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February 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Design Thinking: Can It Be an Alternative Approach in English Language Education?

Evrim Ustunluoglu has a vast amount of experience as an instructor, advisor, researcher, and also the director of School of Foreign Languages. Her qualifications include MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language and Ph.D. in Educational Sciences. She is associate professor at Izmir University of Economics, Türkiye,. Her expertise and interests are quality, program development, methodology and designing thinking. e-mail:



It is remarkable to witness the recent expansion of higher education and the increasing number of universities offering English as the Medium of Instruction (EMI) in Turkey, since this growth fosters international comparability. However, this increase in quantity can be said to lead to some concerns regarding quality and is setting new challenges for Quality Assurance (QA) in higher education. A brief historical review on QA in language education confirms that quality assurance has been a main concern in language education due to its complexity, with the involvement in many factors, stakeholders, and challenges (Heyworth, 2013). The research in Turkey reveals the challenges in the areas of student admission, student achievement and assessment, teacher language proficiency, achieving the required learning outcomes, course evaluation, and in-service training (British Council, 2015; Kılıçkaya, 2006; Kırkgöz, 2009). These studies highlight the importance of quality and quality assurance, and of integrating quality assurance systems into programs to overcome challenges and difficulties.   In this context, Heyworth (2013) argues that it is important to create an organizational culture that involves adaptation and implementations of new methodologies, and to promote the sustainability of these systematic processes to cultivate quality culture in language education.  To this end, the purpose of this paper is to introduce design thinking as an approach in language education, and to present the ways of using design thinking as a systematic approach to problem-solving while creating quality culture in language education programs.


Brief history and definition of Design Thinking

Design Thinking (DT) dates back to 1960s, within the context of architecture and engineering despite its recent popularity in many fields. In the mid-1960s, Horst Rittel coined the term “wicked problem” to describe multidimensional complex problems, and the methodologies needed to solve them, with a special focus on DT (Rittel, 1984, p.161). The principles of DT started to emerge in the 1970s, the 1980s witnessed the emergence of studies on solution-focused problems (Cross, 1982) and in the 1990s, it expanded to the education field as a new pedagogical approach to educational problems (Buchanan, 1992). DT has been popularized by institutions such as the Stanford Design School, and widely known design firms like IDEO, which brought DT into the mainstream in education (Buchanan, 1992). In the simplest form, design thinking can be described as a human-centric approach to problem-solving processes based on empathy, collaboration, and teamwork (Elsbach & Stigliani, 2018; Goldschmidt, 2017; Wrigley & Straker, 2017). Unlike traditional problem-solving, design thinking is a problem-solving process integrating  input  from multiple disciplines in the planning and decision-making process (Brown, 2008; Liedtka, 2014; Matthews & Wrigley, 2017; Guaman-Quintanilla et al., 2018).  


Principles and steps of Design Thinking

The principle of DT is based on desirability, viability and feasibility implying that this approach brings together what is desirable from a human point of view, and what is technologically feasible and economically viable (Brown, 2008). In other words, in DT the problem-solving process starts with understanding people. Viability is related with designing a cost-effective solution while feasibility with producing technologically solid solutions. This approach shows people different ways of solving problems, and taking a designer’s approach to developing products, services, processes, and strategies. In this way, organizations can significantly improve quality by ensuring the effectiveness of changes (Brown, 2008).  

DT process covers five steps (figure 1.)

  • empathising with the user by understanding the challenge and gathering inspirations,
  • defining a problem through listening to stories, searching for meaning, and framing opportunities,
  • ideating solutions by generating and refining ideas,
  • prototyping and getting feedback,
  • testing, evaluating, and moving forward by tracking learnings (Brown, 2009; Lawson, 2006; Lietka & Ogilvi, 2011).

Figure 1. Five steps of design thinking model proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (

The DT steps guide people regarding the application of this approach in their contexts. The stage, “empathise”, helps understand the needs of people involved in the problem or challenge. This is an opportunity to think from another perspective and to consider different point of views related to the problem (Brown, 2009; Lawson, 2006; Lietka & Ogilvie 2011). The stage, “define”, establishes a clear definition of challenges or problems by listening to the users impacted by the problem. This is the stage for identifying knowledge gaps and redefining the problem. At this stage, having empathised with the users and understood their needs, it is possible to redefine the problem statement in human-centric terms (Brown, 2009; Lawson, 2006; Lietka & Ogilvie, 2011). The stage, “ideate”, is associated with brainstorming process during which the relevant ideas and solutions are generated by using convergent and divergent thinking skills (Brown, 2009; Lawson 2006; Lietka & Ogilvie, 2011). The following stages, “prototype” and “testing” involve designing a prototype of a product or service, seeking feedback, and improving it for better solutions (Carroll, et al., 2010).  The prototyping stage provides the insights needed to improve a proposed solution, while testing stage covers refining the optimal learning experience (Brown, 2009; Lawson, 2006; Lietka & Ogilvie, 2011).


