Design Thinking in the ESL Classroom

Rishma Hansil
5 min readAug 19, 2020
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Design Thinking is a term adapted from architecture and engineering and is often refered to as a “toolkit for innovation”. Its framework can be applied across a wide range of fields and its approach adapted to suit the needs of the user. According to the Interaction Design Foundation it is defined as a “non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test.”

It involves 5 key stages – Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. This approach is most effective when addressing problems that are unknown or ill-defined. In the language learning classroom design thinking can help bridge the gap between creative problem solving and structured learning. It gives teachers additional tools to build understanding and provide students with frameworks for critical thinking and problem solving. I’d like to share with you a few ways Design Thinking has found its way into my language learning classrooms.

Source: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms & licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Instructional Design:

As a Language Instructor with a background in UX design and digital media; my role has been to integrate these aspects of the design thinking process into the classroom. Having students read, listen and understand instructions can often make or break a lesson. This is where “instructional design” can help teachers better define the objects and find innovative ways of outlining the instructions especially with low-level language learners. Using visual cues, photo flow charts and step by step instructions are just a few ways this can be done. Imagine the on boarding screens on a new mobile app. They’re succinct, visually easy to navigate and highlight only the key steps to get you to the next level. Instructions should be designed to do just that. Design thinking also plays a role in unearthing pathways to deeper learning and building patterns that help students learn.

“Teaching and learning are inextricably connected. I decided to make the distinction because we learn without teaching and too often teach without learning. I also think we need a consorted effort to design for future learning. This must resonate in our both our instructional and curriculum design practice.” –

The Student (Human) Centered Approach:

Design thinking when done effectively puts students in the driver’s seat of their own learning making them creative problem solvers. This approach coupled with language learning can provide deeper learning and recall connecting the lesson with real life application of the data.


Using the 5 stages of design thinking here’s a simple activity that gets students thinking and designing while using a second language.

Time: 45 – 50 minutes

Level: High School Intermediate

Required Materials: Mobile App mock-up sheets, pen/paper, video/photo essay about a students studying abroad.

Empathy: Choose a scenario familiar to the students, get them to relate to the situation either through visual storytelling or other means. For this activity students were asked to create a mobile application for high school students studying abroad. Students first discussed the challenges of studying abroad, their concerns and also for those that had already travelled shared some of their experiences.

Define: Outline the task, define the key words and give instructions surrounding the scenario. In this case: Design an app to be used by a High School student studying abroad in Australia. Write 3 key functions of the app. Design/sketch 3 application screens using the templates provides. Describe what the user is seeing on each app screen in the annotation sections below.

Ideate: This activity can be done in pairs or groups depending on the class size. Students share ideas and propose solutions to the some of the challenges outlined in stage 1 “empathy”.

Prototype: Students are given the mock-up sheets and allotted time to design their application screens and write their annotations in english.

Test: Each team presents their application in a short presentation, outlining the purpose of their app and how it can help students abroad. Students from the class are encouraged to ask each team 1 question about their product.

Here are some ideas students came up with during the 50 minute lesson: a travel app which filtered activities based on the age, a transport app to help students find near by bus stops and train stations, family tracker app so their parents abroad could know where they were at any time and my personal favorite an allergy scanner that could scan food and sound an alarm if there were any ingredients harmful to the user.

The simplest description of ‘constructionist’ activities [106, 107] emphasises a cognitive aspect –

“constructionist activities emphasizes a cognitive aspect – learners construct new knowledge most effectively when they are in the process of constructing something which they can examine for themselves and discuss with others…they are active participants with personal involvement in the learning process.” – Papert S: ‘The Children’s Machine’, Basic Books (1993).

The ability to present these ideas and think up solutions in the target language allowed students to engage with the lesson and material in new and interesting ways. This process can be adapted to fit a variety of topics and graded for the level of the students.

For more on how these design phases can be used in different scenarios check out the “Money from Mars” project by


Design Thinking stretches across other areas of design such as instructional design. Instructional designers are engaged in assessing needs, developing materials, evaluating their effectiveness and designing processes whether it be for an entire curriculum or an e-learning module. These steps to critical thinking also plays a role in unearthing pathways to deeper learning and building patterns that help students learn. It’s a collaborative process whereby both students and teachers are engaged in the learning process.

If you’re interested in reading more about Design Thinking check out these useful resources:

Affective learning – a manifesto” by R W Picard, S Papert, W Bender, B Blumberg et al. (2004)

“Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown” (2009)

Design Thinking as an effective Toolkit for Innovation” by K. Tschimmel (2012)

“The Children’s Machine’, Basic Books by Papert S. (1993).

“The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage” by Roger Martin (2009)

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Rishma Hansil

UX Designer and Language Instructor working on Educational Technology in Tokyo, Japan.