Design Thinking Has a Pedagogy Problem… And a Way Forward

By Julie Schell, EdD

Design thinking has grown in popularity and with it, accelerated design thinking learning environments such as bootcamps that rarely lead to widespread adoption after the workshop ends. Design thinking requires practice and continual learning to master, so how can we teach it effectively? By tailoring design thinking education to new learners and infusing learning science, we can use sound pedagogy to set the stage for longer-term, more effective use of the method.


The “kairos” for cultivating a design thinking pedagogy is upon us. From Greek, “kairos” refers to the fullness of time, the right moment for the performance of an action or the coming into being of a new state: a time when the conditions are ripe for the fulfillment of a crucial task. As the popularity of design thinking has peaked, so has tension facing design thinking educators. On one side pulls an unprecedented demand for design thinking training from humans and organizations that need to learn how to be more human-centered in an accelerated, accessible, and convenient fashion. On the other side tugs the reality that effective teaching and learning of design thinking demands deceleration. In this article, I delve into the resulting conflict between demands for accelerated and decelerated design thinking education and draw on the science of learning to offer a way forward.1 

Design Thinking’s Pedagogy Problem 

Design thinking has hit peak popularity; there is no time in history when it has been more talked about, desired or needed. Advocates have diffused design thinking throughout wildly diverse environments, from Fortune 500 companies to middle school classrooms in inner cities to rural villages and grocery stores. While some designers view the uptake of design thinking as dirtying their discipline, for most of us, the democratization of design in today’s society is a dream come true. Among design educators, a sense of generativity, or “concern for establishing and guiding the next generation” (Erikson, 1950, p. 267), drives the impulse to continue to expand principles of human-centered design to designers and non-designers alike. And we relish the opportunity to strip the elitism from design and empower human beings from all backgrounds to solve the problems they face in their lives. 

Chart showing rise in Internet searches for "Design Thinking." Illustration by Misa Yamamoto.

The rise of design thinking outside the formal design classroom has also led to its wicked pedagogy problem. Design thinking educators realize that one cannot effectively teach a novice to use human-centered design to solve vexing work or social problems using an accelerated pedagogical model. Teaching and learning design thinking in a way that results in impact requires slowing down the learning, taking time to unfold the layers of what it means to be human-centered and to pay attention to the innate dignity of human beings. Educators also understand that learning design thinking demands spending focused energy practicing and receiving feedback from experts. However, the vast majority of humans endeavoring to learn design thinking need it fast and on demand. As such, 90-minute workshops, online training, boot camps and other accelerated models are skyrocketing in popularity. There is something important for design educators to pay attention to here. Accelerated design thinking models have profoundly human-centered value propositions (although most are also high cost): convenience, accessibility and, most crucially, timesaving. Moreover, elite universities and prominent businesses are leading the delivery of rapid design thinking training, and their strong brand recognition adds to the value proposition mix. 

Accelerated design thinking products are so appealing that people enroll and enroll their employees despite the reality that single-shot professional development workshops have limited long-term impact (see Yoon et al., 2007). For example, research on the structure of upskilling of teachers demonstrates that professional learning that results in classroom impact and transformation must be substantial, span over 40 hours, focus on content knowledge and be aligned with empirically validated theories on how people learn and change (Yoon et al., 2007). In other words, upskilling doesn’t happen in a one-shot deal. Just as we do in our design practice, design educators need to find a way to meet human beings’ needs around the teaching and learning of design thinking that addresses the tension between the demands for accelerated and decelerated pedagogical models. 

Design Thinking Pedagogy: A Problem Statement 

Why do we need to resolve this pedagogy problem? The consequence of the current accelerated approach is that we have a critical mass of people who are eager to embrace design thinking, but who are often unable to translate that eagerness into human-centered approaches that make a difference in their lives and work. What happens next is that novice learners and critics of design thinking often mistakenly attribute the inability to use design thinking to the method itself (or, more disconcertingly, to the lack of “design talent” in the user), rather than a more likely root problem: ineffective design thinking instruction and learning. Such attribution leads the baby (design thinking) to be thrown out with the bathwater (ineffective learning or pedagogy). 

