I Taught a Design Thinking Unit and It Wasn’t As Scary As It Seems

A comprehensive example for the curious (but cautious) teacher

There’s something especially infomercial-y about a Design Thinking workshop: fanciful demonstrations, infectious catchphrases, the intimations that without this thing you’ll be doomed to live out the remainder of your pathetic existence as a pariah on the fringes of common decency. The promises sound too good to be true — the practical applications too dubious.

What I found particularly frustrating was grasping the concept (especially in a non-educational context) but never seeing a tangible classroom example in its entirety: hypotheticals here, isolated examples there, Post-It notes and pipe cleaners everywhere — but nothing that follows one example through the entire cycle, or better still, shows me how others worked in seemingly incongruent objectives & standards.

Which is precisely why I’m writing this article: to show an example of Design Thinking in action, demystify curriculum alignment, and provide some resources (and hopefully, inspiration) to try it for yourself.

I’m going to assume that, if you’re reading this, you at least have a cursory understanding of the Design Thinking process. Regardless, I recommend the following:

  • A growth mindset, for both you and your students: look, it’s not a hackneyed buzzword. OCD control-freaks beware: you have to be willing to take some risks and relinquish the reins. Be prepared to foster resilience and even encourage failure (harumph!). At the very least, do a bit of reflection on a hypothetical unit/subject/idea and ask yourself:
  • IDEO’s Design Thinking for Educators Workbook & Toolkit: these two (free!) PDFs really do break down the entire process, and adaptations of the activities formed the skeleton for much of my own unit. Consider this required reading — in fact, it would help to read the activities in each stage as you go through my example, just to connect the dots.
  • The NoTosh Lab: this DT firm has some excellent resources in their “lab” — a space for design thinkers to share materials, activities, and examples.

I’d also recommend the following books, both of which explore mindset and will make you look more intelligent and handsome (probably) when you quote them at dinner parties:

The example you’ll see comes from a Grade 8 Humanities (read: Social Studies) unit called “Roosevelt, We Have a Problem!” The other classes were doing a unit on the Industrial Revolution in which they examine an industrial sea change, research a developing nation, identify a problem related to energy, and propose an alternative energy source for the country.

I thought about my school’s mission statement, part of which states that we “empower students to […] create socially-responsible solutions.” So instead of the above, I decided to use the Middle School itself as the environment, allow the students to brainstorm issues that mattered the most to them, and propose/prototype tangible solutions to these problems.

Today’s bellwork: KILL THE PIG

To be clear, this was the first time I had ever tried anything this radical in my class — sure, we’d done plenty of PBL, but this was a whole new frontier in freedom. I was relentlessly haunted by fears of my classroom fragmenting into chaos, with students blowing conch shells and hunting myself and each other down in a frenzied state of primal lawlessness.

But I tried it anyway! And it worked! And there was only minimal fire damage! And now I want to share it with you!

I try to break each stage down, explain the objectives, provide a video summary, and then connect it to my curriculum outcomes. In this case, I’m using the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program Year 3 (Grade 8) assessment objectives, but I really want to stress that curriculum is curriculum and good teaching is good teaching — I encourage you to view curriculum as secondary (growth mindset, remember?), and ask yourself how this example can apply to your own practices.

[Immerse yourself in ideas and brainstorm about the topic]

Besides introducing the unit, this stage was all about getting the students to brainstorm and explore ideas that they had about problems that exist in Middle School. Once they generated their list, they grouped up according to interest, explored their preconceptions about the issue, and created an actionable “challenge question” (in the form of “How might we…?”) with a rationale to justify why this was a worthy topic to pursue.

Common issues that came up included: uniforms, exit procedures, after-school activities & school spirit, and homework policies. By the end of the Getting Started stage, an example of a challenge question that one group developed was:

How might we add options to the school’s uniform policy?

If you think this sounds a bit affected and opportunistic, you’re right; at this point, students are still bringing their own assumptions to the table. Keep in mind that this was essentially a rough draft in a series of many iterations— we’ll follow this question’s progress throughout the stages.

In this stage, I graded the challenge question/rationale brief according to Criterion B: Investigating: (i) Formulate/choose a clear and focused research question

[Investigate further, empathize, and get inspired]

In this stage, students began to coalesce as a group, reviewing the challenge and defining key people who were associated with the problem. The idea was to get outside of their own preconceptions regarding the issue — to empathize with the needs/hopes/frustrations of others in relation to the problem in order to eventually make a truly socially-responsible solution. Students made a question/investigation guide to delve deeper into the issue, and then conducted and recorded their research.

Students at their group’s workspace (artist’s conception)

On that note, it was during this stage that the we turned the classroom itself into our “war room” — in other words, we covered the walls with butcher paper, Post-It notes, and other ways to visually track our learnings. While this might sound a bit gimmicky, I’ve come to really appreciate the idea of having a tangible space at which you’re able to manipulate your thoughts.

In this stage, I re-graded an updated question/brief along with the investigation guide according to Criterion B: Investigating: (i) Formulate/choose a clear and focused research question; (ii) formulate and follow an action plan to explore a research question; (iii) use methods to collect and record relevant information; and (iv) evaluate the process and results of the investigation

[Gain an even deeper understanding and find opportunity]

After conducting their investigations/interviews/deep forays into the issues, the groups needed to “synthesize” the information they were now simmering in. The idea of this stage was to probe the trove of quotations and observations for themes and insights that would provide actionable opportunities for moving forward.

