The coronavirus has made our old recipes for education to reach their expiration date. We are all now working on creating and using new methods of teaching and learning suitable to the closed schools and physical isolation. We are testing various ways of communicating with students, different educational and communication platforms, checking how they work and, using trial and error, learning how to use them effectively. At the same time, usually quite soon, we discover what works and what doesn’t, which texts, videos or recordings have reached the students and which tasks they were able to complete reasonably. 

It is simple to determine. If half the class dies not send back the required writing assignment or is not able to solve a problem, that means that something didn’t work, and we need to change the way we work. Sometimes, it is enough to move the deadline, other times we need to change the mode of communication (e.g. from a mailing list to Messenger), divide one task into two or add a tip for the solution. It is always a good idea to check what gives the students the most trouble, show your understanding and adapt it to better suit the children’s needs and abilities. In other words, treat your first proposal as a „prototype” which needs to be improved.

This difficult time is in fact one giant exercise in design thinking, a method of work we have been promoting in our School with Class 2.0 program for a few years now. We think and act in accordance with this method, though this is often done unconsciously and without structure. 

All of us, like Mr. Jourdain in Moliere’s comedy Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, are speaking in prose, though we do not always realize it. What if we reviewed the rules of DT and used them in a more conscious and systematic way? 


Wikipedia states that design thinking refers to the cognitive, strategic and practical processes by which design concepts (proposals for new products, buildings, machines, etc.) are developed by designers and/or project teams. The goal of this method is to solve problems, creating new, innovative products, services or processes by identifying the actual needs of a single user. It was born in the 60’s in the United States and is so universal that it is being used by startups and giant international corporations alike. A couple of years back, very few people in Poland were familiar with it. The interest in DT continually grows, and in the last couple of years we have encouraged „schools with class” to use it in their cooperation with students and parents. 

In the time of the epidemic, almost every school, every principal and every teacher is becoming just such „designer” of innovative educational services and products. How then should we use the rules of DT to ensure that they are truly innovative- in our classrooms, schools or maybe even more broadly, in Polish education? We are not talking about innovation on a Mark Zuckerberg or CD Project scale, but rather about the small, everyday innovations which make up the life of every good teacher and school principal. 

Let us review, then, what the DT process looks like in the work of the school and teacher. The process is divided into stages which form an intuitive, but developed, method of dealing with a particular challenge. Within the DT process we have: empathizing, diagnosing needs, generating ideas, prototyping and testing. The boundaries between the stages are not strictly defined, some of them appear more than once within the process. When using this method, we need to set aside some time and- which is even more difficult- stop ourselves from implementing pre-planned solutions. Developing a new solution requires repeated testing and modifying, and the effectiveness of any potential „ready-made” solutions always needs to be analyzed. Communication with the final recipient of the solution is crucial. 

Here you have two illustrative materials which show how this relates to planning our work in schools. To see what DT is in a nutshell, take a look at the Alpha- a useful tool posters which will guide you through this method. The second useful material is a „step-by step” DT webinar for teachers- Design Thinking in Education- How to go about it?

  • The first stage of DT is empathizing („trying to feel what someone else feels”). It is the moment in which we try to „stand in the shoes” of a standard representative of the target group. Our goal is to understand their needs as well as we can. Both those needs directly connected to the subject of our work, but also those which are not- sometimes the answer to a question seemingly unrelated to the main topic can turn out to be valuable. All this will help us better identify the recipient’s expectations towards our work. 
  • Diagnosing needs is, by definition, the crucial moment of working with this method- hearing out the voices of the interested parties themselves will allow us to supplement the knowledge we already possess. Firsthand information can surprise us, go entirely against our expectations, but thanks to them, our work has a higher chance of success. 
  • With the information and conclusions from the first two stages, we move on to generating ideas. It is the first moment in the process in which we allow ourselves to propose specific solutions, based on the information we gathered. Our brainstorming should not be limited by anything. We will verify our ideas in the next stages. 
  • Prototyping is the first test of the ideas we generated- at this stage, we will see which of them are possible to implement, and which we need to give up. It is also the moment to modify and improve our ideas. 
  • We seamlessly move on the testing stage, during which our proposed solution is handed over to the recipient, we check to what extent it meets their expectations and prepare recommendations for the future. 

The following chart illustrates this quite well. At the School with Class Foundation, we call it the DT Circle. When read clockwise, it shows how to go about the process. These steps fit any educational situation- coming up with new ideas for working remotely during our lessons, a new educational project, or even changing the distance learning model of the entire school!  


