The Power of Empathy in Design Thinking for Education

I recently completed a Design Thinking course to better understand how to increase innovation and creativity in the workplace. While the course was primarily geared toward design thinking applications in business, one universal message stood out: empathy is key. It’s the piece that makes design thinking different from other problem solving models, and I think this idea has enormous potential in the field of education.

The idea that problem solving starts with empathy has far-reaching applications in education that go beyond design challenges. Teaching students that understanding others is imperative to approaching any problem is a powerful message. While there is a specific process that design thinking follows, perhaps its greatest impact on students is not in learning the methodology itself, but rather establishing a mindset that promotes an understanding of others.

Empathy leads to tolerance, and may even decrease the amount of bullying behavior in schools. When we put ourselves in another person’s shoes, we are often more sensitive to what that person is experiencing and are less likely to tease or bully them. So while design thinking is a very useful framework for getting students to systematically approach a design challenge, and get their minds ready to think through a problem and ideate until they have a viable solution, its reach can go beyond the classroom. By explicitly teaching students to be more conscious of other people’s experiences and feelings, we can create a more accepting and respectful school community.

So where to start? I don’t believe that design thinking needs to be another “thing” that busy teachers try to squeeze into an already packed curriculum. Rather, I think it’s a mindset that can be woven throughout an educator’s teaching approach. What’s even better, when students see the daily real-life application of design thinking, they are more likely to adopt it as natural mindset they can apply outside of the classroom. Recently I read about a teacher that used design thinking as a framework to help her students redesign their classroom learning environment. She began with Step 1: Empathy. Her students identified and shared ways in which they learn best. Each student was asked to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling when, for example, the classroom is too loud or when there isn’t space for collaborating. After following through the remaining steps in the framework, the students had come up with a redesigned learning space that challenged traditional ideas of what a classroom should look like. Design thinking, with the influence of empathy, allowed students to understand how others learn best and design a learning environment that fits all of their needs.

Teaching students to have empathy not only makes them better innovators, it makes them better people. And that’s a powerful message.