This was the stage where the process really started to click for students — they were getting outside of their own biases and empathizing with a wider audience. As I mentioned earlier, the challenge questions were still undergoing revision even five weeks into the unit, to the good-natured exasperation of the students (and endless amusement of myself). Remember the group that started out wanting to add options to the uniform policy? By this point in the process, their challenge question looked more like this:

How might we allow students more opportunities for self-expression?

They were starting to realize that the problem was a lot deeper than they first thought, which is pretty cool — but it gets even cooler.

For this stage I created a document that tied together several skills that students had been learning in order to explore the bias, values, and limitations of outside perspectives. I graded this document according to Criterion D: Thinking Critically (ii) summarize information to make valid, well-supported arguments; (iii) analyse a range of sources/data in terms of origin and purpose, recognizing values and limitations; and (iv) recognize different perspectives and their implications

[Generate ideas and integrate feedback]

It had been more than a month and students were practically foaming at the mouth to start exploring potential solutions to their revised challenge questions. In this stage, we opened the floodgates: students were encouraged to be as footloose and fancy-free while brainstorming solutions as possible; then, I mercilessly crushed their wildest dreams (mwahaha) with a reality check and a list of constraints. Students focused on a solution that best ticked the preliminary boxes, and then conducted an activity called a “pre-mortem” — essentially, a list of things that could potentially derail the project along with proactive solutions. Once students had a solid grasp of their solution, they researched infomercials, and then conducted an “elevator pitch” in which they pitched an abbreviated version of their idea.

Based on the feedback they received, students decided what was relevant and then revised their challenge question (and solution idea) one final time. To revisit our evolving challenge question from before, that group had gone from: providing more uniform options → opportunities for self-expression →

How might we create a space for girls to explore gender issues?

Woah… talk about super-duper relevance. This proud-papa-bear moment really highlights the beauty of the DT cycle: based on the extensive activities designed to empathize with the audience and seek previously unconsidered connections, students went from something as contrived (and frankly, shortsighted) as uniform options to filling a void in which girls can explore meaningful issues that aren’t currently being addressed.

For this stage, I simply assessed a description of the solution idea, the pre-mortem, and the elevator pitch according to Criterion A: Knowing & Understanding (i) use a range of terminology in context; (ii) demonstrate knowledge and understanding of subject-specific content and concepts, using descriptions, explanations and examples

[Create a prototype and get more feedback]

Final challenge question? Check. Feedback integrated into solution idea? Yes. Stock portfolio diversified with 3M shares? Oh hell yes. Surely it’s time now to create the final solution? Not quite. In the Experimentation stage, students were given choices for how to prototype their solution idea (i.e. if the idea is a video, create the storyboard; if the idea is an awareness campaign, design a mockup of the advertisement). The fundamental idea of this stage was to fail and iterate as much as possible. Students underwent several rounds of designing, getting feedback, and redesigning their prototypes to ensure maximum effectiveness.

Our example group from earlier worked with a sampling of female students and administrators to create a solution to their updated challenge question: a lunchtime program called “Girl Power,” in which female students could have a safe and comfortable environment to explore gender issues. The group created multiple prototypes for how best to advertise this program:

Cue Beyonce’s “Run the World”

Feedback from target audience samples was integrated, and the students were ready for the “last” step in the process.

[Plan the next steps and celebrate the process]

Having iterated their prototypes, students were (finally) ready to actualize their ideas and implement their solutions. The groups aligned themselves with “champions” of their ideas (read: people who could help them make moves) and then said moves were made.

Here are a few of the solutions that were advertised around the school:

Lunchtime Study Halls

The above group wanted to address the issue of student stress, and decided to create lunchtime study halls that emphasized the positive effects: getting your work done while at school = more time to pursue your passions.

After-School Activities Instagram

This group wanted to cultivate a greater sense of school spirit, and decided to create a social media account that supports and celebrates the after-school activities program.

Middle School Talent Show

This group felt that there weren’t enough non-sporty ways for students to express themselves and share their talents. They teamed up to create the middle school’s first talent show, which ended up being a resounding success. To wit, afterwards our AP approached me and said that watching the talent show made her “feel like we were doing Middle School right.”

Before we transitioned to the next unit, I asked the students to fill out a survey about the Design Thinking process. Of the 48 student respondents, over 85% responded with evidence that Design Thinking felt more authentic/relevant, helped them learn better, and would be their preferential approach to content. The students also provided anecdotal commentary on the process (which you can view in the link above), highlighting the importance of choice, autonomy, and process over outcome.

And really, that’s the big takeaway of Design Thinking: it’s more about the process than the outcome (or the content, for that matter). This example really isn’t about whether or not you can jack my idea, it’s about immersing yourself in a topic, identifying gaps and opportunities, and then pursuing them. It’s about differentiating for student choice and giving them the autonomy (and support) to pursue what interests them. It’s about instilling a sense of resilience in the face of failure, simply because you care about what you’re doing. This can apply to anything… I mean, it’s how we all learn about the things we actually want to learn about.

As for me, I couldn’t be happier with how the unit turned out. Students, for the most part, rose to the demanding challenges of the unit, and I finally understood the awesome power of really facilitating learning. The idea that students have not only internalized the mission statement of our school but helped to create meaningful, authentic products (that still manage to meet the curricular objectives) is enough to set my bottom lip aquiver.

But what I’m most happy with is the change in mindset, both in the students and myself. Just the other day I went to introduce a project for our new unit on protests: I thought the idea sounded fun and creative and had lots of opportunities for good times, but admittedly I disregarded the fact that it was me who decided the outcome. My idea was met with blank stares.

Finally, one of my students sort of nodded and said, “Okay, that’s a really neat idea; thanks for sharing… but how might we make it more relevant?