Fueled Problem Solving: One Place to Start

Photo by Edgaras Maselskis for Unsplash

No big secret: design thinking has forever changed teaching and learning in my classroom. By fueling problem solving with empathy, and putting human experience at the center of intention, my project-based learning approach to English language arts found the soul I didn’t even realize it was missing.

Yes, we made some very cool things before DT and students certainly demonstrated their understanding in rich, powerful, compelling ways. There were soundtracks mixed and digital museum boxes curated, sitcoms scripted and multigenre papers crafted. Though I required students reflect on their work and document their process of creation, content largely remained king from the beginning to the end of the process: Did you include X, Y, Z in your project? Did you complete this form before moving to this step? To what extent does it look like a finished product? The process was defined by chronological steps and order, far more than exploring possibilities, defining user and intention, practicing ideation and experimentation and on-going reflection.

With a single evening on Twitter and the discovery of #DTK12chat, a community of design thinking in the K-12 classroom practitioners, advocates and enthusiasts, the notion of employing empathy as the driving agent for understanding left me gobsmacked. I had espoused the importance of audience when students wrote, attempted to plan authentic assessment experiences for learning, and pontificated at length on tolerance for multiple points of view during discussions. Yet that evening, and in the days and weeks and years that have followed, I realized something.

  • I realized the reader is a user and the author, poet, playwright, essayist — a designer.
  • I realized that empathy extends to understanding a character’s motivations and a creator’s choices just as well as it does building a healthy learning environment.
  • I realized understanding and comprehending literature can be the catalyst for solving problems in our communities and that prototyping solutions can have just as much impact as implementing them.

And I realized that a focus on intentions leads to a focus on the user, and if a project has a user it is far less likely to end up in the trash at the end of the year. Thus, we practice the mantra, "No Dumpster Projects," in my classes.

I’m hopeful my collection on BloomBoard can provide a launching pad for others to adopt a design thinking lens to their impact areas. Like the other curated BloomBoard collections, there’s a variety of resources in both content and format, ranging from the profoundly philosophical to the hyper-practical. I’d draw visitors’ attention to three items in particular.

Mary Cantwell’s site, DEEP Design Thinking, features the DT process she’s used with populations kindergarten through professional. Examples, protocols and organizers abound and one will find Mary’s infinite enthusiasm matched only by her approachability.

DEEPdt is the design thinking process I use with my students, as illustrated by the link to my classroom blog, Flight 307. There you’ll see our Design a Band process ostensibly created for my Pop Culture course, but often put to work elsewhere. What was once an quick little change of pace activity found at a long forgotten online source despite valiant efforts at proper attribution, has now become a vehicle for students to start exploring the relationship between empathy and intention, user and design.

One of the best ways to get familiar with design thinking is to practice it early and surrounded by others at varying degrees of familiarity. The aforementioned #DTK12Chat community on Twitter is one such place. Another is IDEO’s Teachers Guild, a platform for educators to grow more accustomed to using DT to solve problems and make meaning while collaborating on authentic challenges facing education. Past collaborations include growing cultures of innovation and fostering curiosity. The current collaboration is an ambitious partnership involving The White House and others around college aspirations and support for students facing barriers to postsecondary success. It’s rather exciting to be using design thinking to prototype solutions to those problems while also refining my skills to use in my impact areas. (I design coach for the Teachers Guild, as well, so who knows? Maybe we’ll be collaborating together soon.)

If these particular resources inspire you, consider going after the micro-credentials available on BloomBoard from Digital Promise. My collection relates to both the "Design Thinking and Doing" and "Collaborative Problem Solving" credentials offered.

This particular post was written in collaboration with BloomBoard as a way to introduce my collection as well as to the other features on the site. I’m a big fan of highly curated content and I was thrilled by the opportunity to craft some of these initial collections for the platform. It’s shaping up to be a welcome alternative to scrolling through my social media feeds, tip toeing around the promotions and clickbait, hoping I stumble upon something decent.

BloomBoard asked a handful of edu-bloggers to share a little about our collections and/or impressions of the platform. So over the next several weeks, you’ll be hearing from a bunch of folks including Jenn Adams who has a fantastic blog, Teach.Love.Autism. She’s a middle school autistic support teacher with tremendous insights into working with students across the autism spectrum, particularly those with moderate to severe disabilities. However, the strategies and tools she’s made available on her blog seem well suited to any classroom hoping to become more universally designed. What student wouldn’t benefit from more visual cues and focus strategies? Jenn also has a lot to say about balancing the teaching life and the rest of life. Well worth the read and the sharing and the bookmarking on the top of the browser bar. Take a look around her space and look for a blog post from her regarding BloomBoard.

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