A Case for Design Thinking and Design-Based Learning in 21st Century Education

Tyler Gates


Ontario Tech University


This paper explores the concepts of design thinking (DT) and design-based learning (DBL)in 21st-century learning. 21st-century skills are becoming an increasingly salient component of the K-12 general education curriculum, and this paper examines how DT and DBL can be used to develop these skills in the classroom and curriculum.

The paper first gives definitions and context to the concepts of design thinking, design-based learning, and 21st-century skills. It then discusses DT and DBL in relation to 21st-century skills, specifically how their application in education can develop four core 21st-century competencies: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. The discussion concludes with consideration for integration into existing curricula and school situations.


21st-century skills, curriculum, design-based learning, design thinking,


We are now nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century and are beginning to perceive what will define this era. In 2023, digital technologies continue to revolutionize the way we live and perform everyday tasks, and the world becomes more accessible to all with easier access to knowledge, people, and resources. But with this rapid change comes new challenges, and general education systems everywhere must adapt to create competent citizens that can boldly face these challenges.

21st-century skills is an aspect of curriculum research and development that is becoming ever more salient in modern times. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an internationally recognized economic policy-making entity, has called on governments to create educational standards that reflect such skills and competencies (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016). Organizations such as C21 Canada and P21 Partnership for 21st Century Learning have initiated this process by developing detailed frameworks integrating these skills (C21 Canada, n.d.; P21.org, 2022). However, this is just the beginning of the discussion. There are gaps between research, policy, curriculum, and practice. For instance, though Ontario grade 1 – 8 Math and Science curricula recognize research and mention transferable skills, they do not include them as explicit (and lawful) expectations or assessment criteria (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2021, 2022). Thus, it is not guaranteed that students will develop these skills in a consistent and meaningful way. To contribute to this discourse, this paper will consider the inclusion of design thinking (DT) and design-based learning (DBL) in education.

Design thinking and design-based learning are concepts that have been growing in popularity in academia and professional practice for several decades (Li et al., 2019; Plattner et al., 2015; Puente et al., 2013). Schools, school systems, and curricula such as that of Technological Education in Ontario (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2009a, 2009b) and Applied Skills and Design Technology in British Columbia (BC Ministry of Education, n.d.) are slowly beginning to accept and integrate these concepts as it becomes apparent how valuable they are. Public makerspaces have also appeared in every major city in Canada (Makerparts.ca, n.d.). This paper will explore first explore DT and DBL to determine to what extent they can deliver 21st-century skills; then it will discuss how they can be integrated into schools and the curriculum.

Background Information

To have a meaningful discussion surrounding the application of design thinking and design-based learning, it will first be necessary to define these concepts due to the lack of consistency amongst researchers and practitioners. This section will also briefly discuss 21st-century skills in order to set up a later discussion on application.

Design Thinking

Design thinking can be loosely defined as the identification and solving of real-life problems (Li et al., 2019; Razzouk & Shute, 2012). Design is a highly creative real-synthetic process (as opposed to symbolic-analytic such as mathematics) of inquiry and making (Razzouk & Shute, 2012). The nature of design thinking is interpreted differently across researchers and fields of study (Li et al., 2019). Originating in the field of design, it is now most prevalent in technology and engineering, where designing is a central activity and naturally integrated process (Li et al., 2019; Razzouk & Shute, 2012). More recently, however, design thinking has become a part of the domains of business and education (Razzouk & Shute, 2012).

How, then, to define design thinking with multiple definitions and uses across domains? A comprehensive study by Li et al. on the nature of design thinking revealed that generally, it may be studied in two ways: by contrasting experts and novices or by studying the activities of designers in teams. They were also able to characterize design thinking in three ways: process, skills and strategies, and cognition (2019).


The process of design thinking involves experimentation, creation, prototyping, feedback, and redesign (Li et al., 2019). Much of this process involves fitting a solution to meet some problem space by modifying its design and requirements as new information is discovered. The design thinking process starts with designers inventing requirements from their environment, exploring the problem, and creating a partial solution. They then start to refine the design according to the requirements and the environment. In an iterative, exploratory process, these requirements are compared with the design description (i.e., a partial solution), and both are modified and refined until a final solution is found. Thus, cloudy ideas are transformed into a clear product as new knowledge is gained and solutions are tested, while tools such as sketches and prototypes serve as models to clarify the design. The process is not linear as it goes backward and forwards in reasoning (Razzouk & Shute, 2012).

One significant research organization in this area, particularly in the area of business, is Stanford University. A book published by Plattner summarizes this research (2015), and an infographic published by the same further distills the design thinking process into a model containing five distinct stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test (Plattner, n.d.). Interestingly and perhaps not coincidently, these stages encompass and give structure to the activities noted by Li et al. (2019).

