Design Thinking in English Learning

I’m always interested in new ideas because it keeps my teaching fresh. One of the great things about working with fantastic students is that new ideas come very often.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to one student about a session she organised at her workplace and she mentioned Design Thinking. I had never heard of it, and after she described it a little, I decided to do my research and how I could use this as a teacher.

Here’s what I found

Design Thinking is a solution-based way of thinking.

It uses five steps (empathise, define, ideate, prototype, test), which you can use again and again. It is not a strict linear process. This means you can do steps 1-5 in a line, or in a circle, or backwards, or forwards. Whatever you need.

As I did more and more research, I became very excited. From my point of view, Design Thinking gives us an opportunity to make creative, people-centred solutions to problems.

Plus, I like systems where you are given a series of steps because this helps me to break down what I want.

Finally, as an ESL teacher, I can see that it provides a neat framework that you can use to create your own personal learning plan.

Can I use Design Thinking to learn English?


What I’d like to do in this post is look at each of the steps in the Design Thinking process, explain them a little and then give you questions which you can ask yourself. At the end, you can use your answers to find a learning system that works best for you.

Is design thinking really for me?

Of course, you will only know if you try 😉

I found it amazing because I love lists. I love the idea of writing down a load of ideas and choosing the ones that are best for me.

Plus, it is great if you are a visual learner because you can get your ideas on paper. You can use colours and Post-Its, and turn your goal into a piece of art.

It can also be good if you like to move when you learn. For example, you could put step 1 in one part of your room, step 2 in another corner and so on. Then you could follow the process by walking around the space. Some speakers actively encourage you to move around when you are thinking because movement helps your brain work better.

take a walk movement is good design thinking english teacher berlin

Take a walk – it’s good for you! ©MoreThanGrammar 2018

For learners who like listening to things, you could change it a bit. For example, you do invite a friend and do it together, or you could record your ideas on your phone and listen to them.

Or you could do a mixture of all of these. Or you could do it while hanging upside down. Or you could do it in the bath. The main thing is: give it a go! It’s good for your brain to introduce yourself to different ways of doing things.

The Five Steps

Step 1: Empathy:

The first stage is to “empathise” with your problem.

This means you need to understand what you want exactly. For this you need to ask two questions:

  • what do I want to learn?
  • what problems do I have? (time, confidence, opportunity etc)

This helps you to become clearer about what you want and also what could stop you from getting to this goal.

For example: I want to improve my grammar, but I usually become demotivated quickly when I make lots of mistakes.

Or: I want to learn more words, but I don’t have enough time.

It’s important to know what could stop you because then you will be aware of the problem. When you know what your problem is, then it’s much easier to think of ways around this.

Step 2: Define:

So now you know what you want and what problems you could face, you need to define your goal as a positive statement or a question.

For example

  • What would it take for me to increase my vocabulary?
  • How might I improve my pronunciation?
  • I want to improve my grammar to get IELTS band 7 so that I can get into university

You could also combine this stage with a SMART goal as this will also help you to think about the time you need to finish this goal by.

Make it clear, make it positive and make it right for you.

someone shouting I want design thinking english teacher berlin

©MoreThanGrammar 2018

Step 3: Ideate:

For me, this is the fun part. Now you’ve got your goal (your why) we need to find your how.

Ways of brainstorming:

  • List 50 of the worst ways you could learn vocabulary
  • List 100 ways you could practice pronunciation
  • List 20 ways you could continue to avoid learning

If you have no more ideas, move around or work in a different location. Remember, movement is good for the brain!

I recently tried to do this. In fact, I did an exercise where I had to list 100 ways of earning more money. That was hard, man. It took me a week! So don’t stress about getting all the ideas in one sitting. Sometimes we need time.

Quick question: Why think of the worst idea?

Have you ever noticed that, when you are thinking of new ideas, you sometimes say ‘oh no, that’s a terrible idea!’ and then you stop the activity?

This is where thinking of the WORST POSSIBLE IDEAS can help. You can relax, have fun and actually sometimes allows really great ideas to come up. So give it a go! You never know what might happen.

worst possible idea ideation english teacher berlin

Don’t try this at home… ©MoreThanGrammar 2018

Step 4: Prototype:

This is where you use these ideas to create a system that works for you.

Choose ONE method from your ideas. JUST ONE. We need to make learning realistic and if you choose too many, it can become too much and you won’t do anything. Plus, first we need to check if this idea is good for you.

Possible methods are:

I’m going to read 10 pages from a book every day

Or: I’m going to write 50 words a day in my new diary

Or: I’m going to learn 40 new words a week using this app on my phone

Now ask yourself:

  • When am I going to do this? (Morning, evening, lunchtime?)
  • Where am I going to do this? (at home, at work, in a park, on the train?)
  • How am I going to do this? (on a computer, in a notebook, on my phone?)

Now the important thing: save some time in your calendar for this. Make it just as important as your work meetings. This is your goal and it’s worth giving time for it. Plus, when we get a reminder in our calendars we are more likely to remember. It makes you more aware, more responsible and more motivated.

Step 5: Test:

Finally, do it!

Then after 3 weeks, review your method. Ask yourself: is this working?

If yes, great! Keep going.

If not, that’s OK. YOU HAVEN’T WASTED TIME! You needed to see this method didn’t work so you can find the right one.

So if it’s not working for you, ask yourself:

  • How could I change it?
  • Do I need to add something extra?
  • Have my goals changed?
  • Could I use one of my other ideas instead?

Language learning is a process. Design thinking is a process. Maybe that’s why they work so well together…

someone looking at post its ideation design thinking english teacher berlin.jpg

This is me on a daily basis ©MoreThanGrammar 2018

In summary:

  • Design Thinking works for different learning styles
  • There are five stages, and you can do them again and again
  • The five stages are: empathise, define, ideate, prototype, test
  • Review your method and change it if it doesn’t work
  • You are awesome and you can do this!

Remember: The best way to see if it works is to do it. If you need any help, give me a call and we can arrange a lesson to find the best way for you.

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