“The most promising way educators or policy makers might implement deep change requires little more than harnessing the innate capacity of each individual.”

Amidst the constant buzz of disruption, innovation, and the “future of (fill in the blank)” there’s a large and untapped resource with the potential to revolutionize the way we do education. It’s something that comes prepackaged in each of us at birth and something that gives us the upper hand on the oft feared role of AI in our future.

While humans are thankfully quite distinct from technology, we do have some tricks up our sleeves. Or perhaps in our skulls. These “tricks” are largely based on our ability to think flexibly and critically, take perspective and potentially empathize with others, and in our unique ability to create solutions to life’s most pressing and often promising challenges.

There is much ado about mystical ways to enhance learning or deepen engagement from quick fix to tech laden innovations. Yet the most promising way educators or policy makers might implement deep change requires little more than harnessing the innate capacity of each individual, and the built in technology that distinguishes us from other creatures: our prefrontal cortex or PFC (Carlén, 2017).

The region of the human brain developed most recently is also the part that supports our ability to plan, monitor, and regulate our lived experiences. And whether our PFC evolved for another purpose and has since been repurposed as the place of higher order thinking (HOT) the PFC may very well be our human superpower (Brown, Lau, & LeDoux, 2019).

Design thinking as a construct is hardly novel. A quick search of the history of design thinking surfaces talk of ‘wicked problems’ (Buchanan, 1992) or manufacturing materials (Hackman & Grimm, 1971). Yet the way in which teachers are using the practices to elicit higher order thinking, connections to content, and meaning making are quite revolutionary. Ultimately, the model of design thinking that I’ve put forth is based on iterative yet flexible application of knowledge in the pursuit of making a meaningful change.

The PFC’s of design thinking in my model include: Process (over product), Formative assessment (over single-shot summative assessment), and Creation (over consumption). And the research is clear, a focus on feedback through the process of learning (Berland & McNeill, 2010) and providing ongoing feedback (Weurlander, Söderberg, Scheja, Hult, & Wernerson, 2012) may be the best methods we hold to enact meaningful educational change.

Individual differences in thinking are made visible in the process of design thinking. These differences are not only highlighted but celebrated in a design thinking classroom. Moreover, the formative feedback during this process becomes future facing feedback that fuels continuous learning and purposeful engagement. What emerges from design thinking work is not only a concrete outcome but perhaps a different process, but the most important aspect of design thinking is the emphasis on creation over consumption of canned curriculum.

The same standards can be addressed in a way that provides learners with the autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2010) students crave to find meaning in applying learning in the world. What’s more, design thinking can happen in a single class period or an entire semester, in a stand alone course or school wide over the course of the year. The only requirement is a commitment to flexibility and iteration with an eye towards the application of knowledge towards a purposeful end.

The skills rooted in the PFC’s of Designed to Learn enhance our biological PFC and can be augmented by the technologies of today and tomorrow. In Designed to Learn, the elements of design thinking include a continuous focus on metacognition (learning to learn), self-regulated learning, and epistemology (nature of knowledge and knowing). In each element students and their educators reflect, revise, and rethink the way in which knowledge can be applied to design the change THEY want to see in the world.

How we think about our thinking, take the perspective of others, provide and receive feedback during learning, and create our own use of knowledge is often the best ways to enhance and support learning. Taken together, elements of design thinking can be used in tandem with the tech of today and those in our future to augment the process, feedback, and creation of powerful learning.

Moreover, the emphasis of process over product, embedded formative feedback, and the nature of creation make design thinking a natural partner for innovative technologies. Design thinking taps into our latent skills and supports our learners today and in the future OUR STUDENTS have yet to create.


Berland, L., & McNeill, K. (2010). A learning progression for scientific argumentation: Understanding student work and designing supportive instructional contexts. Science Education, 94(5), 765–793.

Brown, R., Lau, H., & LeDoux, J. E. (2019). Understanding the higher-order approach to consciousness. Trends in cognitive sciences.

Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. Design issues, 8(2), 5–21.

Carlén, M. (2017). What constitutes the prefrontal cortex?. Science, 358(6362), 478–482.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2010). Self‐determination. The Corsini encyclopedia of psychology, 1–2.

Hackman, L., & Grimm, G. (1971). Designing and fabricating with filamentary composites. Materials Science and Engineering, 8(5), 249–258.

Weurlander, M., Söderberg, M., Scheja, M., Hult, H., & Wernerson, A. (2012). Exploring formative assessment as a tool for learning: Students’ experiences of different methods of formative assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 37(6), 747–760.



Dr. Lindsay Portnoy

Intellectually curious. I follow my ideas. Cognitive scientist, author, educator, activist.