Design Thinking Approach in English language education

As summarized above, DT is based on philosophy of problem solving in a collaborative and humanistic approach.  Unlike traditional problem-solving approaches, DT takes an empathetic approach to the users through empathy. In a English language education context, the user could be students, teachers, staff, management and parents; and the language setting could be the schools of foreign languages, English language teaching departments, and EMI programs. Design thinking could be an innovative and pedagogical approach for these schools and programs, which by nature, face variety of problems regarding curriculum, assessment and evaluation, teaching materials, in-service training, professional development, performance evaluation, students, teachers and parents.

Design thinking process in English language education can start noticing a problem. Problems, in general, are explicit but could also be implicit, and become visible in “wish” and “complaint” statements, as below:

 “I wish that my school had a better exam system.”

“Program heads complain that teachers do not follow the curriculum.”

In DT approach, once a problem (implicit or explicit) is noticed, the next step is to understand it by empathizing with the user(s) involved in the related challenge or problem. Gaining deeper understanding of the problem requires planning and preparation by addressing some key questions such as:    

  • What is the purpose of this project?
  • Who are the people (teachers, students, staff, parents, managers) involved in your challenge/problem?
  • Who specifically do you want to talk to and learn from?
  • What do you want to learn to better understand the challenge? 
  • Who is your team? What are their responsibilities before they go into the field to collect data? 
  • What is the data collection instrument(s)?

It is important to note here that solving a problem through DT is a collaborative and cooperative process, and requires teamwork. The team’s main responsibility is to empathize with people involved in the problem, and to review the challenge from their perspectives. Thus, team members are expected to have teamwork skills, such as being comfortable with ambiguity, as well as constructive with their feedback, and open-minded when they are in the field to collect data (Panke, 2019; Nagaraj et al., 2020). The team can be formed of 4 to 6 people depending on the size of the organization and the nature of the problem. It is also important to pay attention to diversity; the team should ideally involve different specialisations and stakeholders related to the problem.

After a problem is noticed and a team is set up, DT process starts. The first steps, empathise and define, involve collecting data that will allow empathy with the user. Team members collect data related with the problem through observations and interviews to emphasize with the users, and better define the problem from their perspectives. The users in language education could be any related stakeholder such as students, teachers, parents, administrative staff, and upper management. Interviews should be considered as engagement rather than purely information seeking because the purpose is to find the deeper insights and feelings   before solutions are designed (Beckman & Barry, 2007; Henriksen, et al., 2017). Team members are expected to be careful about asking neutral questions, encouraging related stories, paying attention to emotions, and catching direct quotes in order to instil empathy into design project (Henriksen et al., 2017; Beckman & Barry, 2007). In particular, stories play an important role in understating the problem as they accommodate emotions and feelings, which later helps the team members design a solution for the problem. Observations should be treated carefully due to its subjective nature in DT process.  Team members should be aware of their personal lens and be able to distinguish among observations (observed facts), thoughts (about what they see), and feelings (about what they see) (Beckman & Barry, 2007; Gallagher & Thordarson, 2018; Henriksen et al., 2017). Team members can use video recording and journey map techniques to avoid subjective observations while collecting data. Video recording can be used to understand the identified problem in detail, and may focus on a lesson, a school’s daily routine, or an office space. A journey map is a detailed record of a user’s experience of an event. The observer documents the journey of the user’s experience by observation taking notes and developing a sense of empathy. Video recording and a journey map help the observer see underneath the surface; make meanings and identify insights (Beckman & Barry, 2007).

Ideation is the stage where team members share field observations and interviews, as well as insights and quotes from the stories, generate ideas, and create solutions. At the ideation stage, the team digs deeper into the meanings, and they raise their awareness about the needs and insights.  This critical component of DT needs to be structured in advance.  The ideation stage starts with a well-planned brainstorm session, involving a facilitator, team members, writing equipment, and data from observations and interviews (Pande & Bharathi, 2020). Additionally, it is important to set ground rules for brainstorm session, such as deferring judgment, encouraging wild ideas, building on other’s ideas, and visualization. Team members are encouraged to use convergent and divergent thinking throughout the session. Divergent thinking explores multiple possible solutions in order to generate creative ideas; it is a spontaneous, free-flowing, non-linear, and creative process (Pande & Bharathi, 2020), while convergent thinking concentrates on finding out the best or correct solution to a problem; it is a fast, critical, and explicit process (Pande & Bharathi, 2020). During a brainstorm session, several techniques are used, commonly   “Empathy Map”, “POV”, “HMW”, “Brain sketching and Brain writing”. These help the team to frame the problem in an approachable, manageable, and understandable form (Design Thinking for educators, Toolkit; Pande & Bharathi, 2020).

