How Might We the Content?: Applying Design Thinking in a High School English Classroom

. . we forget that we can be playful and try wild ideas in the pursuit of academic learning . . .

Empathy-fueled, human-centered problem solving is picking up tremendous traction as of late, thanks in no small part to fantastic introductions to design thinking’s educational value from Thomas Riddle and Susie Wise on Edutopia.

Three years and counting into my journey with design thinking, Mary Cantwell’s DEEPdt process serves as my springboard, Twitter community #dtk12chat, my comrades in ideating arms, and the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation’s FUSE experience as resonating reminder, I’m in a constant state of vision and revision with integrating DT into my teaching. Rather than seeing this cycle as a reason for frustration — as one might think after three years of deep investment (pun fully intended) — design thinking continues to infuse me (the puns keep coming) with hope and enthusiasm.

DEEPdt plays well with content area teaching because it so well mirrors Bloom’s Taxonomy and guides students toward higher order thinking. (Other design thinking frameworks do as well — I borrow tools, protocols, and ideas from others all the time — DEEPdt just happens to be the one that suits my brain and my users best.)

DISCOVER. Here students delve into the content knowledge. What do we need to know about ________ in order to solve ___________?

What do we need to know about George and Lennie in order to design a homestead that will meet their needs? What do we need to know about their character traits? What do we need to know about argument in order to craft editorials that compel readers to take action? What do we need to know about commas and indicators for pause in order to craft speeches that achieve a particular tone?

And still there are other questions that invite inquiry and discovery into our problem solving. What might we need to know about writing structures and formats? What might they need to know about literary devices? What might they need to know about the current vocabulary or the grammatical devices at play? What might they need to know about the character or plot in a given text? What might they need to know about the symbolism or metaphors employed?

EMPATHIZE. And here we identify the point of view of the users involved. Those users might be readers of essays and stories or the audience of speeches, presentation and debates. They might also be the characters in a novel or the speaker of a poem.

Writing as an act of problem-solving begins with the basic premise that a writer is a designer, so long as one considers the act of writing an audience-centered experience rather than an author-centered one. When we write for ourselves, we our meeting our own needs. Whenever we write for others, there is audience and thus, user. Sometimes those users are the teachers, sometimes peers and community, sometimes a less defined, yet far more public readership.

Reading as an act of problem solving begins with the basic premise that the subject of the text — whether protagonist or antagonist, fictional or non — has been placed in those circumstances, on that page, with intention on the part of the author. Understanding that subject’s motivations in light of the conflicts present, his or her character traits and extent of development, the structure of the plot may yield tremendous insight into the themes of the text. The uncovering of the author’s intentions and application of that author’s techniques and ideas in unique ways, particular those that solve problems raised in the text, opens all sorts of possibilities for ways to demonstrate understanding.

How might we design a sanctuary for Melinda of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, an alternative closing argument for Harper Lee’s Atticus, a collateral-damage-proof plot for Hamlet’s revenge?

How might we stage Romeo & Juliet in a way that casts them as the villains and the rest of the cast as their victims? How might we use Fitzgerald’s language as commentary on 2016 celebrity culture? How might we transform the words of Ellison and Hughes into lyrics for socially conscious hip-hop?

EXPERIMENT. Self explanatory yet sometimes we forget that we can be playful and try wild ideas in the pursuit of academic learning. Here we might substitute “how might we . . .?” with “what if . . .?”

What if students write three intentionally terrible introductions, share them with their classmates, and identify the trends across them that let us know they are terrible? What if they organize those trends and create cheat sheets to help them. How might the guides they create become tools for their peers in the future?

What if students crafted twenty memes in twenty minutes as pre-cursor to a close reading, text-based discussion? What if those memes became the jumping on points for discussion and points of critical discourse?

What if students employed LEGO constructs as a means of demonstrating the rhetorical structure of a poem and used more elaborate constructs to represent entire collections of verse?

PRODUCE. Rather than looking at production as an end point and a point for grading, design thinking emphasizes feedback, the opportunity for revision and new iterations. It plays along gloriously well with the writing process and one might argue even enhances that process as the goal is reaching an audience through intention, rather than simply going through the motions of a process.

How might we provide meaningful feedback that balances critique with encouragement? How might we inspire new ideas and possibilities with our feedback? How might documenting our writing process help us to identify our intentions with each revision? How might we link our revisions to particular feedback in order to assess the value of both the change and the feedback given? How might effective citations help us learn where one another’s ideas came from and help us to be better critics of one another’s ideas?

The above are just a few ways to tackle English language arts curriculum through the lens of design. Some have been robust explorations I’ve done with students, others one day sprints, and yet others notions and fancies that I’ve just yet to find the time to put into practice.

And they all started with, “How might we . . .?” each representing an opportunity for inquiry and possibility, solution and iteration.

Dan Ryder is an educator, improviser and design thinker from the foothills of western Maine who spends every day trying to make the world a little more interesting than he found it. A moderator of #dtk12chat and #edchatme, follow him @wickeddecent on Twitter, Instagram, and Medium. Keep tabs on his efforts to walk the talk on his classroom blog at and with his co-conspirators Jeff Bailey and Matt Drewette-Card at Wicked Decent Learning.

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