Design Thinking in Higher Education: Opportunities and Challenges for Decolonized Learning


  • Danielle Lake Elon University
  • Wen Guo Florida State University
  • Elizabeth Chen University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Jacqui McLaughlin University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill



design thinking, pedagogy, decolonize, project-based learning, higher education


This article builds upon current research to understand the value and limitations of teaching and learning design thinking (DT) in higher education. We implemented a mixed-methods study with faculty and students across 23 diverse courses in four higher education institutions in the United States. Findings showed that following structured learning processes, engaging in active listening, and focusing on others’ perspectives were the most valued DT practices across disciplines. In contrast, prototyping and experimentation were the least used DT practices, with widely varying understandings across disciplines. Additionally, we found consistent evidence that DT can support liberatory teaching and learning practices that decolonize students’ perceptions of power, encourage situated and action-oriented empathy, and provide opportunities for co-creation. This is particularly true when faculty intentionally encourage collaboration and project framing focused on critically analyzing dominant ways of knowing and power structures. Our analysis further revealed the challenges and importance of prototyping and conducting experiments with project partners. Ultimately, this approach can significantly enhance liberatory project outcomes and facilitate decolonized learning experiences. Given our findings, we point out limitations and challenges across current DT pedagogical practices and provide recommendations for integrating DT practices across disciplines in ways that center on issues of systemic oppression, social identity, and human-environmental relationships.

Read the corresponding ISSOTL blog post here.


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Author Biographies

Danielle Lake, Elon University

Danielle Lake is the director of design thinking and associate professor at Elon University. Her scholarship, teaching, and service explore the potential and the challenges of relational, place-based design projects for addressing wicked problems, building capacities, and transforming systems. Learn more about the Center for Design Thinking here. and check out the Power and Place Collaborative here. To read more about her research see these selected works.

Wen Guo, Florida State University

Wen Guo is an assistant professor of arts administration at Florida State University. Her research interests include cultural policy networks, career development in the arts, and arts in community engagement. Dr. Guo’s scholarly articles have been published in prestigious journals such as Cultural Trends, Review of Policy Research, the Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, Studies in Art Education, Artivate: A Journal of Entrepreneurship in the Arts, and the American Journal of Arts Management, among others. She is also a research fellow of the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project and a panel reviewer for the arts research grant of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Elizabeth Chen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Liz Chen is the design thinking lead at Innovate Carolina the unit dedicated to innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic development at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She holds a joint appointment as an associate professor in the Department of Health Behavior at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and directs the graduate Certificate in Innovation for the Public Good. Her work focuses on supporting others to integrate design thinking into research, teaching, and practice. Recently, she has been focused on making the rapid prototyping processes more accessible and has published The Experimentation Field Book with step-by-step guidance and templates.

Jacqui McLaughlin, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Jacqui McLaughlin, PhD, is an associate professor and director of CIPhER (Center for Innovative Pharmacy Education and Research) at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. Dr. McLaughlin has published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles about higher education on topics including design thinking, diversity, experiential learning, flipped learning, graduate education, interprofessional education, and student selection.


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How to Cite

Lake, Danielle, Wen Guo, Elizabeth Chen, and Jacqui McLaughlin. 2024. “Design Thinking in Higher Education: Opportunities and Challenges for Decolonized Learning”. Teaching and Learning Inquiry 12 (January):1–22.