Attention! Under normal circumstances, it is always a good idea to begin the DT process from creating a comprehensive and diverse team made up of people with different skills. During the pandemic, this might be quite difficult- some teachers are not available- because everything is happening online and not everyone deals well with new technologies, and because everyone has a sense that they are working more than usual. So we are assuming two potential variants: as a team- when we manage to gather one or two other people from our school (you can work effectively even in teams of more than a dozen) and (less preferably) individually- when the teacher uses DT rules in their own work, at most consulting other people and sharing what they developed with them. 

When it comes to developing an innovative formula for our own classes, the second solution is easier, but in a situation in which we want to look at the remote learning model or the way we communicate with parents on a school-wide level, teamwork and cooperation with at least a few people becomes necessary. This is not just due to our „schoolwithclass-ish obsession” with cooperation, but a quite pragmatic necessity to gather together various skills, points of view and experiences. All, so that the solution we develop is as good as possible. 


Below, you can find a useful tool for working with this method, which can be used both in team design thinking, but also in an individual process of designing what and how you will do with students- in the next lesson, in the next week, or in the next unit which we are planning on covering with them. In this difficult time, teachers have to constantly redesign their existing lesson plans, materials and ideas for working with a class, so as to make them viable in distance learning. 

All DT experts agree that the starting point for any and all design thinking is a good diagnosis of the „clients” needs, or in the case of schools- primarily the students’ needs. If we want to use DT to think about how we communicate with parents and caregivers or, to use a specific example, about an online parent-teacher conference, for instance- then it is the parents who are our „clients”. This stage is often called „empathizing” because its goal is to discover, understand and name the essential characteristics and needs of the group to which we wish to offer something. The point is to avoid falling into the trap of our own stereotypes and ideas of what will be good for them and what they need, but rather to try and find out from them what those things really are. There are many ways to do this and most of them work also with online communication. 

In the DT vernacular we say that we are creating the „persona” of the recipient, for instance a student in our class, and try to find out how they use what we are already offering them- we, that is ourselves and other teachers. How to do this? The best way is to ask appropriate questions as well as observe and draw conclusions based on how the „persona” has behaved until now. An example of a helpful tool, which allows us to go beyond our own expectations and ideas, is Gingerbread man- a useful tool. 


What if we thought about students as if they were creatures with a mysterious psyche, needs and abilities, and ask, first ourselves and then them, questions which will help us design a week of learning, a specific lesson or project? In reality, children and teenagers really are a bit mysterious, and we do not always know what they think, feel and why some things come to them easily and others definitely do not… 

Such an exercise focused on imagining what our pupils are now going through with regard to learning, can be conducted individually or with a team, or even just in a pair with another teacher who also teaches a given class. In every case, it is best to start with a question to the students: what lesson format works best for you? How do you use my online lectures? What bothers you during Zoom lessons? What makes working on a project easier for you? What makes it more difficult? Would you rather read a text or watch a video? What would you like to talk about during general class business hour? 

It might turn out that students prefer doing math problems during online classes rather than getting them every day and having to face them alone, after class. Or that the original idea of replicating lesson plans from before the epidemic might be better exchanged for longer subject or even interdisciplinary units. Or that students are not able to withstand three quarters of an hour during an online lesson and we need to replace them with shorter, half-hour for instance, lessons instead. There are many options and what we choose should also depend on the students’ needs and situations. That is why, after two or three weeks, some teachers changed their lesson format from a high number of classes to less frequent or shorter ones, while at the same time offering students individual communication or additional consultations for a group of students who need it. 

Instead of using the Gingerbread man, you can just create a shared, virtual board (like a dashboard or padlet) or even create a cloud document shared with the students (or maybe also other teachers). And think about how a student is now feeling, what they need from their teacher and other adults, and what, in that case, we should offer them. Naturally, we will not be able to meet the needs and expectations of students, but some of them are assuredly shared by the entire class, or most of the students, and can be a good tip for planning the next lesson or week of learning. 


It is, of course, a good idea to also create „personas” of other people in our school– this is particularly important for the principal who can (and should) check what the experiences and needs of teachers are in connection with distance learning and how they might modify the rules introduced in mid-March (2020). It might be important information, and collecting it using DT methods will make collective thinking and designing change easier for everyone. 

Here, we must state something very important- modifying the current model of distance learning in our school should not be treated as admitting to a mistake or a failure, but rather as a natural and absolutely necessary process of improving a prototype. We will talk more about generating ideas, prototyping and modifying the first solution in the next episode of our Let’s talk about the coronavirus series. 


Written by Alicja Pacewicz and Marta Puciłowska