends, and their parents are close, too. When you talk about “a village,” you’re talking about the folks who are raising my nephew and his friends. It’s what we want for our kids.

So, why should it matter that he’s black? He’s doing well in school, right? Well, I’m the uncle who gives him books as presents. I give him other presents, but my nephew was born the day before Christmas, so I try to mix it up with fun stuff for one celebration and books for the other. Don’t get me wrong, I love books! I think books are the fun stuff! But I’m not in the sixth grade (or the fifth, and fourth and every grade earlier to the point where he used to sit on my lap as a baby while I read to him). The trouble is, there are (almost) no books for him.

When I was growing up, I had already read all of Tolkein’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books. I read the Shanarra Chronicles and lots of classics, too. I was a voracious reader. My parents encouraged us to read, and most nights finished with Mom or Dad reading a chapter from some book to me and my little brother before bed. But that’s because I could see myself in those books. That’s not the case for my nephew.

Every year, as he gets older, it gets harder and harder to find books that have characters that look like my nephew, or have the same interests as my nephew. In the past, I’ve given him books about dinosaurs, mythology, superheroes, and sports. I also go for fantasy, but even then, a lot have been turned into movies and almost all the characters are white. At least the main characters. Or, like in the case of Percy Jackson, the black kid is a supporting character, and an animal to boot!

When I do find good books with strong black teenage characters, they’re usually inner city kids. Many are dealing with drugs and violence and broken families. That’s not my nephew, or his family. Yes, he likes playing basketball, and was just awarded “Best Camper” at his summer basketball camp, but he’s not dealing with kids shooting up or shooting each other. The only shooting he’s interested in is free throws. He’s not in the books I find at my local bookstore.

So, that’s why, when watching the Tony Awards tonight, I noticed that there was only one black Rockette. There were dozens of them on the stage, but only one black one. And they put her front and center. And then set that off with a vocal performance by Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom, two amazingly talented, and yes, black performers. I might not have noticed the irony before my nephew. But it was now, forgive me, bright as the celebrated neon lights of the “Great White Way.” So many puns in that sentence.

If we want kids to succeed in school (and life!), we need to give them stories they can relate to. They need to see themselves as the main characters—in books, movies, TV shows, games, and even awards shows. All kids, boys and girls of every race. They have to see possibilities for themselves. If a kid in rural West Virginia can turn on the TV and can’t see anyone who looks like him unless it’s a drug addict or a convict, what message is that sending? If I can’t find a single book with a positive role model for a young black kid, what are we telling him? I can’t even find books where a young black kid doing well is the main character.

Help me work on this. Yes, there are a few books out there for him to read. I’ve read a couple. I also work in schools across the country, so I ask teachers and visit school libraries. I’ll continue to look. But the operative word is few. There are a limited number of role models for him to relate to that may not be sports figures. I can’t solve this on my own, but I will keep working on it for him, and his friends, because I know some day he is going to be that role model for some other young, black kid in a rural area that needs someone to look up to. So maybe he’ll tell his story. And there will be Rockettes of every color.


What do you want to create today?

Transformers by Mary Kim SchreckMore than a few years ago I had the opportunity to dig deeper into the ideas of creativity and creative thinking thanks to the wonderful Mary Kim Schreck. She was thinking about, writing about, and sharing her ideas about creativity in her book, Transformers: Creative Teachers for the 21st Century. She had been thinking about creativity so much that she was about done with the book! But she asked me to contribute a chapter about technology in the creative classroom.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been thinking about creativity most of my career! I taught music and most people segregate musicians into a small, select group of “creatives,” that includes visual artists, actors, dancers, writers and a few others. But creativity is not the purview of the few. Everyone can be creative, and in fact, we need more people to be creative in their lives and in their work, now more than ever. I appreciate that Mary Kim gave me a reason to dig deeper into my own ideas about creativity and to compare them to others. It was a valuable experience and, luckily, I get to keep thinking about creativity.

The Value of Performance

I cringe a bit when I see or hear the directions “be creative” in an assignment, because usually this is followed up by using crayons, markers, or different backgrounds in a slide deck. Students are encouraged to “be creative” without ever teaching them what that means. And what does that mean in, say, science? Or math? It’s not the same as in my class. What few teachers realize is that we folks in the creative fields had content standards we had to address, and just like every other class, some of our standards promoted creative thinking, some did not. The important message here is, yes, science, math, and all the others have standards that promote creative thinking.

