What if…?

“Can we do more research and work on our boards now?” asks any student in the class at 8:01 each morning. The enthusiasm to jump into their independent learning projects is unmistakeable.

The central idea of our new unit is:

Life on Earth is dependent on how the Solar System works.


Step One: Immersion…We assume…

We decided to begin the unit with an immersion. Immerse the students with information about the Solar System so they could quickly reach a point of being able to ask relevant questions. Instead of the teachers leading the immersion, we wanted the students to lead it. Thanks to Ewan McIntosh for the inspiration.

We started with a 4 minute Brainpop movie about the Solar System and then we told the students: 

  1. We assume you know a lot already about the Solar System.
  2. We assume you can learn quickly.
  3. We assume you can share your knowledge. 
  4. Choose a planet/sun/moon to research and share your knowledge on a board (called the ‘Project Nest’).


The teacher-led introduction took less than 10 minutes. The students were pumped! We acknowledged their ability to be self-motivated, interested and independent learners and they took up the challenge.

We guided their research by supplying books, pre-viewed videos and Internet sites (the teachers created folders full of appropriate resources on the class laptops).

The Project Nests (class pin boards and white boards) started filling up quickly, knowledge and questions were being passed around from group to group. The class begin a true ‘nest’ of shared learning.

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Step Two: What If…? Provocations

Our plan was to introduce some provocations as the unit progressed. We planned to ask some “What if…?” questions. The students preempted us and inherently started asking these questions to each other. We should have known!


“What if the sun exploded?”

“What if there was water on Mars?”

“What if didn’t have a moon?”

“What if we could walk on Saturn?”

“What if our day was 243 Earth days long, like it is on Venus?”

They had begun their own significant inquiries. The student experts (those that researched particular aspects of the Solar System) supply the facts and drive the discussions forward. Concepts and misconceptions are being challenged. Informed questions are being asked. The students are collaborating and connecting with each other to extend their learning.

My job? Listen to the discussions, ask different provocative questions, and point students in the direction of resources that will help answer their questions. 

“…inquiry is a collaborative process of connecting to and reaching beyond current understanding to explore tensions significant to learners.” – Kathy Short, in Taking the PYP Forward

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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?

Hack Your Classroom

I am excited to share  this website The Third Teacher. Their book has been on my ‘to read’ list ever since Ewan McIntosh quoted from it : “Teachers need to embrace fidgeting.”

They have a great page called “Hack Your Classroom” and on it they show this video trailer:

I want to hack my classroom!

design your classroom

Thanks, John, for telling me about this trailer.

What’s on your wish list?

I read an Edutopia article about How To Make Your Classroom a Thinking Space. This enticed me. I loved the list of example spaces which included spaces similar to the 7 Spaces of Learning mentioned in a previous post. Some examples from the Thinking Space list are:

Tinker station. Encourage hands-on, minds-on creative thinking by providing tools for tinkering. Stock a “maker” station with everything from Legos to kits with wires, switches, and batteries, to a sewing machine. Add a library of Make, Craft, and Popular Mechanics magazines to get creative juices flowing.

Video booth. Turn an empty refrigerator box into a three-sided video booth to capture student reflections. In one class, students created posters on the interior walls that evoke the themes of each project. You might set up lighting and a video camera on a tripod, or just arrange for video capture through a webcam.

Color. If you have the option of changing wall colors in your classroom and school, investigate the role of color on minds and bodies. Better yet, have students investigate and make color recommendations as part of a project.

Furniture. As with color, furniture affects body and mind. Kids have a natural inclination to move, and ergonomic furniture designs (round-bottom stools or shell-shaped chairs that rock) accommodate rather than suppress movement. Beanbag chairs invite students to settle in for reading or quiet work.

sitting ball

I have been experimenting with furniture over the last few years. This year I brought in 10 large balls which the students could use instead of chairs. There are pros (allows rocking, bouncing, moving, fidgeting, encourages posture, engages core muscles) and cons (they squeak when rubbed against shoes or desk legs, they seem to have a life of their own and end up rolling around the classroom).

I would love to try these Hokki Stools. They allow movement, rocking, twisting, and they are quiet, don’t take up a lot of room  and easy to relocate when learning spaces need to be changed. These stools are on my wish list.

Hokki Stool Hokki Stool Hokki Stools


What is on your classroom wish list?

Participation Spaces

Ewan McIntosh was at our school helping in the planning stages of creating a Design Centre at NIS. He shared his thoughts about the 7 Spaces of Learning:

  1. Secret Spaces
  2. Group Spaces
  3. Watching Spaces
  4. Performing Spaces
  5. Participation Spaces
  6. Publishing Spaces
  7. Data Spaces

I was hooked. While they are not ‘new,’ people create these types of spaces in their classrooms all of the time, it is interesting to identify and name the spaces, remind ourselves of them and consider how each space can best be used to enhance learning.

I talked to my students about the spaces. We decided to  investigate these spaces for ourselves.

Immediately our three Grade 3 classes planned a day where everyone created a ‘secret space’ in which they would read for the entire day! The excitement was palpable. Plans were sketched out, agreements were made as to how to share the space and the materials and things were brought in from home.

This is what the day looked like:

Private Niche3 Private Niche2

Private Niche4 Private Niche1

For the entire day students and teachers read peacefully, snacked and sometimes just rested.

The result? No one wanted to take down their private niche. Everyone wants to do it again. Everyone understands the importance and the pleasure of a secret space. Twenty two people in one class room, and we all found a ‘private’ space.

Pretty impressive.

Inspiring Schools

Our school is planning to open a Design Centre in 2014. The architectural plans are fabulous. The concept is exciting. In order to learn more about design schools, NIS invited Ewan McIntosh to consult. Learning from Ewan and the Design Team at our school, I have been enthusiastically discovering and thinking about different ways of running a school.

Recently I came across Brightworks School in San Francisco. It’s an innovative and extraordinary school just opened this year.

It was founded by Gever Tully of  The Tinkering School.

These educators are stepping outside of what our traditional schools look like. They are changing the face of education.