Design Thinking in International Schools

Mike Pierre and Dr. Dana Specker Watts recently sat down with John Burns to discuss the field of international education and the importance of design thinking in international schools. You can listen to the entire conversation at or by searching for the ISS EDUlearn Ask Me Anything podcast on Apple or Spotify.

Mike Pierre: Welcome to ISS EDUlearn: Ask Me Anything with Mike and Dana. Here, we’ll be exploring how international schools are innovating and transforming education around the world. From the latest trends and insights to stories from teachers and administrators, you’ll get the inside look to the global education landscape. So join us as we explore what the future of international education has in store. Get ready to be inspired, challenge the status quo, and embrace a world of possibilities.


Mike Pierre: Welcome back everyone to ISS EDU: Ask Me Anything with Mike and Dana, where we bring together experts and thought leaders from around the world to share insights and ideas to help improve the education experience for students, teachers, and administrations and parents alike. I am Mike Pierre, your favorite educator interviewer. Normally I would have Dana Watts, who is my co-host here with me, but she’s not here today. But before we get started, I just wanted to go through a few housekeeping items. Don’t forget to hit the like, subscribe and leave us a review. We could be found on Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Amazon Music, I Heart Radio, Stitcher, and Spotify. Don’t forget to visit our website on in regards to see all the upcoming professional develops that we have coming up as well as any upcoming job fairs. So, without any further ado, I’d like to introduce our guest today, who is John Burns? John Burns is a Chief Innovation Officer here at International School Services. John focuses on spark and creativity and innovation across ISS learning communities. John, how are you today?


John Burns: Yeah, good, Mike, how you doing?


Mike Pierre: Yeah, I’m doing good. So I did a little bit research myself, so just going to start with my own definition of the design thinking process. And then we’re going to go from there.


John Burns: It’s probably better than mine. Don’t worry.


Mike Pierre: No. So what I have is design thinking is a creative problem solving approach that focuses on understanding users’ needs and developing innovative solutions to address those needs. And international schools can benefit from design thinking by being able to come up with creative solutions to complex problems that arise in day-to-day operations. How did I do John?


John Burns: Yeah, I think that’s spot on. I love that you included the user at the beginning. I think, fundamentally it’s about having empathy for those you’re designing for first and foremost which is sometimes missed I think, in design cycles. And through that, and by having that empathy, you are giving those, you’re designing for access to the process. It’s a transparent process. They have a rationale for why you’re engaging with it. They have some agency and some control over what’s going on, and ultimately a level of ownership, which is really nice. So they’re involved in the change in the design process rather than just designing something for someone else and then sort of throwing it at them. You’re starting them and engaging them right at the beginning, which is cool.


Mike Pierre: Why would someone in their right mind do the ladder, John? Or you just build something thinking someone’s going to use it, but not asking actual usage.


John Burns: So you’ve obviously done that before. I’ve done that many times, where you head about designing something with zero intent of asking the people you’re designing for what they think about it at any stage during the process, perhaps right at the end, once it’s too late to have any impact on the design itself. And which is a really costly matter as you know well, Mike and Molly Fae, if you go through a design process without engendering the support of those you’re designing for, by the time you get to the end and you develop a product, making any significant change to that is not only nearly impossible, it’s often very costly because you have to go back through all the previous stages and iterations. So it just makes sense as well. You’ll end up with a better product and also the people that you’ve designed it for have a far better understanding of what it’s for.


Mike Pierre: Okay. You spoke about empathy. I know that you said you had given us steps during your professional development stating that the design thinking process incorporates of five steps, and that will be empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and then testing. I don’t know if you would like to go through all five of those, but I would like to ask as one more important than the other. And it’s probably not the correct question, but I guess what I’m trying to see is where should you catch a change? Where should the last iteration of changes be before you go ahead and go out? Of course, I know the whole thing is probably where a change can happen, but where’s the latest do you think a change should occur where it’s not too late?


