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Fresh learning designs for uncertain times Educational

By Lindsay Portnoy, Ph.D.

In regular times, the goal of most educators is to give students the choice of learning and a voice to share their learning with peers and around the world.

When implementing choice and voice, the continuous goal is to foster a community of committed and passionate learners. But what does it mean to create choice, voice and community and what happens when learning goes online?

One answer is to be sure that we combine learning on purpose. purpose is the fuel that drives passionate learning in classrooms, family rooms and boardrooms. Regardless of the venue, learning that is relevant and meaningful is learning that can be applied today and in the future.

These deliberate and flexible approaches to home and school learning are readily available and instantly useful through the lens of design thinking.

Design thinking is at the root of scientific thinking with the added bonus of empathy and attention to perspective. It is also a process that is widespread in industries such as music and engineering, finance, and marketing, and includes essential skills of the 21st century from critical thinking and communication to creation and collaboration.

But what does design thinking look like in a classroom or living room?

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A traditional fourth grade curriculum requires students to learn about the history of their community, while an eighth grade curriculum prompts students to understand the exploration and settlement. Both require students to use primary and secondary sources to get this information. With traditional learning methods, however, the goal is to retrieve discrete facts later.

In contrast, a fourth grade history unit becomes a product of Design thinking when students use teacher-curated sources about population changes over time to both explain historical changes in local industry and to define the needs of the current community. Similarly, eighth-grade students tackle an exploration and settlement unit with design sprints that help determine the impact of population growth on carbon emissions in their community today.

Both instances offer development-oriented, interdisciplinary and substantive learning experiences. And from now on, if the students deliberately build a scaffold, they will slowly get the hang of learning and are ready to face the uncertainty they will face in their future.

As an iterative learning process, design thinking is rich in resources that enable students to take responsibility for their knowledge acquisition by connecting them directly to the content in a meaningful way. Learning affects hearts in front of people’s heads – more specifically, it connects with your students’ homes, educational experiences, activities, learning reasons, transformative life experiences and special characteristics that make them unique!

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The elements of design thinking include:

• understand empathy,
• identify and research,
• communicate to deepen thinking,
• prototype and test and
• repeat and reflect.

These five elements are alive in many lessons throughout the school year, and a few small layers can be easily identified every day. In addition, through the use of these deliberate and flexible learning paths, the students receive clear and consistent feedback, which is then perceived less as a “gotcha” and more as an opportunity for growth.

Regardless of whether learning takes place in the classroom or virtually, the first step in design thinking is to look at the goal to the Learning. First fill in the brackets of the following simple sentence:

Understanding (content) helps my students (application to life).

This simple sentence is fundamental. Discreet knowledge of reading, writing and arithmetic is required for understanding and critical thinking. If the only purpose of learning about colonization is to vomit the 13 colonies again, we no longer train students, but cultivate sentient robots.

When the simple sentence is complete, the learning purpose is relevant and visible and you can start your first design sprint. A history teacher’s sentence may be: Understanding (exploration) helps my students (see how geography affects the economy). Or the sentence of a math teacher is: Understanding (probabilities) helps my students (predicting the likely consequences from pandemics to rainfall).


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You set the stage by curating content, and maybe you gave a mini-lesson or shared a reading, video, or interview on a specific topic. It’s time to step back and let your learners take the helm to develop solutions or innovations that impact the world around them and use the content in a meaningful way.

The following five essential elements of design thinking transform traditional teaching into inspired design sprints in every classroom. The students’ answers to questions during the design sprint are formative assessments that are sure to demonstrate mastery of the content. But they show much more than just content. Student responses to these queries reveal critical thinking, perspectives, reflection, and even changes in students’ beliefs about knowledge and knowledge (epistemology).

1. Understand empathy

Understand: How can this content bring about a significant change in the world? What systems or experiences that are currently available could I change with my knowledge and understanding?

empathy: For whom or which system do you design an innovation? Interview a person or a representative of the system for which you are designing a solution, or write a letter from the perspective of the person or system for whom you are designing a solution.

2. Identify and research

Identify: What are three reasons why this change is required?

research: Which of these reasons is the main cause or the cause, when the problem is completely eliminated? How do I know for sure?

3. Communicate to deepen thinking

Communicate: What do your colleagues, community members, supervisors or experts think about the root cause you have identified? If the sky is the limit, what would you do to innovate in this area?

idea: Which idea would be the most successful? Why? How would you really know if your solution was successful?

4. Prototype and test

prototype: What innovations could you design? Is it a concrete solution like changing the traffic pattern in a city or a repetition of an intangible solution like changing the start of school to see if it reduces absences?

exam: Is your test audience for the prototype representative of those whose needs are addressed?

5. Iterate (repeat) and reflect

Iterate (repeat): How did your solution work? How do you know? Try again and again. Does it need to be changed anywhere? Where would you go first?

Reflect: What about this design activity that you could use in other aspects of your life? What would you do differently next time? When were you the most excited, nervous and empowered?

Think ahead

Some considerations that teachers should think about in advance are: What is the purpose of the learning experience? What information do you provide explicitly and what information do students need to look for? How will you help learners find credible information when asked to search for outside knowledge?

How can students work with each other, peers, carers and experts to broaden and advance their thinking? How will you share feedback with students and how will they share feedback with each other? How will you invite the students to repeat their work? And perhaps most importantly, how will you celebrate the results of these design sprints with the whole world to inspire a whole new way of teaching and learning?

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The elements of design thinking can be applied in any room, in any order and in any subject area. Once the students are empowered by design thinking experiences, the role of the teacher moves from the stage to the wings, where we observe from afar and watch how authentic learning unfolds.

When this observation is done well, the teacher secretly comes to look for learners, provides just-in-time support, and resigns as learners struggle productively with just the right support to learn how to learn.

A word for the tired

Design thinking should Not be another initiative to expand the swinging pendulum of initiatives. Design thinking instead should implemented as a novel approach to teaching and learning, in which a series of simple scaffolds gradually induces students to learn autonomously. In this way we will finally reach the depth of commitment and interest that we know is possible if learning is loved.

I think this novel learning experience is an opportunity to innovate in our outdated education system. In this way, we could create a whole new way of learning, driven by purpose and passion.


Dr. Lindsay Portnoy (@portnoy) is the author of Designed to Learn: Using Design Thinking to Bring Purpose and Passion to Class (ASCD, 2019). She is a cognitive scientist who works to translate research-based teaching and learning practices to improve the curriculum, assessment, and deliberate integration of new practices and tools. Lindsay is a former public school teacher and an associate professor at Northeastern University’s Graduate School of Education. Visit their website.

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