Skills and Strategies

Designers need to be flexible and employ a variety of problem-solving strategies  (Razzouk & Shute, 2012). Some of these strategies include clarifying requirements, searching for information, recognizing good solutions, as well as creating, prioritizing, and rechecking requirements. In studies comparing design thinking experts and novices, experts demonstrated the ability to do more with little information and could clarify tasks and define problems in a shorter time period. They were also able to decompose a problem more effectively. In team studies, designers explored ideas in a generative process while also analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating in a reductive process to find the best solution.


Design thinking may involve several cognitive processes, including preparation, assimilation, and strategic control (Razzouk & Shute, 2012). In the initial phases of the design thinking process, preparation involves problem assessment and interpretation. In the later iterative stages of the process, assimilation involves making sense of the solution’s interaction with the environment, and strategic control involves making decisions about the solution. Design thinking experts have many example problems to draw on and tend to form more abstract connections between ideas, though they also perform more numerous cognitive actions that are more concrete in thinking (Li et al., 2019; Razzouk & Shute, 2012).

In addition to the characterization of design thinking, Razzouk and Shute were also able to characterize design thinkers themselves (2012). Design thinkers tend to (a) be human and environment focused; (b) work visually (through diagrams); (c) be flexible (looking at problem solutions); (d) be systems-oriented (treating problems as systems); (e) communicate well through language; (f) have interpersonal skills and work in teams; and (g) search for alternatives before making decisions.

Design-Based Learning

Though not formally associated with design thinking, design-based learning (DBL) may be conceptualized as the application and synthesis of DT to the field of education and associated theory and pedagogy. DBL is, thus, unlike its DT counterpart, a concept particular to the domain of education. According to a Research Rabbit inquiry into this area, two foundational researchers who have published well-referenced works are Doreen Nelson and Janet Kolodner (Research Rabbit, n.d.). This paper will present their ideas as a basis for discussion as they represent two distinct but equally important approaches to DBL: Nelson’s more practical classroom approach and Kolodner’s more theoretical approach.

The Nelson Method of Design-based Learning™

The Nelson Method of Design-based Learning™ was initiated by Nelson in the period 1969 to 1971 in California, USA (Nelson, 2021). She developed her DBL method in response to the need for a systematic process of higher-order thinking that leads to a non-specific transfer of knowledge posited by her mentor Jerome Bruner. She imagined a curriculum-based series of sequential experiences in which students imagine, build, and revise artifacts to display their thinking. Students would get to the top of Bloom’s taxonomy faster as students would commence the learning process with creativity by building a solution even before the formal introduction of subject knowledge. Similar to project- and problem-based learning, students would take on the role of researchers, detectives, and builders while teachers would be facilitators, interrogators, and evaluators. She thus experimented and developed her method over several decades to the present day (Design-Based Learning, n.d.).

The central feature of Nelson’s DBL is the design process (2021), in which there are six-and-a-half steps:

  1. (Teacher) Create the curriculum: themes, concepts, standards, and essential questions.
  2. (Teacher) Identify a problem. (2.5) Create a design challenge.
  3. (Teacher) Plan evaluation. Create criteria for assessment based on the curriculum.
  4. (Students) Give it a try: 3D model, present feedback, how and why, assess
  5. (Students) Guided lessons: research info, speak, write, compare, etc.
  6. (Students) Revise: rebuild model, apply lessons, assess.

In addition, there are several features that make Nelson’s DBL unique. Two of these are the curriculum links to unit-level big topics (i.e., step 2.5 – the design challenge) and daily small topics (i.e., guided lessons), as well as the exploration ladder where students are guided to inquire in areas of size/scale, function, role, direction, space, and time to revise their original models (Nelson, 2021).

Learning by Design™

Learning by Design™ (LBD) is a second foundational model developed by Kolodner in the period of approximately 2000 – 2003 (Kolodner et al., 2003). Compared to Nelson’s DBL, Kolodner’s LBD model is much more theory-oriented. The conceptualization of LBD is essentially the merger of case-based reasoning (CBR) and project-based learning (PBL) (Kolodner et al., 2003). In addition, she also considered in her model an extensive list of literature relevant to the situation, such as cognitive apprenticeship, reciprocal teaching, goal-based scenarios, project-based inquiry, anchored instruction, knowledge integration, cognitive flexibility,  constructionism, learning transfer and expertise, analogical reasoning, and conceptual change.

The two major pillars of LBD are case-based reasoning and project-based learning. CBR allows students to solve new problems by interpreting them in terms of the reformulation and adaptation of previous experiences and solutions (Kolodner et al., 2003). This process involves failure explanation, iterative refinement, and comparative components that are applied to real-life scenarios. In this way, CBR is very similar to design thinking. The second element of the LBD formula, PBL, brings classroom structure to the CBR model (Kolodner et al., 2003). A few features of the PBL model highlighted by Kolodner are a structured sequence of repeated classroom activities, reflection and abstraction, the principle of teachers as coaches, and complete solutions being compared to an expert solution for evaluation.

