Design Thinking: Tools to help make thinking visible

A range of tools from Nesta that can help creatives and learners to make complex processes simple

The British science, technology and arts research organisation Nesta, along with European social innovation experts, have pulled together their top 30 tools for social innovation. Many of them have immediate uses for helping plan and structure design thinking activities in the classroom. We explain some of those that have the most immediate value for learning.

The Why

Design thinking is not rocket science, but when a school is trying to bring a concerted approach to thinking differently, it helps for people to have a common set of tools and language on which to pull or things can appear complicated quite quickly. The DIY toolkit provided by Nesta's programme provides a good overview of some of the top social innovation tools that help those making a difference through innovation. We've tried to pull out those tools which have some immediate uses for those educators teaching across ages, stages and subjects, and not just limited to the traditional craft, design and technology subjects that normally harness design thinking. We reckon that these tools provide just as much scope for literature, science, mathematics or social science. We've also tried to suggest to which parts of the design thinking process they might lend themselves most clearly.

The Experiment

Teachers around the world have taken the tools and some of the ideas we've suggested here to help students' thinking become better articulated, to become deeper through feedback and challenge from peers. Kathleen McLean, a South Brisbane primary school teacher with whom NoTosh has been working for a couple of years, has also seen how, once introduced to the tools themselves, students are beginning to choose which ones they think will be most effective for the task in hand:

Today without any prompting, students employed these skills and I was wishing that my camera was on hand to record their questions but I was too busy being blown away. Students were presenting the information they had found about topics of interest to do with our Historical Design Thinking exploration this term. As with all presentations the students had opportunities for questions and don't get me wrong there were plenty of simple questions such as "Why did you choose to look at convicts?" "What was your favourite part?"...

However, the following questions brought the smile to my face:
"How has your level of understanding changed since learning about the Convicts?" To which the student replied "At the beginning of this I knew a few things about Convicts so my understanding is here (showed understanding using hand signals to represent SOLO Levels of Understanding) and now I am here(again using hand signals) because I know... I am not quite here(highest level) because..."

"In your opinion do you think it was right for the British government to bring Convicts to Australia?" 

Students choose what tools they think are most useful for a given task


The Tools

Initial project planning and Immersion

The Innovation Flowchart provides an overview of the whole plan ahead, without forcing its user to define the end product of the process. One of the challenges for educators who have recently become used to "backward design" or "understanding by design" approaches, is that they define in advance not only the learning intentions (good) but also the end product (less interesting for the students as it limits choice and removes potential for them to own the process). This overview could be adapted by students around the learning objectives and success criteria shared by the teacher, creating a map of the project ahead that relates to the learning intentions but which does not predicate knowing what the end product will be.

If you are planning a project for students to undertake and want collaboration or connection into the community to be a key aspect, then the Building Partnerships Map forces us to think about the minute stages of the project, and where collaboration might hold potential on each step of the journey.

The Experience Tour is useful for when a school visit forms part of the students' immersion in a given area. Students can sometimes find it difficult to extract the most important information and concepts from an excursion, especially when the trip is the hook at the beginning of a topic immersion. This planning tool helps them ask the right questions, and purposefully observe what they need to once they are on site. Further quality questioning can be undertaken using the crib of the Questions Ladder.

If students are also undertaking observation or shadowing as part of their initial immersion in a topic, then the People Shadowing tool helps them gather the most out of that, both in terms of discreet questioning and their own silent observations of the person they are shadowing.


The Problem Definition tool is useful at the point of synthesis, where students are trying to work out if they have chosen a problem worth solving, while the Causes Diagram allows us to test for understanding that the student really understands the context of the problem they have chosen.

The Evidence Planning tool has a leaning towards those projects where there is a distinct product of learning that could also have a function outside school (for example, creating an edible garden or a robotic device), but could be adapted to evaluate the impact of a piece of writing, for example. It is designed to help undertake a "pre-mortem" on the impact of doing a piece of work, to work out if it is actually worth doing in the first place.

Ideation, Prototyping, Feedback Loop

The Fast Idea Generator does what it says on the tin, providing plenty of cues for taking existing ideas and playing with them until new ideas form. Improvement Triggers can then be used to refine the large number of ideas we've created.

The Thinking Hats from de Bono are a common site in classrooms. It's a relatively slow-paced but deep way of exploring the potential of ideas that we have already created in ideation.

The Learning Loop template is a great way to ensure quality feedback is sought and used to make improvements on prior learning and work. Often in schools, the ideation/prototyping/feedback loop is too short - we still tend to work on the notion of "a draft or two" of work, rather than multiple, double-digit versions of an idea. This Learning Loop could help encourage faster iterations with more feedback.

Incredibly useful for speeding up the rate of iterative working is the Creative Workshops template, which provides limited space, and limited time, to prototype ideas to problems we've already identified. Starting with five minutes only for the first prototype, and gradually offering more time to refine the idea on the back of feedback, this workshop sheet helps prototyping move from a draft or two to several in short order.

Finally, the Prototype Testing Plan helps us make sure that the ideas we've built will have the impact we wanted.