John Burns: Yeah. And it probably depends on the scope and scale of what you’re designing. Something that’s significant or takes a significant period of time to develop might be more difficult if you’re working over months or even years in a design cycle. And there have been some within ISS schools and sort of ISS events we’ve run that have been quite long. But the shorter ones, it’s relatively easy to make those changes. When you think about that process, you just wind up. So you sort of talking about empathize, define idea prototype and test while they appear to be in a line. There’s often sort of checks and balances throughout the process. So you can jump back at a prototyping stage and go, hey, have a look at this. This is what we’re thinking. What feedback do you have? Or have a look at these two versions. Here’s our A prototype and our B prototype. Which one sort of best meets your needs? So I think probably if the project’s shorter, it’s far easier to jump back and make those changes. And as the length or the complexity or perhaps even the cost associated increases, it gets a little bit more difficult. But yeah, certainly design thinking encourages you to sort of empathize on a regular basis to jump back and test it with the users wherever possible, rather than thinking, alright, we’ve done the empathizing. We know everything that’s possible or everything we need to know about the end user and their use case or the impact they’re going to have on this project. We’re done with that now, let’s keep moving. You can jump back. You can go back and relook at what the user needs and how best to support them.


Mike Pierre: So would this process not necessarily be a waterfall, but more agile in nature?


John Burns: Yeah, I think that’s a good way to describe it. Yeah, certainly. I’ve seen, if you look on the net, you look at design thinking, you’ll see it laid out in a line. You’ll see it in the circle, you’ll see it the circle with the arrows going everywhere. You’ll see ones that are all different models. People have got a lot of interpretations of it. But definitely you’ll see strategies along the way for sort of checking in on the previous bit, sort of going back and just ensuring what you’re designing aligns with the information or the data that you’ve gathered prior to that.


Mike Pierre: Right. Which is very important. Okay. Just back to one of the key principles of design thinking. And I’m going to talk about empathy. Empathy is a key to design thinking process as it allows us to gain deeper understanding of the user’s needs and perspectives. This helps us come up with better solutions that are tailored for their specific needs. As you stated, what are some practical ways of gaining a better understanding of the users?


John Burns: Yeah, probably and there are lots of different strategies for that first phase. Probably a really easy one that I’ve used in the past frequently, because it scales, well, it works really well with younger children and it also works well with adults, is just an interviewing process called Dreams and Gripes. So you might have a focus on, let’s pretend we’re redesigning a learning space in the school and we want to get input from the community to make a funky, cool, new learning space that’s going to be supported or useful to all ages. It’ll be useful to the teachers, it’ll be useful to early phase students, middle school, high school, parents that come in community groups. We want to make something like that. So Dreams and Gripes is a simple interview process where you explain basically what you’re going to do. You say, hey, we’re going to set up this space and we want it to be for the whole community. And it’s really going to inform our decisions around learning space design in the future of the school. So we’re going to be trying some new stuff. If we could make this really cool space, what dreams would you have for it? What would you really hope could be included? And so a young student can understand that, and they might go, well, and we’ve had this tool, we want to have a slippery slide in there, or we think we need to have really good laptops in there. Or it’d be really cool if we had some bean bags. And then you go around this interview, a couple of different people or as many as you want, and you could have multiple people doing this, taking notes. And then you go, well they’re the things you’re hope for. What are your gripes? What are some of the problems with some of your current learning spaces? And they might be, well, oh, it’s really dark in some of our spaces. It’s hard to see. Or the chairs are uncomfortable. And so what you really quickly get, it’s a really good sense of what people are hoping for and what are their current issues with some of the spaces they have within the school. And it’s just a really easy one to understand, anyone can understand, what are your dreams? What are your hope happens and what don’t you like about it? So it just translates well to different age groups and different constituents when you’re looking to sort of garner feedback at that initial stage of the design thinking process.


Mike Pierre: Nice. We have a guest with us here today. I want to ask her questions.


John Burns: Hey, Molly Fae.


Mike Pierre: And we have Molly Fae, who’s the customer service representative and technology coordinator here at ISS.


Molly Fae: Customer Support and Tech Coordinator with the ISS EDU and Team. So many titles.


Mike Pierre: It’s just a title.


John Burns: One more.


Mike Pierre: It’s all a title. But she’s a great help here. Molly Fae. Well, I guess what I wanted to ask you is, because I believe you have told me in the short time that we’ve known each other, you have been in quite a few classrooms. So I wanted to see if you could think back to think if there’s any, does any cool classrooms that you’ve been in that really elevated the topic that you were learning about?