The LBD process is similar to the Nelson DBL model in principle as they both involve forms of design thinking. However, it is somewhat more complex. The Nelson model has 6.5 steps that are iterated throughout a project, whereas the LBD design cycle consists of two circular processes: design/redesign and investigate & explore (Kolodner et al., 2003). Students alternate between these two cycles as needed. Within the design/redesign process cycle, students must: (a) understand the problem; (b) present and share initial ideas; (c) analyze and explain; (d) construct and test solutions; and (e) plan their design. Paired with this cycle, within the investigate & explore cycle, students must: (a) clarify questions; (b) present and share ideas; (c) analyze results; (d) design and conduct investigations;  and (e) make hypotheses. Throughout the LBD process framework, students are also involved in a number of small-group and community activities such as messing about,  planning an experiment, reading and learning from experts, testing designs, whiteboarding, generating rules of thumb, and public presentations.

21st Century Skills

This paper will present a very brief summary of 21st-century skills since a thorough discussion on 21st-century skills could be time-consuming and is, therefore, outside the scope of this paper. To that end, this paper will base its discussion on the findings of a paper entitled 21st Century Competencies: Towards Defining 21st Century Competencies for Ontario (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016) that has gathered, compared, and amalgamated several sources of information related to 21st-century skills from around the world. Sources include eight from Canadian government entities, ten from Canadian non-government entities (notably C21 Canada), and seven from international organizations (notably P21 and US National Research Council).

The paper groups skills into what they call competencies or groups of related skills. According to their research, four of the most prevalent competencies in international frameworks are critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016). These competencies (defined in Appendix A) will be addressed later in the paper.


The concept of design thinking is established and well-researched in the fields of technology, engineering, and business. However, it is also making significant inroads into the field of education. Technology and engineering are becoming more frequently taught in schools either as experiences in themselves or as a framework for learning (e.g., integrated STEM/STEAM). As an integral part of technology and engineering, design thinking comes with its adoption in schools. DT in education could consist of a simplified version of professional design thinking, offering a defined process of creation, feedback, design, and redesign (Li et al., 2019). Similarly, the Nelson DBL and LBD methods provide an educational framework for the realization of design in the classroom based on education pedagogy and theory. This section will further explore the application of these concepts in education, focusing specifically on the development of 21st-century skills.

Design Thinking and 21st-Century Competencies

Four prevalent 21st-century competencies listed in 21st Century Competencies are critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity (OMOE, 2016). These competencies may be developed through design thinking as follows.

Critical Thinking

Design thinking naturally includes all critical thinking and problem-solving skills listed in 21st Century Competencies (OMOE, 2016) as a subset of its processes and skills. These include solving real-life problems, taking steps to resolve problems, designing and managing projects, interpreting information to make decisions, engaging in inquiry, and transferring learning, all of which are vital steps and cognitive actions in the design thinking process (Li et al., 2019; Razzouk & Shute, 2012).

Communication and Collaboration

Though design thinking does not include communication and collaboration in its processes, skills, or cognition per se (Li et al., 2019; Razzouk & Shute, 2012), they are often included in the application. Furthermore, design thinkers are collaborative and frequently work in teams which requires strong communication skills (Razzouk & Shute, 2012).


This is another strong area for design thinking as it also includes all of OMOE’s innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship skills (2016). This includes contributing solutions to complex problems, enhancing ideas and products, taking risks, making discoveries through inquiry, pursuing new ideas to meet a need, and leading with an ethical entrepreneurial spirit (Li et al., 2019; Razzouk & Shute, 2012).

Design-Based Learning and 21st-Century Competencies

Critical Thinking and Creativity

DBL alone does not guarantee coverage of all critical thinking and creativity skills. Nelson DBL and LBD demonstrate significant differences in approaches to design learning which may leave skill gaps. Design thinking, by contrast, does cover the skills in these areas. Therefore, in order to fill gaps left by any particular DBL model, curriculum designers and teachers should consider the extent to which it employs the principles of design thinking and compensate with additional DT activities accordingly.


A sampled literature review of DBL approaches concluded that optimal models implement collaborative learning (Gómez Puente et al., 2013). Both DBL methods discussed earlier are highly collaborative. Nelson’s method, though not necessarily based on collaborative pedagogy, does hold include as a defining tenet (Nelson, 2021). LBD, on the other hand, being based on PBL and other educational theories, purposefully integrates teamwork and collaboration into the model (Kolodner et al., 2003). This is exemplified in the process framework in several places, such as whiteboarding, presenting, and sharing. Despite their differences, both DBL methods afford students the opportunity to develop collaboration skills, including participating in teams, learning from others, co-constructing knowledge, and assuming various roles (OMOE, 2016). Not all collaboration skills are explicitly covered by these DBL methods, though. Missing skills include managing conflict, networking with a variety of groups, and respecting a diversity of perspectives. These may have to be added to whichever model is selected.