Humans have a genuine need to learn design thinking in convenient, accessible and timesaving ways through an accelerated pedagogical model; unfortunately, as aforementioned, the most effective pedagogical model for learning any complex content is one that decelerates the learning of design thinking. If educators continue to ignore the tension between the demands for accelerated and decelerated learning, people will continue to abandon design thinking as quickly as they try it, leading to widespread awareness of design thinking—along with misuse, misconceptions and misattributions that limit its power and impact. How might we resolve this tension?

A Way Forward 

No one will fault a design educator for deciding not to engage in the rapid teaching of design thinking and instead focusing her time and energy on her residential design students. However, the need to find a way to serve the millions of human beings outside of academia who want to upskill quickly and conveniently remains. For those who wonder how design educators might seize the “kairos” for design thinking pedagogy, the science of learning offers a path forward.

Idea: Cultivate Self-Regulated Learners of Design Thinking 

Successful learners can “orchestrate” their learning, an ability referred to by learning scientists as self-regulation (NRC, 2000). Self-regulated learners exercise control over their learning by setting goals, independently seeking challenges that expand their skill sets and viewing failures and setbacks as a regular and essential part of the learning process. If we strategically embed self-regulated learning interventions into accelerated design thinking pedagogical models, we may be able to lessen, although not eliminate, the tension between meeting needs for expedited design thinking education and the reality that effective design thinking instruction demands slowing the teaching and learning down. 

A familiar tactic design thinking educators take when they are teaching in accelerated engagements is to repeat many times that design thinking is complex, requires practice and will require further learning. While carefully warning learners is conscientious, the psychological literature has demonstrated that procedures for cautioning people about what to expect in learning is limited in its ability to adequately prepare them (Bandura, 1977).

The vision presented in this article goes beyond telling learners repeatedly that design thinking is hard, takes a lot of time and practice to be effective, and that they should not expect to get it right away. Instead, I argue that if we target self-regulated learning during accelerated delivery of design thinking instruction, the humans we teach will be better prepared to slow down their learning. 

Illustration of a Call to Action by Misa Yamamoto.

Call to Action: Build a Pedagogy of Self-Efficacy 

Design thinking is elusive and suffers from a lack of definitional clarity, disparate frameworks and a complex lexicon derived from common lay terms that mean something distinct in the craft of human-centered design. Design thinking’s elusive nature poses a challenge for educators of new learners or novices because self-regulation of things that one does not understand is very difficult. The challenge of learning for novices is further compounded by the reality that as a community we have yet to establish a common definition and set of canonical perspectives for design thinking. Opening the black box of design thinking is something educators can do effectively through a decelerated pedagogical model, but it is a bigger ask to achieve those learning outcomes in an accelerated one. If we want human beings to adopt design thinking and harness its power after an accelerated design thinking learning experience, we need learners to go deeper into that black box independent of educators, seek more and longer durations of learning, challenge themselves and grow without us by their side. We need to strategically cultivate the self-regulated learning of design thinking.

The key to self-regulated learning is self-efficacy, or one’s belief in one’s own ability to successfully complete a task in a particular domain of study or focus. People are drawn to things they think they are good at (e.g., high self-efficacy in a domain) and avoid things they think they are bad at (e.g., low self-efficacy). What is pertinent about self-efficacy to design thinking pedagogy is that, according to Bandura (1986), learners who “develop a strong sense of self-efficacy are well equipped to educate themselves when they have to rely on their own initiative” (p. 417). The design thinking duo of the Kelly brothers (2013) identifies self-efficacy as a key consideration to practicing design thinking effectively in their book Creative Confidence. But self-efficacy is not only good for developing confidence in one’s abilities; more importantly for our purposes, self-efficacy is a governing driver of self-regulation. The call to action of this article is for design thinking educators to establish a pedagogy of self-efficacy as a routine part of the instructional practice so that their students become self-regulated learners. 

How Might We Build a Pedagogy of Self-Efficacy for Design Thinking Education?

