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Design thinking in language teaching

Written by Benedetta Giuliani

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Hybridization is a powerful transformation factor. When two disciplines hybridize, they can produce truly amazing innovations. This is what happens, for example, when design and language teaching meet.

In this article we want to investigate the usefulness of applying design thinking, a concept developed within the design community, to language learning.

A human-centered approach to problem solving

The cognitive scientist and Nobel Prize laureate Herbert A. Simon was the first to conceptualize design thinking in his 1969 work The Sciences of the Artificial.

In the 1970s, it was IDEO that deepened the reflection on design thinking, contributing significantly to the spread of the term.

Design thinking was born as a problem-solving methodology that designer Richard Buchanan called “wicked”. Wicked problems are those whose solution does not fall within an easy binary scheme of the yes / no, right / wrong type. As has been said:

A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that’s difficult or impossible to solve—normally because of its complex and interconnected nature. Wicked problems lack clarity in both their aims and solutions, and are subject to real-world constraints. 

Credits to the author.

In a globalized, fast-paced society, design thinking has become a much appreciated methodology (although sometimes misused) to solve problems by challenging assumptions and developing innovative ideas.

Despite its multiple applications in heterogeneous fields, design thinking maintains the user’s needs as its unwavering point of reference.

In fact, the ultimate goal of this approach is to devise solutions “while keeping the end customers in mind“. 

Credits to Sprout.

The perks of a design-based language learning

When we are faced with a problem, design thinking focuses on understanding the context and needs of people.

In doing so, different mental, iterative and non-linear processes are activated, which can be useful in any educational context.

Specifically, this problem-solving methodology requires the need to be able to reason in an empathic way, to understand other people’s behaviors, to imagine creative solutions, and to test and evaluate them.

In any case, the educational potential of design thinking is particularly interesting when it comes to language learning.

According to a 2013 study conducted on the teaching of English as a foreign language in Japan, an educational approach based on design solutions is helpful in strengthening the student’s reading and comprehension skills.

As the study highlighted:

[A] design-based language learning approach has the potential to promote grammatical understanding through increased writing practice, systematic thinking, schematization, presentation and structured content authoring.

Another research, this time conducted on ESL classes in India, observed how design-based classes are useful to stimulate reasoning in the second language.

This kind of approach, the study notes:

demands friendly interactions and sound rapport between teacher and learners. It directs the teachers to figure out the best and suitable learning design and modules for learners that fits the classroom environment.

How to bring design solutions into the classroom

Credits to the author.

In order to develop a proper design thinking-based curriculum, we have to adopt a human-centric approach. In other words, we must start from the analysis of the student’s behaviors and needs when it comes to learning a foreign language.

As has been noted:

Human-centered design can help designers achieve a deeper understanding of the human experience and develop a product that resonates more deeply with users.

Now, let’s look at the five steps on which this particular type of methodology is based and imagine how can they be translated into a language learning setting.

  1. Empathise: Like a company has to understand the needs of the consumer, a language teacher has to understand the needs of the student. Only by understanding his or her preparation, motivation and expected results can an efficient educational path be developed.
  2. Define: This step coincides approximately with the definition of a teaching strategy tailored to the student’s needs and behaviors. In this case the teacher will have to take into account several variables given not only by the context but also by the specific characteristics of the student.
  3. Ideate: This is the time to think about the best way to achieve the objectives set in the learning path. In other words, it is time to brainstorm. For instance, let’s think about the instruments that are going to be used in order to stimulate the student: social networks? Apps? Books? The more, the better.
  4. Prototype: At this point, it is possible to try the effectiveness of the designed learning path. The objective should be to evaluate the effectiveness of the chosen methodology and learning tools. The observations collected in this experimental phase will be useful to improve the designed learning path.
  5. Test: It is important to remember that design thinking is an iterative cycle. Therefore, you can repeat the test phase several times, in order to enhance the outputs of your learning program. Testing the efficacy of the devised learning path again and again will lead you to discover new and better learning solutions coherent with your students’ needs.

A mindset fit for language teaching

Design thinking is a process meant to challenge assumptions, recognizing biases and practicing empathy.

In our language learning journeys, we have been told many times how the study of a new language might open up new perspectives and led us to consider unprecedented possibilities.

Therefore, beyond the educational experiments that a design-based approach can produce, it is possible to say that the main advantage of a design based instructional model is to introduce a mindset built on curiosity and the desire to walk unexplored paths.

Which, when you think about it, looks like what we end up doing when we study a foreign language.


American English, Teacher’s Corner. A story of Design Thinking in the Classroom

Business Innovation factory, Teachers Design for Education

D. Roi, J. W. Brine, Design thinking in EFL context: Studying the potential for language teaching and learning, in The International Journal of Design Education, 2013 6/2, pp. 1-21

D. Soni, Design Thinking. A visual approach to understand user’s needs, in Loginradius


Interaction Design Foundation,

J. Tjendra, The origins of Design Thinking, in Wired

S. Lee-Ellis, J. Bernhardt, Bringing Design Thinking to Language Curriculum Design, in The Language Educator

Are you a language teacher dedicated to inspiring others? Check out the rest of the Language Ambassadors blog!

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