Empathy Map: Empathy maps serve as a tool to develop a deeper understanding of the specific users and their needs.  The empathy map template (figure 2) could be helpful for the team to review the interviews, observations, stories, videos collected in the field; and to record what the users said, felt, did, and thought about the problem (Pande & Bharathi, 2020).

Figure 2. Empathy Map

“User” represents the people (student, teacher, staff, management, parents) involved in the problem.

SAY: what are some quotes and defining words the users said?

DO: what actions and behaviours were noticed during observations and interviews?

THINK: what might they be thinking during interviews and observations?

FEEL: what emotions might they be feeling?

A Point of View (POV): This technique helps the team to produce meaningful and actionable statements, based on the users’ needs and insights emerging from observations and interviews (Design Thinking for educators, Toolkit). This technique can be formulated as below:  

[User . . . (descriptive)] needs [need . . . (verb)] because [insight. . . (compelling)] 

(Design thinking for educators, Toolkit)

For instance, suppose that a school of foreign languages conducts in-classroom teacher observations for professional development purposes, but this was identified as a problem because teachers appeared reluctant to be observed. The interviews made by the DT team members and the brainstorm session insights showed that in-classroom observations did not serve to professional development, but rather, were an instrument for performance evaluations conducted annually, as formulated below:

  • User: a novice teacher
  • Need: to be accepted by students
  • Insight: because the aim is  to receive positive student feedback  for the academic year performance evaluation and  contract renewal  (rather than professional development)

This approach can lead the team members to understand the users’ insights, to empathize with them and to generate better ideas on solutions improving the system. 

How might we …...?  (HMW): This technique clarifies the problem and offers solutions, converting the problem statements into design challenges and opportunities for design (Design thinking for educators, Toolkit).

For instance, after the problem was identified (in-classroom observations) and insights were clarified (positive student feedback for performance evaluation rather than professional development), team members can focus on the questions below to improve the system:

  • How might we improve the performance evaluation system at school?
  • How might we redesign an observation system that help teachers improve as part of their professional development?
  • How might we help teachers feel more comfortable with the observation process?
  • How might we integrate the observation system into the school culture?
  • How might we find alternatives to inclassroom observation (diary, video recording lessons, self-reflection notes, etc.)   

Brain sketching and Brain writing: The purpose of brainstorming is to produce as many ideas as possible to reach solutions more quickly. Team members can use brain writing and brain sketching techniques to write or draw new ideas by using post-its (figure 3). Team members attach sticky notes to the wall, which can serve as a stimulus for new ideas. These techniques help participants visualize, organize, categorize their ideas, and identify those with the most potential (Design thinking for educators, Toolkit).

Figure 3. Brain sketching and brain writing

The last steps are prototype, which brings solutions to life, and testing, which improves an emerging product or service designed to solve the problem. Prototyping is the step involving the display of photos, sketches, plans, and drafts to get feedback from the students, teachers, staff, management, or parents involved. This step also needs structuring, and there are several questions to be answered in advance as follows. 

  • How do you need to test your prototype in order to receive the most relevant feedback?
  • What kind of feedback do you need in order to iterate and refine your idea?
  • What is the most important question you want to ask?
  • Who do you want to engage in the feedback process?
  • Who will you learn from the most?
  • How will you collect feedback? Through surveys? Interviews?
  • How will you capture prompts and use these prompts to help you improve your solutions?

The feedback to be collected about the prototype helps the team detect weak points and mistakes, and improve the solution for the users (Liedtka & Ogilvie, 2011).

Testing involves analysing the feedback and data to redesign and improve your solution (a product/service/process). It is important to note here that DT is an iterative process; and user feedback allows the designer to engage in a deeper level of empathy, by refining the questions and redefining the problem.  


Design Thinking practices in English language education

DT can be extensively used for academic and administrative problems in the field of English language education and can be useful in the following areas: developing an instructional method, improving course material, deciding on a teaching strategy to achieve subject-specific learning goals, facilitating student support through mentoring and coaching, professional development, in-service training, and managing change and rebuilding organizational culture (Panke, 2019). In this paper, a variety of ideas are proposed to enable teachers and managers to use DT approach in their settings. However, it should be noted down that DT is not limited to the areas below and has wide-ranging uses in language education.

