A Design-Thinking Approach to Public School for Henry Ford Learning Institute

Reframing the school year to make room for teaching innovation and creativity alongside traditional academics in grades 6 to 12

The push to teach 21st-century skills in America’s schools has sparked vigorous debate among educators. While stakeholders tend to accept the idea of incorporating innovation and creativity into everyday curricula, they remain skeptical of its practical implementation in classrooms: No one is certain how best to apply change. Perhaps that’s because new approaches like design thinking can be applied in myriad ways. Universities, from Rotman to Stanford, have provided some successful early models — and now primary and secondary schools are beginning to explore how design thinking can become part of their curriculum.

The nonprofit Henry Ford Learning Institute is one example. HFLI is developing a network of public schools that teach students real-world skills alongside the three Rs, preparing them for college and professional life while connecting them with their communities. To lay the groundwork for getting 6th through 12th-graders to think like designers, HFLI partnered with IDEO. The goal was to establish a framework for developing curricula that meets traditional academic standards and also makes room for lessons in the valuable skills of the design thinker, such as creativity, adaptability, empathy, and synthesis.

The collaborative effort began by asking: How could a public-school education foster innovation explicitly? How much should it adhere to the existing paradigm (or move away from it)? How could the system empower students?

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Project date: 2009