What is ‘design thinking’? And why does it belong in classrooms?

Dr. Lindsay Portnoy
5 min readJan 13, 2020

This article was originally published in the Washington Post on October 8, 2019: https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2019/10/08/what-is-design-thinking-why-does-it-belong-classrooms/

Fauquier High School is a large public school in Warrenton, Va. With its multiple buildings, it feels more like a college campus than a high school. The layout makes it difficult for the school community to connect. In 2017, school officials went in search of a solution that would help students and staff feel a greater sense of community.

One educator drew inspiration from an unusual place: the school’s front lobby and hallways.

George Murphy is a science educator at Fauquier and realized that while he couldn’t change the structure of the buildings, he could work with students to design a space that builds community. He noticed the bare walls along the main lobby where school faculty members and students gathered each morning and saw a blank template ripe for innovation.

Murphy’s idea: create an interdisciplinary mural.

The mural would be a living timeline to visually document the tremendous amount of knowledge acquired within the school’s walls. Murphy’s AP biology students started in the lobby by representing their learning through rich visual imagery chronologically across the physical space.

Each department added its own contributions, and soon scientifically accurate models of the ocean’s layers emerged alongside images of historical figures and the technologies driving each innovation.

For the first time, students could see connections across seemingly disparate fields such as medicine, technology and history. Through the living timeline, it became clear how technological innovations like X-ray diffraction set the stage for medical discoveries like DNA, leading the way for a deeper understanding of genetics and disease.

What began as a dilemma of connection and community turned into a celebration of learning. Students were seen proudly showing siblings and parents their contribution to a community knowledge installation, and through experience they learned that knowledge itself grows through collaboration.



Dr. Lindsay Portnoy

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