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?

Less Teacher Talk, More Class Discussion

 Do you ever feel like whacking yourself on the side of the head and saying, “Why didn’t I think of this before?”

Reading Aloud

While sitting on a chair reading aloud to the class one day with all the students traditionally huddled on the floor at my feet I noticed something. All the interesting  exchanges were happening between a student and me, the teacher. It was like a game of ping pong and I was always hitting the ball.

Teacher-student-teacher-student-teacher-student-teacher, etc.

I was having a great book discussion! But what were most of the students doing when they weren’t talking to me? They were picking at their shoes, trying to get a friend’s attention, staring blankly ahead. No engagement. They were waiting patiently for us to finish our conversation.

More than just Reading Aloud

From that day on we decided to sit in a circle when I read aloud. Reactions to the story, comments, questions, and discussions are now directed at each other not at me. Of course, I can’t help but jump in occasionally when I feel like I can’t resist!

Now our ‘ping-pong exchange’ sounds more like this:


What have I noticed?

  • students are expected to listen to and respond to each other, and they do
  • students answer each other’s questions, disagree with each other, build upon each other’s predictions
  • students work cooperatively to construct meaning from the story
  • students govern themselves, reminding each other to be respectful
  • students feel like they have an equitable learning community where the voices of the students and  teachers are equal
  • students take ownership and drive the discussions, allowing them to practice critical and creative thinking skills.

Very much like a Socratic Circle.

More Than Just Reading Aloud


According to Hattie, feedback is one of the top 10 influences on student achievement.

Over these last couple of weeks my class has been making a great effort to ask for and offer feedback to each other. I first showed my Grade 4 students this fantastic video called Austin’s Butterfly.

They were so impressed with the results they wanted to try it out themselves. We started with their latest writing. They had been writing about their opportunities, the benefits, the costs and showing empathy to others who do not have the same opportunities. Immediately we started giving each other feedback and the students were receptive and determined to improve. Sometimes we set the bar too low and allow students to stop after the first or second draft. Students will rise to higher expectations if we offer them the opportunity. The students wrote, edited, requested feedback, edited, re-wrote, and continually assessed themselves through a rubric. It was fantastic.

Our second concerted effort with feedback was in our art class. Using chalk pastels, everyone was creating an image following a style from the book If The World Were A Village.  While working, the students would choose to place their artwork on the whiteboard ledge, ring a chime and ask their classmates for feedback. Wow. It was amazing. The kids were offering feedback (not judgement) and the artists were listening carefully and heading back to the art table (mini lesson: you receive feedback and then decide what you want to do with it, artist’s choice).

I wish I had taken photos along the way. The differences between the first draft and the final were stunning. Here are a few of the finished pieces, worked and re-worked after much feedback.

Overheard from the students:

“Wow! Feedback is great! It gives me so many new ideas and makes my work so much better!”

“It’s the details that make the most difference! I love feedback!”

photo 1 Feedback

Mindfulness: Think of Your Toes and Breathe!

Everything I need to know I learned in yoga class

  • set an intention or goal for  yourself
  • stay centered
  • watch the expert, try, tweak the position, try again, enjoy the moment
  • the more you practice, the better you get
  • be present
  • breathe


Yoga is about being mindful. Mindfulness, in the western sense, has become a buzz word. Be mindful. Teach mindfulness. But what does it mean? If you google Mindfulness+education you will find many sites dedicated to helping school teach the skills of mindfulness. One of my colleagues shared with me the .b website. “Dot B” stands for ‘stop and breathe and just be.’ Through a series of 9 lessons the aim is to give students mindfulness as a life skill. Students use it:

  • to feel happier, calmer and more fulfilled
  • to get on better with others
  • to help them concentrate and learn better
  • to help cope with stress and anxiety
  • to perform better in music and sport.

One of the skills to help us be more mindful is to stop, think of your toes and breathe. This simple strategy helps us refocus and concentrate.  Try it, it works!

Another technique they use with the older students is  asking them to text each other”.b” to remind each other to stop, breathe and be mindful.

Here is a TEDx talk by Richard Burnett, co-Founder and Creative Director of The Mindfulness in Schools Project:

Cultures of Thinking

Teaching is an impossible job. You will fail.

– Dylan Wiliam

Last weekend we were fortunate to attend a conference that our school hosted. The keynote speakers were Dylan Wiliam, Ron Ritchhart and Judy Willis. Dylan put everyone’s inner fears to rest when he declared that teaching was an impossible job. Have you ever felt that you have failed as a teacher?  Well, you have. And you are not alone. It is impossible to meet everyone’s needs all of the time. Sometimes we may even meet no one’s needs!

However, if we keep learning, trying and growing as teachers, we are doing the best anyone can do. Through our reading, our discussions and our professional development we are creating cultures of thinking amongst ourselves.

The moment a teacher stops seeking a better way, stops listening, stops learning, and starts to blame her students for not understanding, she should quit. 

Ron Ritchhart gave us a tool to use to assess our classrooms – do we have a classroom that promotes a culture of thinking? Are we creating a climate where are students feel comfortable to fail, yet to keep on learning?

Ask a colleague to come in to your classroom one day and observe your students using the following list, The 8 Cultural Forces that Define our Classrooms:

The 8 Cultural Forces in our Classrooms

Students model the language and the culture of thinking of the teacher. Ask your colleague to listen into the discussions the students are having with each other.

  • Are the students using respectful language;
  • are they listening and responding to what the other person said;
  • do they give each other time to formulate thoughtful responses;
  • do they feel comfortable asking  questions;
  • are they engaged with the task;
  • do they rearrange the furniture or create an environment that would best suit that particular learning task;
  • do they add to and use their environment to display and develop their thinking and learning?