Molly Fae: Absolutely. So yeah, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in classrooms as a student, then also as an educator. And one of the classrooms that I came into as an educator was one that was already outfitted by a really excellent team that I worked with. And I was working with a lot of students where English wasn’t their first language. And in the school district I had worked with before, those students weren’t really treated with priority, unfortunately. And they were left with thinking that their culture, and this really core part of them didn’t really matter in the school system, but what I loved was going into this other school district where the classroom was outfitted with school books, posters of not just different languages, but different cartoons and fairy tales from different cultures. So being able to formulate a space that spoke to the kids’ background and really cared for all of them, that was a classroom that I really loved being a part of. And I think that was just building on a little bit of that empathy of, I’m sure there was a moment where somebody realized like, these kids are so much more than just coming to school and having a hard time with a different language. They have a culture and a history and family and folklore and language. So they’re able to use that empathy and that feedback to create a classroom that was really effective and hopefully meaningful for those students.


John Burns: Yeah, it sounds like they must have included or engaged in a design process perhaps at the beginning of that. That sounds wonderful.


Mike Pierre: John, with that being said, John, how do you see design thinking helps to improve student learning outcomes? And how can you track it if there are ways to do that.


John Burns: Yeah. And there’s lots of applications of design thinking. So a lot of the work we’ve previously done has been working with staff and community groups. So really working with those around designing a policy, sort of things like responsible use agreements in the school or looking at things like curriculum development and designing curriculum plans or space design, facilities design, enactment of strategic plans. A lot of it’s been adult focused, but certainly there’s a lot of benefits to engaging students in the design process. So many of the reasons that you would engage adults as well is that they have a deeper understanding of what they’re engaging in. They have agency over the process and ultimately a level of ownership. If you’re looking at tracking learning outcomes, so you could look at perhaps any scope and secrets or curriculum documents for middle school, for example. You could develop a design thinking process around learning objectives that you had. You could have students involved in not only self-assessment and reflection of their progress during the design thinking process in regards to those learning objectives, but you could have them showcasing what they’ve learned and seeking feedback from other students. So instead of terms of a digital learning portfolio or a showcase piece where they’re sharing what they’re learning during the process, they’re getting feedbacks from other students reflecting on what they’ve learned. And they’re having the opportunity to again, reflect on not only their work, but the feedback from others as well. So it’s pretty easy to tie learning objectives to the process and then ensure that students have opportunities to check in and showcase and make their learning transparent throughout that.



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Mike Pierre: Very nice. It looks like the design thinking process is one that’s versatile and can be added to different areas. I’m going to step away from the teacher student conversation to see if design thinking can be applied on a wider scale. So how can international schools use design thinking to innovate their operations?


John Burns: Yeah, that’s a really interesting one. And I think that what I’ve seen done, and I think what can be useful is when you engage your operational teams. So when we’re talking about operational teams, these could include HR, finance, Micro, it could be school support staff, it could be even potentially teaching and learning support staff in there as well. Administrative elements of the school. First of all, whenever we’ve been involved, those groups in the design process, they’ve just sort of, there’s been a level of gratitude that we’ve even considered their thoughts and the impact, because previously a lot of the focus we had was on teaching and learning and that was where all of it was. And working with teachers, working with learning leaders in schools. And so the second we started heading down that path, it opened our eyes because we’d missed a huge opportunity. We’d really been working with one part of the community and not the other. So what’s really interesting is when you engage with those teams, there’s a ton, like with teachers, there’s a ton of collective wisdom, experience, and professionalism in those groups in a whole range of really sort of diverse areas. And when you give them the opportunity to say and go through that design process and say well, if you’re thinking really at the beginning, what are your dreams or hopes for your role, your dreams or hopes for the school, your dreams or hopes for your operations, and what are the things that are annoying you that are troublesome, are not quite working. Suddenly you get all these opportunities, you get all these different projects emerging that you can run with the design thinking process through. So with anyone, the educational staff, students, they get an understanding of what you’re trying to do. They feel like they’ve got ownership over the projects, the sense of agency. And generally speaking, if you’re savvy about it, any work you’re doing on developing the operational elements of the school through design thinking can be tied to your strategic plan. So you’ve got an overarching strategic plan typically at a school and that might have sort of line items or aims around curriculum development around teaching and learning about data analytics and measurement progress, but also having some bands in there around operational elements of the school or marketing and communication or infrastructure and environment. So it can be that they can see they’re supporting that strategic vet plan and they’re actually doing something worthwhile in the process.


Mike Pierre: Thank you for that, John. Hopefully someone will use it. Utilize that to their benefit. Design thinking seems like a real daunting process. What advice do you have for international school leaders looking to start to using design thinking?


