Recently I had the opportunity to present at ETC 2019 in Bangkok with my colleague in MYP Design, Nik Madalinski. Our workshop, called Cre8 Design, was a weird one. We gave participants the chance to pick from 8 micro-presentations around current trends and topics in design technology over the course of 80 minutes (If time ran out, we stopped).  Influenced by the play Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, we tried to make Cre8 Design as interactive and as fun as possible while also making it worth attending. The feedback we got from participants was really positive and I learned so much from doing it.

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Our Cre8 Design Workshop, #ETC2019

One recurrent theme that I noticed during the conference was that while most of the educators in attendance shared a passion for creativity and design, many were equally as quick to mention that their schools were “just not there yet.” Many yearned not just for the facilities that my students have the opportunity to design in, but for administrative and collegial support for creativity and design thinking in their schools. Having thought a lot about this discrepancy in the days that have followed, I’m here to present, in blog form, three of the biggest ways schools can cultivate creativity and design thinking in their students and faculty. Enjoy!

1) Schools should value process over product

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One topic that kept coming up during the EARCOS conference, and also something that is frequently vocalized by those on EduTwitter, is that schools are too often what we can call product-oriented. That is, there is a tendency to skip the process of knowledge acquisition and skill-building; the hard and messy retrieval, rehearsal, and feedback that is required for learning; in a quest to fill trophy cases with pretty products. Sadly, most schools, for reasons that I will outline next, prefer a squeaky-clean theater production, for example, to one that is written, produced, and directed by students. We’ve all been to science fairs or student exhibitions where more work went into trying to crank out a board than into the learning of the content. If a project looks cool on Twitter, the kids must have learned, regardless of how they got there, right?

I think there are several reasons that schools are so often weak on taking a more process-oriented approach. Part of it is that teachers are frequently judged on such superficialities as the work displayed in their hallways rather than on their pedagogy or content knowledge. Why principals do not go into classrooms and make evaluative decisions based on evidence-based approaches to teaching (see Coe, Aloisi, Higgins, & Major, 2014 ) is beyond me, because the trade-off is that what becomes associated with the quality of one’s teaching is one’s ability to churn out brochure or Twitter-ready final products.

Another reason I think schools tend to be product-oriented, that is, bypassing the hard part of creation, is that people wrongly think our role as educators is to ensure that school is always fun. In the context of creative subjects like design tech or STEM class, this often means forgoing the stages of Empathizing, Defining, and Ideating, skipping straight to “the fun part”, aka, a Pinterest popsicle stick challenge, and forgetting to dedicate enough time to Evaluating and Testing. I don’t subscribe to the line of thinking that in order for a learning experience to be good it has to be fun. Schools are first a place for learning things, and by learning powerful, valuable things we are empowered with the tools to live a fun and fulfilling life. I also operate under the assumption, informed by an evolutionary viewpoint of educational psychology (Geary, 2002; Willingham, 2009), that we are motivationally biased against choosing to do things that are hard, such as, well, thinking. I would much rather work at a school where we teach students that learning is the product of time and effort, which sometimes means that we don’t have enough prior knowledge to blindly dive into the next macaroni project, than at one that operates under the folk wisdom of, Let’s make sure they always have a craft or design challenge to complete, that’ll get em moving!

2) Schools should embed design thinking into their decision-making

Me and Nik (Back in Black) leading Cre8 Design at #ETC2019

Some of our readers may know that I am specializing in instructional design, a field concerned with the systematic design of learning solutions for educational settings. Others still may know that I have moved to a new school in China, which uses a design thinking model to generate school-wide initiatives, aka “prototypes.” Part of what I tried to advocate during our Cre8 Design workshop is that design thinking is not just limited to making stuff in design class, but that it extends to teachers designing solutions for their schools. I think that if we are actually serious in education about enabling a culture of creativity and design thinking, we have to enable teachers to innovate within their own schools.

