Apologies in advance for what will be a longish blogpost…
My final unit with my Year 8 (12 year olds) English class of 2014 was an extended design thinking exploration. For it, I posed the following question: ‘How might we welcome students into the Marsden family at Years 7 and 8?’
To shape my reflection of this unit of work, I’m going to use some of the headings from the d. School design thinking process that we used as our base structure.
Under this heading, I’m going to focus on what my students thought of the unit we completed, and what they reported they learned through their reflections.
The girls learned three key things: what empathy is and why it’s important in a design thinking process; the value of prototyping; and a greater appreciation for design thinking and what it has to offer. They reported especially enjoying the ideation and prototyping phases of the unit. They loved that all ideas – no matter how wacky – were accepted without judgement, and they loved making physical prototypes. As one student said, “I can concentrate when it’s fun.”
We spent quite a lot of time in the empathy phase in this unit, for one thing, this was where I was particularly emphasising some specific English-related close reading skills, and consequently I felt the girls really grasped this important concept well. In their own words, they defined empathy as “informed sympathy”; learning “to put yourself in someone’s shows and relate to how they feel.”
I was equally pleased, however, with their obvious enjoyment of the prototyping phase. Being a highly academically successful school, sometimes I worry that our students are afraid of taking risks and being ‘wrong’. Learning to fail fast, fail forward, and fail with a positive attitude to build resilience is crucial. So to hear comments like: “it takes a while to get the exact thing that you want/like,” and: “I learnt how good it is to design something without it being perfect and then changing and evaluating later,” made me feel proud.
Here are what the girls themselves said they learned through experiencing the design thinking process:
- “how to think hard to create more ideas”
- “how to put yourself in other people’s shoes and produce things that will help others, not just yourself”
- “design thinking helps you to learn how to process ideas into something to help people”
- “design thinking helps you to efficiently solve a problem”
And my absolute favourite:
Design Thinkers must be selfless people.
In this section, I’m going to outline the unit that I put in front of the students.
I had no preconceived ideas of the products or solutions I thought the students might come up with. I really just wanted an authentic issue – the overarching question links to something staff had been discussing over the year – and a context the girls themselves could easily relate to, with resources easily on hand. I’m indebted to the #dtk12chat community, and this LiveBinder resource, curated by Thomas Riddle. And from this resource, I based my unit on this challenge.
The folder of resources I created is available here.
Something I was pleasantly surprised to learn about a benefit of using a design thinking approach was the way that it made me be much more consistently explicit about what we were doing, and how it tied into the bigger picture of the unit and the guiding ‘How Might We’ question. I became much more focused on the learning. Instinctively, I started to write reflective sentence starters on the board for students to use in the middle and/or at the end of the lesson. This is something I would like to formalise more in a future iteration. Schools who use a learning portfolio could really capitalise on this.
Overall, what I needed to improve on was the ‘define’ phase of our unit. This was woolly and waffly, and the girls themselves identified this weakness in their reflections. We had a guiding ‘HMW’ question already, and although we spent time writing point of view statements (‘___ needs a way to ___ because she ___’) these weren’t quality and therefore failed to be of sufficient value. Subsequently we didn’t whittle our mass ideation down well. Although the overall products definitely met the brief, and have been taken up by the school for implementation in 2015, we lost our way in the middle here.
In this section, I’m going to brainstorm some ways in which I could improve this unit in future, particularly focusing on the identified weak points of the ‘define’ and refining ‘ideation’ phases.
- Have a formalised reflection log. This could take the form of: portfolio, blog. Consider other forms, e.g. voice/oral reflection.
- Spend more time explaining the ‘point of view’ statements. Just as we did with ‘ideation’ and ‘prototyping’, build these skills first. Have a practice run.
- Rather than write ‘point of view’ statements, refine the original ‘how might we’ question.
- Write a ‘point of view’ statement for an actual person, rather than a fictional girl.
- Write a different ‘point of view’ sentence frame that suits the specific challenge better.
- Research other user statements to use in place of the ‘point of view’ statement.
- Evaluate the defined problem in light of the over-arching HMW question.
- Use more than one method of refining ideation: 6 stars; safe bet/long shot/darling; rating system e.g. novelty, usefulness, viability, risk.
- Think about what online tools could help, e.g. writing user/point of view statements in Google Docs for ease of collaboration. Google Forms to rate ideas/get feedback on point of view statements.
- Sum up what’s been learned by empathising to guide more direct links to defining a specific problem/area of focus.
[I’d love your input here…what thoughts/ideas can you suggest for me?]
Because I won’t be in a formal classroom like this in 2015, I’m not going to prototype a further iteration of this unit at this stage. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed teaching this unit, but, more importantly, teaching in this way. It confirmed for me the power and promise and purpose of design thinking, which I’ve written about before here.
I was highly amused at the stumbling block we hit as a class once we finished our prototyping phase, and I expected the students to actually create their products/solutions. The girls thought I meant just making a ‘tidier copy’ of their cardboard creations. It took almost a full hour to convince them I meant otherwise. This brought home to me that mostly teachers require ‘fake real’ projects from their students. Unschooling my students out of this, albeit briefly, was a win.
These are the girls’ final products. They presented them to their deans, who were so impressed they had the girls work on a modified version for use with the new students starting next month. I hope my students learned that they have a voice to create something of value, that they have the skills and resources, and, most importantly, the disposition to make a contribution.