John Burns: Yeah. It is because it’s daunting and it can sort of sometimes head down the path of being disingenuine or disingenuous I should say. Because if you’re scared to use it, it’s easy to get a bunch of post-it notes, big pieces of paper, get everyone to write their thoughts down sort of, we call it butcher’s paper on the wall, do some maps, take some photos of it, forget about it. So I think the key is if you’re going to do it, you need to have a really meaningful topic and a small topic to start with. So it could be as simple as we’re going to look at our responsible use agreement as a school. So responsible use agreements are typically the agreement you have that’s between a school and a student about how they’re going to effectively use technology in the school. So you might say, well, ours is really old. Let’s work as a small team for two hours in our professional learning session. We’re going to an engage in a design process about this. So if you think about empathizing quickly interviewing a few students, teachers and other people, what’s awesome about the ways people use technology at the school and what are some troublesome ways? What are things we’re worried about? So you get a whole bunch of feedback on that and then you jump over and start defining it. And so you might go, well, how might we encourage students to use technology in powerful ways? Well also mitigating some of the downsides associated with it. So you craft this really cool, how might we question and seek feedback on that. And then you get a bunch of ideas and you go, oh, we’ve got 20 ideas from people about how we could do this. You can quickly group them. So you might find there’s four or five core ideas in there, you can jump from that. That was really ideating. Jump into prototyping, then go, we’re going to pick on this one, we’re going to make a quick website or a Google doc or a Padlet that shows the structure of what this could look like. It’s a really down and dirty sort of low-fi prototype. And then we’re going to have some time testing it, showing up to the community, getting feedback again, and then we’re done with the cycle. So I guess just make sure it’s something meaningful that you’re actually going to use and just have maybe one simple strategy for each phase that everyone can sort of hang their hat on and go, yep, I understand that. And start with that. Do a simple sprint, five strategies, four strategies involved. And then once you feel comfortable with that, then go for a day long sprint. Maybe include some other strategies, maybe make the group bigger, but just make sure it’s meaningful. Make sure you genuinely intend on using the prototypes and the materials created during that process. After the date it doesn’t disappear.


Mike Pierre: Alright. And I have about two more questions for you as our time winds down. This one right here, I don’t know if you have an answer, but it’s on here. Because it’s the new topic of the year. So I just wanted to know is, is there any way school leaders can use artificial intelligence in regards to applying it to design thinking process?


John Burns: Yeah. I think you can use it for anything, right, it’s pretty helpful. So I’m doing it already. So I’ve used it within design thinking. I’ve given it the scope. I’ve said, hey, we’re going to engage in the design building process. This is the scope of what we’re doing. And I’ll just make an example. Now we’re going to do a development of a digital citizenship course for pre-K through to grade 12. That’s what we’re doing. So you can just tell that to Chat GPT and we’ll go, oh yeah, that’s fantastic. Well done. What do you need help with? And then it’s really useful. So you can say, well, we need some strategies that are useful for engaging younger learners and older learners. So we need some that are appropriate perhaps for age’s five to nine, we need some maybe from 10 to 14 and then some from 15 to 16. So what I want is the design thinking process broken up into a spreadsheet or a table. I want to see each phase of the design process as rows. I want to see as columns, these different age groups. And then with each column and corresponding row, I want you to give me three strategies, be appropriate for each of those age groups. So you can really clearly dictate what you want. You can say I want it at a table. I wanted to address each phase of the design thinking process and I want strategies that are age or learner appropriate. And it’ll spit all those out for you. So it’ll say, hey, have you considered using these with middle school for the prototyping phase? Have you considered using these with early phase units? Early phase learners, sorry, for empathizing stage. So that’s one way it gives you alternatives, which is really cool. Then you might be like, well we want to make low-fi prototypes, we want people to be able to create something roughly in an hour. What are some physical ways we could do that with these age groups and what are some digital ways we could do that? And so then it’ll say, well you can use cardboard construction, you can use paper, stuff like that. Or you could consider using these tools to showcase aesthetic versions of the products using Padlet or weight click or any of these tools out there. You can just use it anywhere. I think the key is with, I probably should have said this at the beginning when I was sort of defining that table specific and detail. Give it a lot of specificity and a lot of detail. The more detail you get it, the better response you’re going to get generally.


