Design thinking across the curriculum

By Tahlea Taylor - Learning Design Officer, Digital Learning, Learning Design and Development.

Overview of the Design thinking across the curriculum resource

Resource: Website - Design thinking across the curriculum by NSW Department of Education (2019).

The Design thinking landing page, with sketches of puzzles, light bulbs, test tubes, pencils and scientific reports. Hotspots read Introduction, Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test and Teacher notes.
Image: The Design thinking across the curriculum website

Design thinking across the curriculum introduces Stage 2, Stage 3 and Stage 4 students to the design thinking process through a practical, hands-on application. Published in late 2019, it is an online, interactive resource which explores the five main stages of this creative problem-solving methodology. These stages include empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test. It was created to complement the Game Changer Challenge, a department initiative which recognises that the great challenges of the future will be solved by today's students and poses its own authentic challenge to students. A valuable feature of this resource is that it has been cleverly created so that it can be applied to solve any design thinking challenge across the curriculum.

Students are supported in devising creative solutions to the proposed problem as they navigate through this student-centred resource and take on the role of a designer. A series of animated videos and a range of interactive activities provide scaffolded opportunities for students to develop their skills and knowledge, as well as check their understanding at each stage of the design thinking process. The resource also includes a digital design folio which students can readily download, edit and personalise. This assists students with capturing the design thinking process, collecting inspiration and ideas, and reflecting on their own learning and growth.

An introductory overview and extensive teaching notes further support this resource, making it a valuable teaching tool in primary and high school classrooms.

Value of this cross-curriculum resource

The cross-curriculum nature of 'Design thinking across the curriculum' reflects design thinking as a process which can be applied across multiple learning areas and capabilities. Clear learning and teaching connections can be made to English, science and technology, and technology mandatory syllabus documents. The resource can also be integrated into other learning areas or topics being studied in class and/or a particular context. Suggestions for differentiation and scalability are included in the teacher notes section of the resource.

The resource provides students with rich authentic opportunities to develop and apply their knowledge and skills to solve a real-world problem. Through translating their learning from the classroom into a real-life context, students concurrently develop general capabilities such as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, communication and problem-solving.

Using the resource

There are various ways that this resource could be introduced to students. For instance, teachers can challenge students to:

  • explore what the design thinking process is all about. The introduction module of Design thinking across the curriculum provides an overview of the design thinking process, engages students in the early stages of a design thinking challenge, and provides important information about accessing and using the design folio. Whilst this resource is written for students to access and navigate, teachers are encouraged to work through the first module with their students to clarify information and set expectations.
  • research a product which has been created as a result of using the design thinking process. Identify key information about the product, including what the product is, when and where it was made, and what problem/s it has been designed to solve. Two examples include the creation of 3D-printed prosthetics and the construction of a pirate island adventure setting in a children's hospital.
  • watch the Game Changer Challenge pitch sessions. These sessions showcase the creative solutions devised by primary and high school students as part of a three-day design thinking program. They worked alongside leading industry professionals to learn how best to use education tools and technology to address the challenge question.

Learning and teaching elements

'Design thinking across the curriculum' is a complete resource package. All relevant information, teaching activities, animations, design folio, teaching notes and tools are directly embedded into the resource or available through links.

The teaching activities are separated into the different stages of the design thinking process. Each of the stages follow a similar structure so that students quickly become familiar and can readily navigate the resource:

  • Watch - a short animated video explaining the stage in the design thinking process
  • Explore - an interactive close passage and clear learning intentions
  • Experience - information about the stage of the process
  • Give it a go - opportunities for students to apply their understanding
  • Check your understanding - opportunities for students to apply their understanding to their own design thinking problem and ensure they have understood the concepts
  • Record and reflect - reflection of the activities, the process and the experiences
  • What's next? - a snapshot of what the next stage involves.

An overview of the focus of each stage

  • Empathise - students experience a case study of a hospital and work on developing their skills to understand others' points of view. They experiment with using the 5 whys strategy to think more deeply about a problem.
  • Define - learners are gaining clarity of the problem and turning it into a 'how might we...' question. In order to have a firm foundation for the rest of the process, students need to look for questions that have a person at the centre and a clear issue to address. For example: 'How might we ensure every new student (person) has the best first day of school (issue) possible so that they feel connected straight away (clear outcome)?'
  • Ideate - this stage is about solving the challenge. There will be lots of ideas sharing and collaborating.
  • Prototype - the key to learning in this stage is to become tangible as it involves taking the idea, turning it into a real, working example, getting feedback, and then refining the example.
  • Test - students pitch their idea into the real world. They need to decide on what success and failure look like and can test part of an idea over and over until they have a viable working idea to present.
This page from the teacher notes link on the Design thinking across the curriculum website includes further links to a transcript relating to the define stage and the other steps that students need to take to define the problem they are focusing on. The additional links are time, resources, learning intentions and success criteria, overview of learning experiences, and scaling the project.
Image: A page from the teacher notes link, explaining the steps students need to take to define the problem they are focusing on.