As a former high school band director I often reflect back on what was then a somewhat routine conversation that has turned out to have significant impact on my life. I had been through my annual observation with my principal, something all teachers go through. My principal, Dr. Barry Beers, was great to work with and full of ideas that pushed and stretched his teachers. I didn’t realize how valuable that was at the time. During our follow-up conference he said to me, “John, I really appreciate how you move from whole group, small group, to individuals, and back and forth whenever you need to. You’re customizing your instruction to the needs of each student.”

I replied to him, hopefully not too snarkily, something like, “Dr. Beers (I still have a hard time calling him Barry), I was just doing a rehearsal. That’s what musicians to do get ready for a performance. Nothing special.”

He tried to help me see the importance of what was going on, but I didn’t really understand his statement until later. Because everything my students did in my class eventually led to a performance, he tried to help me understand how a performance can only be successful when all of the students can play their part, literally. He reminded me that by working with all of the students individually and in groups during rehearsal that I knew who was ready and who still needed work. Then he challenged me.

Learning-Driven Schools by Barry BeersDr. Beers asked me to help teachers in other content areas understand how they can help their students learn how to “perform” their content. Whether math, science, English or whatever, Barry wanted me to help other teachers in other content areas understand how to help their students rehearse so they’d be better prepared to perform in a more authentic context. He enlisted all the Fine Arts staff, and I collaborated with a social studies teacher one year, English the next. It was a challenge, but it helped me to see connections I hadn’t seen before. So, thanks Barry, for thinking creatively about teaching and learning back then.

You can find out more about Barry’s work in his book Learning-Driven Schools: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Principals from ASCD.

Performance in All Classrooms

Recently, perhaps in reaction to the horribly mind-numbing compliance mentality promoted by federal education policy, the education community is once again seeing the value of performance. I saw this in the release of new college-and-career standards both at the national and state level. New standards in the core areas and the arts definitely push students to work towards levels of creative thinking in their domains. And now, in many states, students demonstrate higher levels of learning through performance.

The best performances are not compliance. They’re not mechanical. They’re not simply the replication of what someone has done before. They’re not multiple choice. The best performances give people a chance to be creative—to pull their knowledge and skills together—to address a real problem or situation in or across content domains.

In this way, creativity is a cumulative skill. I liken it to the top level of the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy. You can’t get to the top without working you’re way up. You have to have the foundational knowledge and skills of any domain you plan to be creative in—whether that’s writing, speaking, visual or performing arts, or science, or engineering, or even legislation. You have to know what the accepted strategies and processes are before you can change them. In other words, you have to know the rules before you can break them.You have to understand what work has come before and to analyze and evaluate information in order to provide a creative solution to address a problem.

Revised Bloom's Taxonomy

One interpretation of the cognitive process dimension from the revised Taxonomy of Learning by Anderson & Krathwohl (2001)

Ideas that don’t build on a foundation are not creative. They’re simply novelty. And novelty wears thin fast and falls apart. Creativity has weight, value, and lasting appeal.

The most creative ideas can live a long time—in an individual, a group, or society, but everyone can be creative as we are all faced with authentic problems that are routinely found in the real world. We need creative solutions for providing affordable housing to everyone no matter where they live. We need creative solutions on how to ensure our planet will be able to sustain us. We also need creative solutions to simply provide the best education to each generation of students.

Creativity: Imaginative processes with outcomes that are original and of value.

Sir Ken Robinson
“Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative” (2001)

What do you want to create today?

I’ve been given another chance to continue my musings about creativity. I’m very honored that Dell and Advanced Learning Partnerships have asked me to share my ideas and some of the work we’ve done in districts across the nation around promoting instruction and assessments that encourage creative thinking. Dell is calling these events, appropriately enough, “What do you want to create today?”

We’ll talk a bit about creativity and why it’s important, but the main plan is to co-create ideas of how creative thinking can be promoted in all classrooms—not just a few. We’ll explore performance tasks—something I’ve been immersed in for years (like this one a creative teacher from Lake Travis ISD just Tweeted out), but we’ll also explore how preparing kids to perform (in math, or English, or whatever) has deep implications for all curricula.

At these events I’m looking forward to hearing from district leaders from across the country who are promoting creative thinking in their own schools, and we’ll share ideas on how we can help every student in every classroom experience learning that helps them develop critical and creative thinking and perform what they’ve learned. I look forward to hearing your ideas whether you can attend one of these events or not.