Connecting Design Abilities to Classroom Curriculum.

Laura McBain
Jun 30, 2020 · 7 min read

Authored by: Maureen Carroll and Laura McBain

This post is part two of a three-part series attempting to approach what it means to become a designer in K12 education and the design abilities we need to cultivate with ourselves and our students. In this moment of flux and rapidly changing conditions developing our own abilities to respond to dynamic design challenges is a certainty. You can read part one: Looking Beyond the Hexagons: What does it mean to become an education designer?

“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.” ~Michelle Obama-

Design is nested in curiosity and grounded in being of service. When we began this experiment of the design abilities in the K12 classrooms with Campbell School of Innovation (see first blog), we did not know how the teachers would translate the design abilities into meaningful language for their students. We knew the design abilities were important, and our second workshop was about figuring out if they truly connected with the real work teachers were doing in their everyday classrooms. We wanted to see how teachers could help students think about ideas and turn them into projects in their community. And, ultimately, we wanted to know how we might structure learning that goes beyond simply conducting a design challenge. Just like the teachers we worked with, we held the hope that the students they were working with would embrace, enhance, and enact the design abilities. We wanted them to embrace the process of becoming.

Courtesy of Kami Thordarson-Campbell School of Innovation

We planned a series of activities that would give teachers an opportunity to experience the design abilities and connect them to their classroom curriculum. We focused on the abilities we wanted to cultivate — not the content we wanted to transmit and felt it was important to make these learning experiences concrete and visceral.

Each grade level team was given a “Treasure Trove” to use as a way to collect their design activities and ideas throughout the school year. Our first activity, I Teach/I Learn focused the design ability Learning from Others (People and Context). Each person was asked to think of something they could teach another person in five minutes. We divided the group into pairs and had them teach each other a new skill, and then had the pairs split and find another person and teach the new skill that was just learned.

After this activity, we asked the teachers to fill their Treasure Troves with activities that made connections between this design ability and the work they were doing in the classroom. As they generated ideas that ranged from icebreakers to critiques, they explored these connections with their colleagues.

We also wanted the teachers to explore the design abilities of Rapid Experimentation, Moving Between Concrete and Abstract, Synthesizing Information and Navigating Ambiguity and used improvisation activities as a lever. Improv requires both mindfulness, which is paying attention to the present moment with curiosity and kindness, and a willingness to fail and iterate. The improvisation activities we chose were specifically tied to the design abilities we wanted our teachers to experience.

We started with an activity called “Knife & Fork.” The teachers worked in pairs and were asked to “become” an object that they would create with their bodies. Some of the objects/concepts we included were peanut butter and jelly, bee and flower, happiness and sadness, darkness and light, and the Golden Gate Bridge. We choose this activity for several reasons. First it embodied rapid experimentation. The teachers had 10–20 seconds to respond before the prompt changed. This activity also challenged them to Move from Abstract to Concrete because they took an abstract concept and without speaking, created a physical manifestation of the idea.

Our next activity was a “Folding Story.” In this activity, one person writes a few sentences, folds it so only a few phrases are visible and passes it to the next person who continues adding to the story and repeats the process. This activity brings lightness to the creative writing process and asks the reader and writer to wrestle with ambiguous context and images. It requires the writer to take a leap into a process without knowing the ultimate ending of a story. This activity allowed the teachers to practice the design ability Navigating Ambiguity.

After these activities were complete, the teachers had an opportunity to reflect on how to connect what they had experienced to their classroom curriculum. At the end of the day, they left with an abundance of ideas about how the work they were doing was connected to four design abilities: Learn from Others (People & Contexts), Moving from Abstract to Concrete, Synthesizing Information and Navigating Ambiguity. And it is worth noting that both these activities can be done on Zoom. Whether you are using the chat feature to co-create stories or doing a modified ‘Knife and Fork’ by asking students individually to become an object, they will start to develop these abilities. These activities can bring delightful elements to remote learning.

What We Learned

1. Authentic Learning

Learning with our students and (with people and context) is fundamental to a design-driven classroom where curiosity, iteration and reflection are at the core of cultivating the design abilities and where we are all (teacher and student) constantly becoming. In our whole group debrief of the I Teach/We Learn activity we had an opportunity to see the breadth of undiscovered, and what is often considered unrecognized, knowledge.

Learn from Others (People and Context)- Courtesy of Stanford and Jason Munn

Why does this matter? Bringing students’ identity, experiences, family rituals and language into the classroom transforms the basis of authority and power in a classroom. It puts the teacher and learner on equal footing and acknowledges that learning is a communal act. This notion is even more important now as webinars become the primary mode of delivery and students and teachers feel disconnected to the communal act of learning together.

2. Exploring Synthesizing Information & Moving Between Concrete & Abstract

Synthesize Information-Courtesy of Stanford and Jason Munn

Not surprisingly, we discovered that helping educators synthesize their learning and move from an abstract design ability into a concrete learning activity was challenging. The process of synthesizing information focuses on making sense of information and finding insights and opportunities. The teachers did this as they examined their curriculum and looked for ways to connect their curriculum to the varied design abilities. They examined their content and the needs of their students and discovered unique ways to marry the design abilities and their teaching styles with the standards they were required to teach. This reflection is something that becomes even more critical as we are examining what it means to teach and to learn.

When one is building out a new concept, whether a product, service, experience, etc., it must be nested within a larger structural and historical ecosystem. This requires knowing the history of place and a person and ultimately seeing the tonality of an ecosystem in its current form while simultaneously holding on to its history and seeing its potential future. It means grasping the aspirational and abstract idea you are trying to envision and creating a concrete attempt to bring that idea to life in service of others. As we embrace a new reality in K12 education, the process of visualizing abstract ideas and making concrete prototypes of what is possible will be more important than ever.

Move Between Abstract and Concrete- Courtesy of Stanford and Jason Munn

The teachers did this as they examined the design abilities and searched for connections to what their students were learning. They were engaged in the effort of merging their closely-held learning aspirations with the real-world tasks of day-to-day learning experiences. To do this meant constantly probing the spaces between concrete and abstract. We believe this is the space that educators operate within on a daily basis and have the power to navigate and to design. We wanted to push the boundaries of this exploration as they engaged in the process of becoming. We also wonder what this will look like as we engage in remote learning, where harnessing what is concrete becomes challenging.

3. Meta-learning: Making Meaning for Ourselves

This experience enabled us to push our own understanding of the design abilities. We questioned our agendas and activities. We challenged our assumptions about what we thought was the best way to answer our questions. This allowed us to think more deeply about the viability and usability of the design abilities in our work with classroom teachers and ultimately, students. We initially composed this article in coffee shops across the Bay Area. And as we revisit it we are reflecting anew. That’s what the concept of becoming means to us as educators and as human beings.

Interested to learn more?

Join a conversation: We are hosting a webinar on July 10th at 10:30 PDT to explore how the design abilities can enhance K12 education. RSVP here.

Go deeper: Check out the The Zoom-Zoom Room Podcast Series with Maureen Carroll and Milan Drake on the Design Abilities

Read the next article: Be on the look out for part three of this journey next week.


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