Curriculum Development: Incorporating DT stages into curriculum development can serve as a structure for good practice, because improved curricula will be the result of collaborative design by the teachers and students (Ananyeva, 2014; Mickan, 2013). Teachers and students are those who will ultimately use and benefit from teaching plans and learning outcomes. Unfortunately, they can be excluded from the curriculum development process for reasons such as practicality, time, and school culture (González, 2010; Nieves, 2019). However, incorporating DT steps into curriculum development can shift focus from teaching to learning. This approach creates opportunities for management to empathize with teachers and students, identify and understand their needs and expectations, create solutions based on their needs and insights, and collect feedback to improve curriculum. The focus change towards learning could guide curriculum developers to use more empathetic teaching and learning frames, and to build up program quality process standards. This approach can unite learners, teachers, and curriculum designers on curriculum matters through collaboration and reflection, which reaches beyond a narrow focus on language issues or prescribed methods (Adams, et al., 2015).

For instance, when a reading book needs to be chosen or developed for an intensive preparatory language program, traditional approach would be asking the question “what should the objectives be?”  Design thinking approach, on the other hand, would start with questions “How might we make reading fun and interesting for our students?”, “How might we motivate our students to read?” or “How can we make vocabulary learning for our students as easy and natural as possible?” In DT approach, curriculum teams first reframe the problem to understand why a problem exists, and the true nature of the underlying issue, since design teams focus on ‘doing the right thing’, rather than ‘doing things right’ (Adams et al., 2015). In summary, incorporating DT approach into curriculum development process can be an opportunity to create a school culture that focuses primarily on students and teacher needs and expectations. 

In-class Teaching: In English language classrooms, DT approach can create an atmosphere for students to collaborate in the target language on problem-solving, encouraging them to analyse their own ideas, to think critically and collaboratively, i.e., using 21st century skills (Adams et al., 2015). DT gives learners autonomy and allows learning outcomes to emerge from the problem-solving process because students practice divergent and convergent thinking skills, develop confidence in thinking about and discussing problems as a team.  In particular, in the areas of research projects, project-based learning, and theme-based teaching, incorporating DT into language teaching can be useful. For instance, themes such as environment and technology can encourage learners to engage in problem solving, critical and creative thinking processes, and to develop human-cantered solutions for global issues. In this way, engagement   with real-life tasks in authentic language can lead to insights by observing and empathizing with people, and developing new ideas (Carroll et al., 2010).  In summary, using DT approach in language classes can help students develop empathy, learn how to solve complex real-world problems, and evaluate solutions in a flexible way with whatever language resources are available to them.

Testing, measurement, evaluation: DT can be used for testing, measurement, and evaluation purposes. This approach suggests investigating and researching different strategies and forms of assessments by asking questions to empathise with students as the user. Examples of questions are “what kind of challenges do students face in assessment? “what makes a meaningful learning experience for them?”, “what are their stories about the times they have felt the most successful or struggled in class?”, and then developing an assessment approach that both meet both curricular goals and student needs. There are a variety of approaches to DT approach for testing, measurement, and evaluation purposes, for instance, students could work in groups to create tests based on expected learning outcomes after thinking about possible solutions, discussing the value of each, and identifying the most suitable ones, a process that involves divergent and convergent thinking. Creating tests through design thinking could give students experience of creating an English product, watching others use it, eliciting feedback, thinking about English in a critical and creative way, and creating a new, memorable, and entertaining solution (Bailey & Krishnan, 2016). The research confirms that students gain confidence about their communication and thinking skills through collaborative work (Scheer, et al., 2012); collaborative problem-solving facilitates their scaffolded learning (Vygotsky, 1978); and they are motivated after being given control over meaningful challenges (Belland, et al., 2013). Additionally, teacher observation notes and feedback sessions discussions with students is a valuable contribution, raising awareness on specific topics.  In summary, involvement in the test development process can raise students’ awareness about the target language and learning outcomes, encourage creative and critical thinking skills, and help test designers to empathize with students and their needs.    

