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‘Design Thinking’…and Why We Should Have a Course on Learning to Work in Groups

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Learning 2030Summit focuses on the future of high school education, a future that will be influenced by the wider landscape of education issues; from informal to formal education, primary to post-secondary.

In this Learning 2030 Blog entry explore how a Canadian student views the importance of design thinking and effective collaboration.

Image © neurmadic aesthetic

by Bryson McLachlan, Learning 2030 Blog Contributor

From the start of our educational pathways we are presented with projects and problems that require us to form groups.

Collaboration is a common theme that runs throughout elementary school, high school and into university. Eventually, it spills out of academia and manifests in other ways in the professional world. It is, simply, the process of working together to solve a problem. 

The goals and tasks that groups must solve vary, but what remains the same is a manifestation of the old adage “two heads [or more] are better than one.”

‘Working Well In Groups 101’

Everyone has their own opinion about group work, an opinion usually based on personality types and previous experiences. The fact of the matter is that group work can be a very successful practice for solving problems and completing projects. 

Why, then, isn't there a point during formal education – high school, university, etc. – where we are taught how to work in a group setting? 

Time and again people are told to work together, but how many of us have actually been schooled on the nuances of how to work collaboratively?

It wasn’t until I began the Knowledge Integration program at the University of Waterloo that I received any kind of formal education in how to work collaboratively. One method to improve collaborative work and solve complex problems that I have been introduced to is design thinking. Design thinking is not difficult to learn, and it is a process that I strongly believe should be implemented into high school – and even elementary school – curriculums. 

Image © Gavin Topp


What is ‘design thinking’?

Design thinking doesn't have a single, concrete definition. Its essence though it is a method of problem solving that, depending how you choose break it down, consists of four to seven steps.

In the version I use, the steps are as follows: 

1) define the problem you need to solve
2) create and consider different problem solving options
3) refine the options and create prototypes, and 
4) apply the best possible solution. 
Also referred to as ‘human-centered design’, design thinking is best applied to problems that directly involve people. 
Design thinking aims to be a unified, holistic approach to solving problems, and is almost always applied through group work.

Why should we use design thinking?

Along with the four steps outlined above, design thinking has core principles that dictate how groups should function. 

These principles involve: ensuring everyone’s voice is heard, leading with empathy, and being intentional when working collaboratively. 

The process works best when everyone involved can put forward their ideas without worrying if they will be received negatively. There are no good or bad ideas; only different ideas that may or may not better suit the problem at hand. 

A course (or at least a unit) on working in groups?

Design thinking should be taught to students at a relatively young age, perhaps middle school or the beginning of high school: Starting young allows students time to hone and develop their proficiency with design thinking itself, and also with collaboration best practices. 

It would allow them to graduate high school and be comfortable with applying their skills to whatever problems arise in their academic and professional lives. 

Design thinking provides:

a) an effective and flexible method for solving problems both in and out of school 
b) a set of principals to guide effective group work. 

The landscape of our world today is rife with large-scale, complex problems that span many different disciplines. 

Climate change is an excellent example as it is a social, political, and economic problem for which we have yet to find meaningful solutions. 

For these types of problems to be solved, students must be equipped with the necessary tools, to be able to work with people that represent vast and diverse interest groups. 


There is no one strategy that can applied to solving every problem; it is important to research and analyze a problem before applying a specific problem solving technique. 

However, many of the problems we face today require group work. If people don’t know how to properly work together, the process of solving these problems is hindered. 

Teaching students design thinking at a young age will produce individuals who know how to collaborate, to extract the best ideas from every participant.

Design thinking and collaboration are means to an end. If used appropriately, they can be powerful tools for producing much-needed solutions to solve wicked, large-scale problems.

Bryson McLachlan is a 4th year University of Waterloo Knowledge Integration student who has worked at Treehaus Collaborative Workspace using collaboration, innovation, and creativity to build and foster a coworking community.