Additional information about the teaching activities can be found in the teacher notes section, along with information about time, resources, learning intentions and success criteria, answers, suggestions for scaling the project, curriculum links and assessment.

Syllabus links

Stage 2 - English

A student:

  • EN2-1A communicates in a range of informal and formal contexts by adopting a range of roles in group, classroom, school and community contexts.
  • EN2-7B identifies and uses language forms and features in their own writing appropriate to a range of purposes, audiences and contexts.
  • EN2-10C thinks imaginatively, creatively and interpretively about information, ideas and texts when responding to and composing texts.
  • EN2-11D responds to and composes a range of texts that express viewpoints of the world similar to and different from their own.
  • EN2-12E recognises and uses an increasing range of strategies to reflect on their own and others' learning.

Stage 2 - science and technology

A student:

  • ST2-2DP-T selects and uses materials, tools and equipment to develop solutions for a need or opportunity.

Stage 3 - English

A student:

  • EN3-1A communicates effectively for a variety of audiences and purposes using increasingly challenging topics, ideas, issues and language forms and features.
  • EN3-7C thinks imaginatively, creatively, interpretively and critically about information and ideas and identifies connections between texts when responding to and composing texts.
  • EN3-8D identifies and considers how different viewpoints of their world, including aspects of culture, are represented in texts.
  • EN3-9E recognises, reflects on and assesses their strengths as a learner.

Stage 3 - science and technology

A student:

  • ST3-2DP-T plans and uses materials, tools and equipment to develop solutions for a need or opportunity.

Stage 4 - English

A student:

  • EN4-2A effectively uses a widening range of processes, skills, strategies and knowledge for responding to and composing texts in different media and technologies.
  • EN4-5C thinks imaginatively, creatively, interpretively and critically about information, ideas and arguments to respond to and compose texts.
  • EN4-9E uses, reflects on and assesses their individual and collaborative skills for learning.

Stage 4 - technology mandatory

A student:

  • TE4-1DP designs, communicates and evaluates innovative ideas and creative solutions to authentic problems or opportunities.
  • TE4-2DP plans and manages the production of designed solutions.

General capabilities

  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Personal and social
  • Ethical understanding
  • Information and communication technology

Links to the Australian Curriculum and information about assessment can be found in the Teacher notes section of the resource.

Actively engaging

This resource has been purposely designed to support students to actively engage with the design thinking process and apply their knowledge and skills to solve a real-world problem. It supports the translation of learning in the classroom into a real-life context.

During each stage of the design thinking process, there are practical suggestions of how the learning experiences can be differentiated at three scales:

  • Class - apply the design thinking skills to the class group. Students may choose to follow the 'best first day' question to keep the focus on the process and allow students to self-drive the learning.
  • School - skills are encouraged to be applied across the school, with students testing ideas with other students and teachers. Students are asked a school-based question and are provided with opportunities to present their projects to different audiences.
  • Community - this involves a deep dive. Students may complete an in-depth investigation and come up with their own problems. A unit of Project Based Learning (PBL) work may even be created to allow students to test and trial their skills.

Information and suggestions about how each stage of the design thinking process can be scaled for class, school and community are included in the teacher notes section of the resource.

Opportunities exist for design thinking projects which extend across classes, as well as across schools. Two schools in Port Macquarie, Tacking Point Public School and Hastings Secondary College Westport Campus, have recently teamed up to run a design thinking project involving Stage 3 and Stage 4 students. The students have identified a tourism issue in their local area and are working collaboratively using the design thinking process to address the problem: 'How can we make the coastal walk more engaging for visitors using AR technology?'

Engaging with this resource may also be the ideal springboard for encouraging students to participate in the Game Changer Challenge. The Game Changer Challenge provides opportunities for students to apply their knowledge of the design thinking process, engage with industry professionals, experiment with a range of innovative tools and technology, and collaborate with peers from other schools to solve complex problems which will make a difference to our future.


How to cite this article - Taylor, T. (2020). Design thinking across the curriculum. Scan, 39(2).

Return to top of page Back to top