Using Design Thinking in our Grade 4 Unit: How We Express Ourselves

Using Design Thinking in our Grade 4 Unit: How We Express Ourselves

The first two weeks.

Central Idea: People use persuasion to influence others.

Inspired by a visit from Ewan McIntosh (see: Designing Worthy Problems).

Design Cycle D.School

This image of the Design Cycle is taken from the D.School at Stanford University.

After a visit to our school from Ewan McIntosh, my co-teacher, Neila, and I decided to take our Grade 4 students through the Design Cycle to begin our unit of inquiry about persuasion. See if you can identify the Design Cycle stages in the following plan.


Goal: Less teacher talk

Assume that the students already know and/or can learn quickly.

Provocative Discussion/Generative Topic

Goal: Engaging students

Engage your students with a topic related to your unit that they can easily talk about.

e.g. “What annoys you most?”

(The examples I give are taken from my Grade 4 class.)

“I hate it when my brother always says ‘no’ when I ask him to play with me.”

“It annoys me when I have to spend so much time memorizing Mandarin vocabulary.”

“I don’t like when my sisters always bother me at bed time. They won’t leave me alone.”

Interviews and Digging Deeper

Goal: Why does this matter to you?

In partners, one person speaks on the topic for 2 minutes. The listener only listens (jot notes allowed). You might need to role play the attributes of a good listener as it is a VERY difficult skill.

Reverse roles.

Digging Deeper: The listener asks probing questions, referring to things that the speaker mentioned in the first interview. Listen for 4 minutes.

Reverse roles.

How might I (we)…

Goal: Defining what is really important.

“The solutions are easy to find. Finding the worthy problem is difficult.” – Ewan McIntosh

Together, review the information and come up with a “How might I …” statement. The statement should be important enough to the student to put time and energy into solving it.

e.g.     “How might I persuade my brother to play with me?”

“How might I convince my sister to respect me?”

“How might I persuade my sisters to stop jumping on me at bed time?”

“How might I convince myself to not be afraid to do a trick on my scooter?”

“How might I convince my Mandarin teacher to give me less homework?”

Possible Solutions

Goal: Be visual and build on the ideas of others.

Once the “How might I…”statements were written, the students went around and sketched out possible solutions to each others’ problems. The sketching allowed us to quickly imagine and record solutions. It was also easy to grasp the ideas of others and then build on them. It was a good start but we needed something to help us broaden our scope.

e.g. We soon heard, “I’ve tried all those solutions, none of them work!” “I can’t think of anything else.”

How might I...Visual solutions
How might I…Visual solutions

Radical Solutions

Goal: To encourage crazy ideas and lots of them!

Nudge the students out of their boxes by adding a constraint (see a blog post about that here). Each solution must now contain a random word or object.

e.g. My co-teacher brought in a teepee and set it up in the middle of the room. Now every solution had to include a teepee (or part of). The focussed energy and the excitement in the room was amazing! One idea led to another. Crazy solutions inspired possible solutions. Problems got turned on their head. (e.g. Was it too much homework or was it difficult to do the homework ?) Here are some of the ideas:

“Invite your brother to camp out one night in the teepee with you.”

“Lock her in the teepee and don’t let her out until she agrees to be nice to you.”

“Make a mini-trampoline out of the teepee and have your sisters jump on that instead.”

“Sit in the teepee and visualize yourself doing the trick on the scooter over and over.”

“Stick your Mandarin words to the inside of the teepee, take a flashlight inside and focus on learning them for ten minutes each night.”

All solutions must include a teepee!
Ideas to solve our annoying problems.
The Project Board: Many ideas to solve our annoying problems.

Resources and Prototyping

Goal: To gather more information and try out the idea.

e.g. Resources: Throughout the first week we immersed the students with examples of persuasive strategies (they are very evident in advertising). Examples of strategies are Bandwagon (“Everyone is doing it!), Repetition, Research, Claim, Facts, Trust, The Big Lie, The One Time Offer, etc.

Prototype: In our case, we decided to dramatize the solutions: “Pick a solution from the Project Board that you think might work. With your friends, dramatize it. Use persuasive strategies. Gather feedback from classmates and teachers.”

If the prototype didn’t work, cycle back and try something else.

This is the stage that we are at the moment.


Goal: To put the solution into action.

At this stage the students test their solution. If it doesn’t work, reflect, research and prototype another solution.

Our Conclusions (so far)

  • The students immediately immersed themselves in the unit.
  • The teachers did little talk, we offered provocations that led to learning.
  • Finding a worthy problem took some tweaking and revisiting (this is a difficult skill).
  • Because the students are emotionally attached to these problems, they are highly engaged.
  • They quickly learned to recognize, choose, and use persuasive strategies to help them solve their problems.
  • Critical thinking skills are needed to determine persuasive techniques.
  • A variety of language skills are been developed (visual, dramatic, listening, speaking, reading, writing).

Video resource

If you like a quick video, here is good one from “Engineer Your Life” featuring Judy Lee from IDEO talking about brainstorming for solutions. She says there are ‘rules to the madness’ and they are:

  1. Defer judgement
  2. Build on the ideas of others
  3. Be visual
  4. Encourage wild ideas
  5. Go for quantity

How have you used Design Thinking in your unit planning?

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