Mike Pierre: From the beginning. Because you had said you gave it something and then it responded to you, where you carried on to tell it even more. So what was that beginning prompt again? Is that where the…?


John Burns: Sorry. I was just giving it the scope probably of what we were doing. So saying, hey, we’re going to run a design sprint, it’s going to be on topic X and it’s with these age groups. So yeah, probably even jumping back to your point Mike, it comes down to prompt engineering or crafting detailed and specific prompts. And the more you provide in those prompts, the better the outcome. And it’s not, as we know, it’s not always correct with these tools like Chat GPT and Bard and Bing AI and others. But what you often get is something that’s useful that you can then tweak, that you can then take away and go, well, as an educator, I know that wouldn’t work with early phase learners or as a science teacher, I know that’s probably not exactly correct in terms of the strategy I want to use. And then you can tweak it to make it suit your context so they get close. They don’t always get perfect, but it’s going to get better. Right? We know that these things are evolving and becoming more sophisticated. So it’s exciting times, but definitely something you need to keep your head around.


Mike Pierre: Alright, thank you for that. Of course, we know AI and chat GPT could do everything, but sometimes you just need a boost in regards to how can it actually work for such a particular thing. So I didn’t know how you’re going to answer that, but now I understand. So thank you for that. Is there any types of books or resources at the moment that is really helpful to you or sticks out for the year?


John Burns: Yes.


Mike Pierre: You always have something in the best…


John Burns: Isn’t it? Yeah, this is a good one. I shared it in this session though. I’m just looking around. So this one, it’s called, this is a prototype and it’s only come out recently, but it’s by Scott Witt Hoft, who is one of the two authors I believe, of a previous book from Stanford’s D school called MakeSpace. And that book’s focused on how to set the stage for collaboration. So a lot of it’s about what types of things do you want to see happen in learning spaces or in design spaces, and then how might you create an environment that reflects that so it supports that sort of activity or that sort of learning or that sort of design. So that was their first book. He’s written another book recently. This is a prototype and it’s just really cool because it speaks specifically to the prototyping phase of design thinking. And it talks about not only the different types of prototypes, you can say, well if you’re going to make a prototype, here’s the three different versions you could consider making, but here’s the way to approach each individual one as well. So if you’re going to create anesthetic prototype, these tools will be really good. If you’re going to head down the path of making an MVP or a minimally viable product, then these tools are more useful. So yeah, it’s just practical, really useful sort of guide. The other obvious places, IDEO have an, if you go to IDEO’s website, IDEO, they have a ton of design thinking resources, Stanford D Skill have them. Actually there’s a lot of information online right now, but if I had to go to one, I’d go to IDEO. I think they had some really useful resources that would be supportive to educators and students, but I couldn’t preclude anyone else because there’s just a ton out there and people that are really working on not only having clarity around the rationale in each phase, but the strategies that are attached to each one and when to use them, when is this strategy better than another one.


Mike Pierre: And everyone should start at the empathizing phase, right?


John Burns: Yeah. That’s it. Full circle.


Mike Pierre: Alright John, I want to thank you for your time today and definitely with your insights in regards to design thinking. Did you want to let our guests know how to reach out to you? Whether it’s email, social media, or website that you may have? Want to plug yourself in real quick. I don’t know if you have any merch.


John Burns: You should look into merch. There you go. But no one would buy it. So they’d have all this merch.


Mike Pierre: You don’t know that.


John Burns: My email is and Twitter is John Burns with a zero instead of an o in John. Yeah, always happy to chat around all things design thinking, generative AI and generally technology and innovation in schools. Thanks Mike. Thanks Molly Fae for having me alone.


Molly Fae: It’s always a pleasure to get to talk with you, John, Mike, you guys are great.


John Burns: Yeah, absolutely. You too.


Mike Pierre: Thank you so much guys. John, thank you for your time. Molly Fae, thank you for being our listening guest in for today. Thank you for our listeners for listening today. Thanks for joining us in today’s episode of ISS EDUlearn: Ask Me Anything with Mike, missing Dana today. We hope you find John’s insights into design thinking useful. In conclusion, design thinking can be used to create more engaging and effective learning experiences for students. For example, by understanding the motives, students and what their needs are, schools can create a more meaningful learning experience that are tailored to individual students. Please join us for our next episode where we’ll continue to explore ways to improve education experience for us all. Until next time, our fellow educators, bye-bye.

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