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The start of a prototype at my school

Take the recent prototype that I was involved in designing, “How might we redesign our literacy program for grades K-2? Because my school values the principles of instructional design, it was easy to agree on the need to engage in a design thinking process around how to redesign a section of our literacy program. What was fantastic was that although I teach design, a subject not entirely related to reading instruction, I was brought in to help guide administrators, teachers, and coaches through stages of the design cycle. As soon as the Lit Design team was fully formed, we began by developing empathy for the users and understanding the learning context (linguistically diverse students, teachers, and parents in an international school in China) until we were able to craft a problem-solving statement that defined the design opportunity:

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The Lit Design guiding If… Then… statement

After ideating, planning, and revising around our time and resource constraints, the Lit Design team was able to arrive at a solution to put forward in our elementary section for a redesign of literacy in grades K-2. This prototype is currently in the implementation phase and it looks like there is no stopping it from making a huge impact on our readers and writers. Schools should embed design thinking into their decision-making, not just because it empowers teachers, but because when done well it leads to effective learning solutions.

3) Integrate! Schools should seek to develop students’ knowledge across and beyond the disciplines.

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Creativity is enabled by our knowledge. We rely not just on the inflexible facts that we commit to memory to create and design (although these are important, too! [Willingham, 2002]), but also on our knowledge about how to do things (procedural) and the organized networks of information about the world that we develop (schemata) across the various domains. Without knowledge to think creatively with, such as what something is, how things work, how to do things, how things change and a whole host of other interconnected propositional and procedural knowledge units, students will not be creative; You cannot divorce knowledge from the creative process. Actually, there has been a whole lot developed in the research literature over the past 20 years about why knowledge should be considered a singularly important outcome in schools (i.e., Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006; Willingham, 2009; Coe, Aloisi, Higgins, & Major, 2014; Hirsch, 2000), yet most of these arguments are mistakenly not seen as relevant to creative subjects like art and design technology.

As an elementary specialist teacher, students come to my design classroom twice every eight-day cycle for 65 minutes at a time. They also go to P.E, Mandarin, performing arts, swimming, and library. If I decided to sit in my silo, which is indeed more convenient to me, my students would leave their homeroom classroom having learned about plants and come to my classroom where they would learn about design thinking. But design thinking about what? 

Wouldn’t all of the knowledge that students acquire in all of their subjects be so much more flexible and have exponentially more storage strength if what they were learning in those environments was supposed to be retrieved and used in my classroom? I actually see integration as more of a multi-directional collaborative interaction; Knowledge acquired in design would be so much more durable if it were then used for thinking in homeroom, and, at the highest levels of integration, good schools would figure out what kids were meant to be learning in all of their classes and systematically strive to promote transfer across multiple disciplines and contexts. 

Teachers of all different subjects ideating for content connections at Cre8 Design workshop.

At our workshop, Cre8 Design in Bangkok, I advocated that schools, especially in elementary, start having conversations around how knowledge can best be developed across and beyond the disciplines. Are some forms of integration rather tenuous or inauthentic? Of course, don’t do those. Is sometimes instruction easier to integrate into certain subjects but not into others? Indeed. As one administrator at my school said, creating an inter- or transdisciplinary unit in which the stars align to unite all of the disciplines across the school in authentic and viable ways is a bit like pulling off a minor miracle. However, when you assemble a room full of pedagogical-content experts from a variety of disciplines and task them with seeking connections to extend and deepen students’ knowledge, you can get some pretty amazing results, especially for a subject like design.

Thank you for reading this blog post. My name is Zach Groshell and you can follow me on Twitter @mrzachg. Feel free to comment on how your school manages to fulfill any one of these noble goals and… keep coming back!


Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching? The Center for Evaluation and Monitoring, (October), 2–57. Retrieved from

Geary, D. C. (2002). Principles of evolutionary educational psychology. Learning and Individual Differences, 12(4), 317–345.

Hirsch, E. D. (2000). ‘You can always look it up’ … or can you? American Educator.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75–86.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why Students Don’t Like School. American Educator, Spring 200, 4–13. Retrieved from

Willingham, B. D. T. (2002). Ask the Cognitive Scientist Inflexible Knowledge : The First Step to Expertise. American Educator, 1–13.

8 thoughts on “3 Big Ways Schools Can Enable A Culture of Creativity and Design Thinking

  1. I think there is a caution behind the change of giving children more freedom in their learning process. with the mandated testing that schools use to prove the effectivness of schools, teachers and student, there is a concern that they will not learn enough of the “necessary” items through exploration and developmental learning processes


    1. Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure that I implied that we should give more freedom to students by prescribing an exploratory approach to instruction. I also don’t know what you mean by learning enough through “developmental learning processes.” Take a look at my references and you’ll see a pattern of fully guided instruction, active teaching, and novices learning from experts.


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