Research suggests pedagogical strategies with roots in constructivism can arm students with 21st century skills to prepare them for a successful future. While sufficient literature on constructivism exists, suggestions on formalized instructional approaches for applying theory to practice are limited. Design thinking is a process traditionally implemented in design and business industries to solve complex, ill-structured problems. As an instructional strategy, the design thinking process enables constructivist methodology in classrooms. This exploratory case study examines the process and outcomes of implementing design thinking as a pedagogical strategy in an elementary school classroom involving 25 third grade students and one teacher. The research explores the impact of design thinking on 21st century skills, which were characterized by the Four Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. The teacher and researcher partnered to design and implement a K-12 adapted design thinking framework for his classroom over a period of seven weeks. The design thinking framework laid the foundation for the instructional approach, while the design challenge was integrated into the third grade social studies curriculum. Sources of data included student group interviews, teacher interviews, student pre-post self-assessments, self-reflections, and researcher observations. Findings reveal the design thinking process as an engaging, curriculum-integrated constructivist approach that helps students successfully strengthen 21st century skills while addressing academic content. An analysis and triangulation of findings resulted in four conclusions: (a) design thinking is an effective instructional practice for elementary student learning of the Four Cs of 21st century skills; (b) design thinking presents opportunities for interactive, collaborative learning experiences where students are interested in the assignment; (c) design thinking involves a specific set of phases each that is essential to the process; and (d) design thinking requires deliberate efforts from the teacher for successful classroom implementation. Educators are encouraged to consider design thinking as a pedagogical strategy to complement existing curriculum and aid classroom instruction. When integrated into academic content standards, design thinking supports students in acquiring content knowledge while developing 21st century skills. The research results contribute to existing literature by providing insights from the teacher and students while participating in a design thinking implementation in an elementary classroom.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Dissertations (EdD) -- Learning technologies; Creative thinking -- Study and teaching (Elementary); Educational innovations; Critical thinking

Date of Award


School Affiliation

Graduate School of Education and Psychology



Degree Type


Degree Name


Faculty Advisor

Davis, Kay D.;