Like collaboration, communication is also present in both DBL models. LBD being a more thoroughly researched and detailed model, provides explicit suggestions for communication at various stages in the process framework. Some such opportunities include presenting results, giving and asking for help, asking and answering questions, listening to others, explaining outcomes, giving advice, and justifying with evidence (Kolodner et al., 2003). Nelson’s DBL model offers similar opportunities in different forms (Nelson, 2021). These DBL models cover much of the communication competency requirements, including communicating effectively in oral and written form, asking questions, communicating with a variety of media, listening to different points of view, and voicing opinions (OMOE, 2016). Two that are not covered are selecting digital tools for a purpose and gaining knowledge about a variety of languages. These could easily be added to each model.

A Design-Based Learning Curriculum

So far, this paper has discussed the nature of design thinking, DBL, 21st-century skills, and how they can be integrated. The outcome is that a mix of DT and DBL can cover most 21st-century skills in core competencies. However, yet to be explored is how DBL frameworks can fit in with formal curricula and school programming. This paper will now present three modes of integration: individual DBL units, integrated STEM courses, and full curriculum adoption.

Based on a cursory exploration of the literature, the most common mode for the application of DBL is individual units within a STEM subject. Science is the most common subject to experiment with DBL, as exemplified by the original works of Kolodner (2003) and (Apedoe et al., 2008), both of which used DBL as a model for 8-week science units. A more recent study in Turkey showed positive results in achievement and creativity in a similar experiment (Korur et al., 2017). The individual-unit mode uses DBL instrumentally as needed while keeping traditional methods in place for the remainder of the year. The advantage of this approach is that it allows teachers to try DBL without full commitment from them or the school.

A second mode of DBL application is integrated STEM or STEAM courses. These are DBL-driven courses that integrate concepts from all STEAM subjects in a truly design-oriented learning experience. Examples of such courses are British Columbia’s Applied Design, Skills and Technology (ADST) courses, the International Baccalaureate (IB) Design and Design Technology courses, or the  International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) Design and Technology courses. These courses remain, however, mostly segregated from other subject areas and offered as elective courses.

A third mode is full integration, as exemplified by the Nelson DBL model (2021). The entire school year and curriculum are integrated into DBL as a complete package. The curricular requirements are reimagined as big concepts to be explored through design thinking and inquiry related to specific subject group requirements.

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

This paper presented definitions, characterizations, and models for design thinking and design-based learning. It then discussed their combined ability to develop four prevalent core 21st-century competencies. The result is that design-based learning, in conjunction with design thinking, will cover the majority of the skills that are contained within these competencies. Finally, DBL may be implemented in several ways within existing systems, such as individual units, courses, or entire grade curricula.

While design is an exciting and potentially significant area in the future of education, there remain some concerns. One major worry is that assessments in DBL could lack rigor (Rosa, 2016). Just as in project-based learning, assessing DBL would require much more flexibility than traditional assessment. Similarly, there are also concerns that students would not cover the required content from the formal curriculum. These are issues that can be discussed as research and application evolves.

Design thinking and DBL provide much more than 21st-century skills. As these methods are applied more frequently, researchers and professionals observe added benefits such as higher student engagement, retention, and skill mastery (Kolodner et al., 2003; Nelson, 2021; Zhang et al., 2020), as well as deep learning (Weng et al., 2022). Overall, DBL has also been shown to produce a positive effect on academic results, particularly in Math and Science (Delen & Sen, 2023). It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the 21st-century classroom.


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Appendix A

Conceptualization of Core 21st-Century Competencies

Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving

Solves meaningful, real-life, complex problems; Takes concrete steps to address issues; Designs and manages projects; Acquires, processes, interprets, and analyses information to make informed decisions (critical and digital literacy); Engages in an inquiry process to solve problems; Makes connections and transfers learning from one situation to another.


Communicates effectively in different contexts in oral and written form in French and/or English; Asks effective questions to acquire knowledge; Communicates using a variety of media; Selects appropriate digital tools according to purpose; Listens to understand all points of view; Gains knowledge about a variety of languages; Voices opinions and advocates for ideas.


Participates in teams; establishes positive relationships;  Learns from, and contributes to, the learning of others;  Co-constructs knowledge, meaning, and content;  Assumes various roles on the team;  Manages conflict;  Networks with a variety of communities/groups;  Respects a diversity of perspectives.

Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship

Contributes solutions to complex problems; Enhances a concept, idea, or product; Takes risks in thinking and creating; Makes discoveries through inquiry research; Pursues new ideas to meet a need of a community; Leads and motivates with an ethical entrepreneurial spirit.


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