Design Thinking and Disengaged Students

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Now is the time to innovate classroom engagement with design thinking.

A desk sits in an empty classroom in Fairhaven, Massachusetts

I get it. Classroom educators across the country are at their breaking point. An assault of public opinion, lack of leadership support, COVID-19 protocols, increased workloads, and disengaged youth make teachers think twice about leaving the classroom. With classrooms challenging adults, imagine how difficult it is for students.

Design thinking requires a revolutionary shift in educators’ mindsets. The practice of design thinking forces people to identify and generate solutions with empathy. The classroom is no stranger to problems. While many teachers cannot change the systematic issues of public education, educators can begin transforming their practice to address today’s issues within their classrooms.

Design Thinking for Disengaged Students

One of the educators’ significant issues today is a rapid decrease in student engagement with traditional methods and understandable reasons.

  • Students haven’t had a normal education experience for the past two years.
  • They’ve missed out on school events, athletics, dances, and social activities
  • Apathy now increases across student populations.
  • Technology and social media provide addicting and easy escape mechanisms.
  • Their family dynamics have changed drastically, with many eduring losses associated with COVID-19.

I never understood teachers who complained students did not complete their assignments. I always ask myself, is it the student’s fault or what’s wrong with the assignment?

Today’s teachers must adapt to the times, and design thinking can help teachers refine current methods to reach today’s post-pandemic students. In five design thinking phases, educators can begin to increase student engagement.

Photo: Makers Empire


The core tenet of design thinking relies upon educators empathizing with their students. In 2022, I still feel like this skill is absent in many classrooms across America. Too many teachers look at their students as grades, not human beings.

I recently became heartbroken when a student wrote to me about how no one had ever been proud of them. No surprise here, but that student holds a negative opinion of public education and disengages in many of his classes.

Another disengaged student with disabilities told me his feelings about not being seen or included in their other classes.

Today’s students require an abundance of empathy. Empathetic educators develop tangible trust with students, improve student engagement, and challenges students to change their academic approach.

The first step to developing empathy is to listen. Stop talking, and listen to the student.

Define the Problem

There are many reasons why students disengage in class. Whatever the reason, educators should not create assumptions about the student and instead should practice empathy and talk to students privately to determine the root issue of their disengagement.

For example, that student who doesn’t do their homework? It’s not because they hate your class or are lazy. Instead, their mother is sick and can’t work. So the student works until 11:00 pm to provide for his siblings. How can a student complete homework with other obligations?

Ideate and Prototype

Reaching disengaged students can feel you’re moving mountains, but for those students, it matters. Once educators have identified the root problem causing their disengagement, they can now prototype multiple solutions.

Let’s ideate and prototype some solutions for our working students not completing homework:

  • Is the homework even necessary?
  • Do we skip grading homework?
  • Can the homework be taught in class?
  • Is there a different project that can reinforce these skills during classtime?
  • Can the student create something that demonstrates their own understanding of the material?
  • How can we relate the topic with this student on a personal level?
  • What choices can we create for the student to introduce new topics?
  • How can we personalize learning for this student to hook learning?
  • What other formats can we explore for this student?
    • If worksheets aren’t working can we offer a multimedia project? A song? A video?
  • Can we create a group based project and team this student up with a friend?


After implementing solutions, teachers should reflect to see if student engagement increased. If not, educators shouldn’t give up on their students and instead repeat the design thinking process until the problem becomes solved.

However, this process should include conversations with the student. You’ll gain far more insight into your practice by following up with your student, and they’ll grow to appreciate and respect you more.

Designing the Next Effective Classroom

I understand this approach makes teaching more challenging. It complicates your tried and true methods, increases workload, and the unknown outcomes paralyze your risk-taking mindset.

However, it makes a world of difference for your student.

For more resources on Design Thinking:

Maker’s Empire

Design Thinking- Edutopia

Harvard University

About the Author
About the Author

Drew Furtado is an Emmy Award winning filmmaker, and leader of a nationally recognized high school media arts communication department .

He develops guides and strategies for nonprofit and educational organizations to improve and grow their social media presence, website development, and communication practices that best engages audiences.

New Bedford, Massachusetts

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