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Bring Positive Education to Life: Design Thinking for Teachers and Students

By Katie Curran, MAPP

Founder, Proof Positive

In 2014, I was approached by a local high school (RHS) to discuss launching a Positive Education Initiative. This interest, in my community, was one of those times in life where the stars aligned. I had been to the UK and Australia to train on Positive Education, but this was the first I was hearing of interest here in New Jersey. From the first meeting, the school leadership understood the importance of providing the skills and science of Positive Psychology to the faculty first. They dedicated 20 hours of Professional Development to workshops designed to enhance wellbeing, resilience, and performance. Having teachers “Learn It” and “Live It” proved a huge success. Now it was time to think about how to “Teach It.”

Having recently completed a program at Stanford on Design Thinking, it was clear there was a synergy between it and Positive Education. To embrace the “Teach It” component of Positive Education at RHS, we decided to select 10 highly motivated faculty members that would serve as Positive Education Leaders (PELs). They would be exposed to Design Thinking as a way to bring Positive Education to life for the other teachers and students at RHS.

Here is a quick look at the 5 phases of Design Thinking aiding the implementation of Positive Education at RHS. It is important to note that the Positive Education training was framed around Martin Seligman’s PERMA Theory of Wellbeing. The examples below highlight round one where we were solely focused on Positive Emotion.


Phase one of Design Thinking is to empathize with the customer (in our case, the students) through interviews and observations. The 10 Positive Education Leaders (PELs) spent the first month of school interviewing students about their experiences with emotion in and out of school. We then got together as a team and spent hours sorting through the interview data. Design Thinking poses four categories to sort the data — what did the students SAY, THINK, FEEL, DO. The PELs were on the look out for insights that would help them best increase experiences of positive emotion for their students.

Success Story: The AP Psychology PEL was struck by the theme that her students experience high levels of positive emotion when they are “doing their learning.” In HS, teachers tend to increase lecture time to cover content. This was diminishing positive emotion, she thought. In response to this finding, she has engaged her students in doing a total classroom redsign and is creating a “Collaborative Learning Environment.” Proposals are in for new furniture, a wall painted as a joy board, and all lesson plans are being reconsidered!


Phase two of Design Thinking is to write a statement of need that clearly defines the problem for which you are solving. Each PEL wrote their own statement based on the findings of their student interviews. The format for the statement includes, (1) describe the user/customer, (2) describe the need, (3) include meaningful insights. An example needs statement, “Stressed out, high-achieving, disconnected students need a way to experience more authentic joy through connection in the classroom because while they spend hours together everyday and are connected online, they don’t feel they actually have friends to laugh with.” These statements are specific and meant to really capture the students and their needs.


Phase three of Design Thinking is to creatively sketch and/or list possible solutions and innovations to enhance the user experience. This is a place where Design Thinking has adopted Positive Psychology very naturally.   Creativity is encouraged through playing high energy music, having fun snacks available, and ensuring the facilitator is providing tons of positive feedback. Thanks to Barbara Fredrickson, many of us now know that this is her Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotion in action! All sorts of creative ideas were flowing out of our PELs. After the sketches were complete, each PEL shared their innovation and the others listened to grow the idea and provide feedback. This idea stream of positivity allowed for awesome discussion!

Success Story: One of the innovations included taking an emotion poll to start classes by having students close their eyes and give thumbs up to down for how they are feeling. After the PELs discussed and played with this idea, they decided to design an interactive class sign-in board where as students walk into the classroom, they can place an anonymous dot on a board containing a wide range of emotions. Based on this polling, the teacher would start the lesson with a Positive Emotion intervention. For example, if the class was generally feeling pretty good, they could start with sharing What Went Well examples. If the class was feeling generally anxious or stressed, they might start with a few moments of mindfulness.


The fourth phase of Design Thinking is to begin prototyping the innovations. In some cases, this means building with construction paper (yes, I redesigned my Stanford partner’s bathroom with scissors, glue and construction paper). In our case, this meant beginning to sketch lessons, design bulletin boards, and build presentations. The PELs left with a very clear understanding of how to bring their innovative strategies to life in their classrooms. The goal was to enhance student’s experiences with positive emotion, and boy did these ideas hit the mark!

Success Story: The prototypes spanned content and classes. The prototypes included class-wide “Positivity Portfolios”, Thinking Traps in the context of Macbeth, Physical Education games that are simple enough for all to laugh and connect in the beginning of gym classes, and having special needs students create Jolts of Joy lists to help them access instant positive feelings throughout the day.


The fifth and final phase of Design Thinking is to test the product and receive feedback from the users. Once the PELs presented their lessons, they received feedback on how it was perceived and how to better innovate. Design Thinking is very much about rapid prototyping and being willing to be flexible and agile based on user feedback. The question was, did the innovations enhance positive emotion? There was a resounding – YES.

Success Story: In one class, students took the Positivity Ratio for their own self-awareness and to serve as a baseline. The teacher and several students were struck by the low ratios many of the students shared. As a class, they committed to creating independent positivity portfolios (designed as Google drives that could be shared with the teacher or each other), starting each class with sharing positive news, and monitoring their ratios on a bi-weekly basis. The students recently nominated this PEL for Teacher of The Month in their district. The nomination read, “Mr. B is an amazing Physics teacher, but more than Physics, he has been teaching us how to be positive in our lives. We are so thankful for his willingness to spend time caring about us. We love the positivity and how it has helped us bond.”

For RHS, this is just the beginning. The PELs will utilize Design Thinking for each of the elements of PERMA.   Once they have designed a wide range of implementation strategies for each element, they will compile the ideas and plans into a Positive Education toolkit for all faculty to pull from.

RHS is one example of fusing cutting-edge science with state-or-the art design practices to implement Positive Education in a way that allows teachers to own the implementation and design for their individual students. Wellbeing is personal, therefore, the only way to truly change lives is through designing for each person. Design Thinking for Positive Education allows teachers to connect with their students in a new and powerful way!

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For more information on other projects utilizing DT for PE, contact me at


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