Teacher Training/In-service Training: DT suggests ways of dealing with complex problems. In that sense, teachers, themselves, are designers, since they encounter complex and varied problems including issues such as   designing curriculum and  motivating students, among many  others  (Mishra & Koehler, 2006; Norton & Hathaway, 2015). The research confirms the positive effect of DT on teacher training activities.  Anderson (2012) focused on the integration of DT cycle (empathizing, reframing the problem, ideating, prototyping and testing) into the development of web quests in a teacher development program, finding that this approach enhanced project-based learning and authentic assessment. Another study by Panke (2019) suggests that DT framework played a valuable role in developing curriculum, lesson plans, and instructional techniques for STEM teachers. As the research suggests, DT framework benefits teacher-training activities and encourages teachers to use DT skills in professional problem-solving.  In-service trainings could include activities on how to empathize with students, how to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges, how to benefit from teamwork and collaboration, how to create solutions based on insights, and how to generate improved solutions. In practice, teachers can work as teams, collaborate, exchange ideas and experiences, develop new materials, get feedback, and give support to each other  (Meirink, et al., 2010).  In summary, DT can be a fundamental philosophy for teacher training activities, which may eventually create a collaborative organizational culture.  

Mentoring, Coaching and Advising: Managers, teachers and students in language education can utilize DT approach for the purposes of mentoring, coaching, and advising because this approach has the potential to change mindsets and redesign lives. Designers are curious about new approaches; are open to collaboration, talk and learn from others ask for help when needed, all of which helps them to improve self-awareness and understand their own values. The research reveals the potential of design thinking as a mentoring and coaching technique at schools, as it is an opportunity to understand students’ and teachers’ perspectives, and their needs and insights through meaningful reflections, as well as encouraging personal and professional growth (Apel, et al., 2018; Leeder, 2019). In practical terms, DT can be used for supporting novice teachers, teacher and student orientations, advisor and student relationships, student support programs, study skills training programs, and mentor-mentee programs. In this way, managers, teachers and students can learn from each other, shift their thinking patterns, and evolve into learning communities, all of which may eventually create a continuous learning organization culture.

Management and Leadership: DT offers a fresh approach to complex school improvement issues for school leaders and administration teams. In fact, DT philosophy guides school leaders and administrators to adopt a collective rather than solo approach, with an emphasis on teamwork. This philosophy requires school managers to abandon traditional thinking and to start thinking like a designer. Unlike traditional thinking managers, design-thinking managers are visual, comfortable with ambiguity, empathic, human-driven, and desire to work collaboratively and understand the users’ needs (Tschimmel, 2012).  Thus, school managers’ policies and actions are based on empathy, teamwork, research, collaboration, feedback, and improvement. This philosophy gives priority of place to the students, teachers, staff, parents, by highlighting the importance of understanding the users in order to generate meaningful solutions for them. Thus, in language education, school administration can apply empathy to problems-solving; evaluate alternative solutions through engagement with users; encourage the users to experiment with their own solutions (prototype); and collect feedback on their experiences for outcomes that benefit the user community. For example, suppose that a language program has an observation system in place for performance evaluation, the manager can empathize with the user (i.e., teacher) by asking, “how do teachers feel when they are observed? This particular question will eventually lead the management to understand teacher’s perspective, and to reframe the question in a more specific way “How can an observation system be designed so that it can best serve to the needs of teachers?  (Cohen, 2014).  In summary, incorporating DT approach in schools of foreign languages, English medium universities, and language education programs, directors and managers can create an atmosphere of inclusive participation, engaging all the stakeholders in the decision-making process, empathizing with them, finding solutions to problems together, and improving the school system, which may eventually become the basis for a quality assurance system. 



As in many approaches in education, there are both pearls and pitfalls of design thinking approach. Literature review highlights potential problems such as teamwork conflicts, lack of depth of thinking, prioritising idea creation over evaluation, lack of long-term impact, and insufficient time to fully and critically evaluate ideas (Carroll et al., 2010; Aflatoony et al.,  2018). However, if planned carefully, the advantages and benefits of DT approach outnumber its limitations. Design thinking can be an innovative approach in language education, as it offers an opportunity to create an organizational culture that involves adaptation and implementations of systematic processes (Heyworth, 2013).  This approach can support a school’s quality assurance system because systematic reviews of language related challenges could lead to integrity, excellence, and soundness (Heyworth, 2013). In language education, DT has the potential to promote teaching and learning, to solve complicated problems through empathy and understanding complexity, and to create 21st-century workplaces based on collaboration and teamwork. Thus, applying design thinking approach in language education at every level from K-12 to higher education could open the way not only for students, but also for teachers and managers, to become more humanistic, creative, and inquisitive, regarding problem-solving processes.  



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  • Design Thinking: Can It Be an Alternative Approach in English Language Education?
    Evrim Üstünlüoglu, Türkiye

  • Building Foundations for Cooperative Learning
    Xinran He, Singapore