Not every lesson we teach will be awe inspiring. Yet, it is easy to assess a classroom’s culture of thinking and learning by looking around the room, listening to and watching the students interact. They are mirroring you.

What is the culture in your classroom?

Cultures of Thinking

Do Unto Others as They’d Like Done Unto Them

There is “The Golden Rule” (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and then there is the “Platinum Rule

Do Unto Others as They’d Like Done Unto Them

Years ago I read the book by Tony Alessandra and Michael J. O’Connor about the four basic personalities and how to see people differently, understand them better and deal with them in ways that they would want to be treated. It made a lot of sense, and honestly, it helped me understand my husband better – he wanted fast, goal-orientated interaction whereas I was slower paced and focused on harmony.  As soon as we both understood that we were treating each other the way we wanted to be treated and not the way the other person wanted to be treated, it made a world of difference. 

It is all about empathy. Understanding others. Here is a powerful example of how empathy is often misunderstood:

On the Leading is Learning website there is an interesting article about empathy. You may have read last winter the heart warming story of a police officer who bought a pair of boots for a homeless man. He bought the boots with his own money. A passerby saw the interaction, took a photo, the picture went viral and the story made national news:  An empathetic  police officer.

Empathy is often misunderstood.
Empathy is often misunderstood.

The officer had great intentions and he gave from his heart. He, however, misunderstood the need of the homeless man. A month after the gift of the boots a journalist returned to the homeless man to find him barefoot. When asked why he wasn’t wearing the boots, the man said, “Those shoes are hidden, they are worth a lot of money-I could lose my life.” (New York Times.)

This anecdote gets at a core challenge with empathy in leadership. Empathy isn’t about treating other people well. It’s about understanding that other people’s needs and expectations – what they mean by “being treated well” – might be very different than your own.

What does this mean in a school? Leading is Learning suggests that school leaders need to listen to their community and really understand the experiences of their clientele. Whether it is in designing the daily schedule, a new report card or the new cafeteria:

Innovative school leaders need to take the time to “play Anthropologist,” in the words of IDEO designer David Kelley. They need to understand what other people experience on a daily basis, and what values and norms they carry with them.

To a teacher, it means taking time to understand your students. Ask them questions, listen to their answers. What kind of day are they having? What are they worried about? What do they love to do? Where do they want to sit and why?

As teachers, we all wish the best for our students. It is who we are, that’s why we do what we do. Empathising with them, understanding their experiences, needs and motivations will help us, the teachers, help our students get what they need. This is compassionate teaching.

In the book I am reading now, Olivia Fox Cabane, offers these definitions:

Goodwill: wishing the other person well

Empathy: understanding the other’s experience

Compassion: Goodwill + Empathy

How would you assess your level of compassion in the classroom?


Monsters University

Monsters University

I  donned my 3D glasses and watched Monsters University at the local movie theatre this afternoon.

As I watched, I felt like it was an endorsement for the growth mindset that we are teaching our children. Lessons like:

  • Set a goal, make a plan, and go for it!
  • It’s not easy; you’ll have to work at it.
  • Believe in yourself (not in what others may say about you).
  • Sometimes our differences are our best asset.
  • We all have different strengths.
  • Collaboration is powerful.
  • Failure is an event, not a person.
  • Failure may offer you another opportunity.

Interested in going to a school that believes in all the above? Check out the Monsters University webpage (it’s hilarious!)

Learn From Every Mistake

If you follow The Growth Mindset blog (and I recommend you do), you would have seen in their August issue a link to Oprah Winfrey’s 2013 Harvard Commencement Speech: “Learn from Every Mistake.” She explains what it is like to fail, mourn your failure and then move on. She says, “If you are constantly pushing yourself higher and higher, you will at some point fail.” It doesn’t necessarily mean give up, we may just need to reframe the process and/or the goal.

Isn’t that what  we want our students to learn?

Watch the video here:

“When I play my brain is inspired!”

I love that technology  allows us to share and view short videos  easily. A quick two minute video or a 20 minute TED talk can be  so inspiring. It might remind us of something to which we had a previous connection  or it might open a window to new ideas that we continue to explore.

I had the former “ah ha!” moment today. Last spring I wrote about the importance of play in learning (here and here). In a video that Sonya terBorg shared on her blog today, we hear from children about how play and learning are connected. It is a beautiful reminder.

The opening line by a child says it all:

When I play my brain is inspired!

And near the end a child states:

I like to play to learn and when I am playing I don’t want to stop.

Here is the video from the Opal School in Portland, Oregon:

Thanks, Sonya!

Hack Your Classroom – it’s out!

If you watched the trailer on The Third Teacher Plus website a few months ago (see my blog about it here) about hacking a classroom,  you will be excited to know that the ‘movie’ is out (about 12 minutes in total). In a three part series, Edutopia shows the behind the scenes action as well as  the final product – the classroom studio.

Christian, a member of the Third Teacher Plus team:

As a member of the “Third Teacher Plus,” our job is to create spaces that allow the people to be remarkable students, remarkable educators.

What we hope we’ve done over the last week is shift mindsets. Maybe more importantly, what we hope we’ve done is given Steve the set of tools to be a designer himself, and to literally imagine that this space is a studio that can do anything he needs it to do.

A big feature of the classroom was the space that was created by grouping tables and eliminating clutter . This allows for collaboration and flow. The back  wall became a whiteboard for anyone to become a teacher or solve a problem and the teaching desk moved in closer to the students near the centre of the room and  became an efficient teaching dashboard complete with data projector.

At our school we are setting up our classrooms, getting ready for the students who start the new school year on Monday. Things that I am thinking about: eliminating clutter, creating a variety of agile spaces,  taking advantage of the natural light and using warm-light lamps in the darker corners.  What are the key features in your classroom?