If we want self-regulated learners of design thinking, we must find ways to increase their design thinking self-efficacy. According to Bandura (1997), people gain clues and information that feeds self-efficacy in a particular domain through the following (1997): 

  1. Enactive Mastery: Performing tasks proximal to the domain of interest, experiencing setbacks and achieving successes. 
  2. Vicarious Experiences: Observing and comparing one’s own abilities in a domain with those of peers at similar levels and role models who have expertise.
  3. Verbal Persuasion: Direct feedback from influential others provides clues to one’s abilities and competencies. The most persuasive feedback that builds self-efficacy is not person-specific (e.g., “you are smart”), but rather effort-specific (e.g., “I like how you persisted through that challenge, even though it was hard”) (Wood & Bandura, 1989).
  4. Physiological and Affective States: Physical and psychological responses in domain-related situations provide messages to people about their abilities. This is important because stress and other affective responses can impact performance and send wrong messages on competency. If someone is stressed, then he or she may not perform as well. If they do not perform as well, there is a strong chance that they may interpret that information as a sign of their inability rather than a result of their affective state.

If we can carefully construct design thinking training to build self-efficacy, we are far more likely to be able to bolster self-regulated learning than if we simply warn learners that design thinking is difficult, complex and requires sustained practice. 

Applying a Pedagogy of Self-Efficacy in Design Thinking Education

Bandura (1997) emphasizes “enactive mastery experiences are the most influential source of efficacy information because they provide the most authentic evidence of whether one can muster whatever it takes to succeed” (p. 80). Whether design thinking is introduced in a 90-minute workshop, a five-hour online course, a three-day boot camp or a 12-week residential course, it is critical to design activities whereby learners take on progressively challenging design thinking tasks. Because a hallmark of design thinking is dealing with ambiguity and unknowns, it is especially important that design challenges are at a desirable level of difficulty (not too hard, not too easy), where ambiguity is present and learners must resolve unfamiliar situations on their own.

In our Think Before You Design Think (TBYDT) three-day design thinking workshop at UT Austin, we carefully design the learning experience to be aligned with self-efficacy theory and principles of self-regulated learning. We begin with a challenge in which the first design thinking task is to run an empathy interview using the 5-Whys. The 5-Whys exercise is a terrific entry-level learning activity because new learners have likely never done it before, it seems awkward to novices and asking “why?” five times seems highly unlikely to produce a viable insight. We place learners in dyads and ensure that the 5-Whys prompt encourages empathic thinking. 

The 5-Whys dyad also brings new learners into a vicarious experience with other design thinking novices and experts. In their dyads, learners observe someone of similar ability struggle and succeed through the empathy interview. In TBYDT, we also always first “role play” the 5-Whys for learners so they can observe how a role model, or expert, engages in such an empathy interview. As learners compare their 5-Whys interview with the lead facilitators, they gain information from an influential other about the performance quality they should aim to achieve.

Illustration showing example of the 5-Whys dyad exercise. Illustration by Misa Yamamoto.

During the activity, learners receive direct and specific feedback during the 5-Whys exercise as they share the final insight they have uncovered. We cue learners (and demonstrate during the role play mentioned above) to seek feedback through the “I like” and “I wonder” approach. We use the phrase “I like” to direct students’ attention to things that are working and “I wonder” to provide feedback on things that could work better. We are careful not to give inauthentic, “feel-good” feedback and strategically use verbal persuasion by emphasizing that the 5-Whys are indeed awkward.  At the same time, we exhibit high expectations for the learners and the kind of insights we want them to glean. After our learners complete their first 5-Whys empathy interview, they report surprise that such a simple exercise can deliver such powerful insights. We use this moment to encourage a growth mindset for design thinking—that is, design thinking is something that they can learn to do versus something they will either get or not get, or must have inherent talent to do well.

Finally, we also recognize that merely running one 5-Whys interview can result in a firehose of information and overload a learner’s working memory, resulting in stress or even potentially fear. At the end of our 5-Whys interview (and other intense exercises), we encourage learners to reflect on how they are feeling and assess their stress level. We also normalize feelings of fear, confusion, lack of understanding and the sensation of not having one’s sea legs. To help address stress, we also lead learners through a 90-second breathing meditation and encourage them to do it on their own when they face similar feelings or stress later on.2


The public’s widespread awareness of design thinking without equally widespread uptake or adoption is a result of design thinking’s wicked pedagogy problem: the demand and authentic human need for accelerated design thinking pedagogy when the efficacious teaching of design thinking demands a decelerated model. Design thinking educators can decide not to engage in accelerated design thinking education outside of academia, or they can respond by advancing best practices in design thinking pedagogy. By delivering design thinking education through a pedagogy of self-efficacy, design thinking educators can promote self-regulated learning and, more importantly, the requisite more substantial, independent study of design thinking that will determine whether adoption results from an accelerated pedagogical model. As humans outside academia endeavor to fight stubborn societal or business problems, it is a mistake to reject design thinking based on ineffective learning or pedagogy. Forgetting design thinking will not solve our world’s wicked problems, but fostering a new era of design thinkers through innovative pedagogy will. As a community of solvers and change agents, we need to shift the lens of critique from design thinking itself to its pedagogy problem. We need to deal with the bathwater and embrace the “kairos” for a design thinking pedagogy that adequately meets learners’ needs.

Pedagogy of Self-Efficacy for Design Thinking Educators

Bandura’s four self-efficacy sources offer a checklist for design thinking educators seeking to respond to the demand for accelerated learning with efficacious pedagogy. An outline of what the pedagogy of self-efficacy might look like for design thinking educators follows. While such pedagogy is critical for accelerated pedagogical models, it is equally useful for formal academic teaching. 

1. Mastery Experience: Build in activities whereby learners engage in progressively desirably difficult (not too hard, but not too easy) challenges that are proximal to authentic design thinking situations. 

2. Vicarious Experiences: Ensure students have specific opportunities to learn with their peers and role models whereby they can gain helpful information about their abilities to “do design thinking” by comparing their work with the performance of others. Provide numerous opportunities for experts to model design thinking.

3. Verbal Persuasion: Provide activities whereby students gain wise feedback (Yeager, 2014) from peers and facilitators. Wise feedback is an instructional approach whereby the educator holds and communicates high standards for learners while simultaneously verbalizing beliefs that their students can meet or exceed those standards. Avoid person-specific praise (e.g., “I love your prototype; that is amazing!”), and instead praise effort and behavior you want to see continue (e.g., “I love how you pushed through the ambiguity and tried something new”).

4. Physiological States: Be aware that new design thinking learners experience cognitive overload in their working memory as new information is presented to them. Learning something new, especially when it is complex, can cause stress and lead to feelings of inadequacy that produce errors not based on actual competence (Paas, 1992). Build in opportunities for new learners to clear their working memory and reduce stress during a session. 

Yeager, D.S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., Hessert, W.T., & Williams, M.E. (2013). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 804-824.

Paas, F. (1992). Training strategies for attaining transfer of problem-solving skill in statistics: A cognitive-load approach. Journal of Educational Psychology. 84(4): 429-434.

The definition of design thinking that I am working from is as follows: design thinking is a human-centered, creative approach to problem solving.

In our first two iterations of TBYDT, we measured new learners’ (n=70) design thinking self-efficacy before and after a three-day workshop. Using inferential statistics, we found that learners’ design thinking self-efficacy increased and was statistically significant (p=.001), which means the possibility that this positive shift in self-efficacy occurred by chance is 1 out of 100. A limitation of the above finding is that we did not run a controlled study. As a result, we do not know if design thinking self-efficacy would have improved at this same rate if we approached our TBYDT teaching without a pedagogy of self-efficacy.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman. 

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.

Erikson, E.H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York, NY, US: W.W. Norton & Co.

Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2013). Creative confidence: Unleashing the creative potential within us all. New York, NY, US: Random House, LLC. 

National Research Council (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded edition. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Wood, R., & Bandura, A. (1989). Impact of conceptions of ability on self-regulatory mechanisms and complex decision making. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(3), 407-415.

Yoon, K.S., Duncan, T., Lee, S.W.-Y., Scarloss, B., & Shapley, K. (2007). Reviewing the evidence on how teacher professional development affects student achievement (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2007–No. 033). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest. Retrieved from

Dr. Julie Schell is the Assistant Dean for Instructional Continuity and Innovation in the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin.

Illustrations by Misa Yamamoto