Design Thinking Meets Curriculum Development
By Kelby Zenor, Rubicon International
Here at Rubicon, we have started the process of using design thinking as the model for curriculum development and unit design. Over the past year, we have used our Curriculum Creation Process, a modified design thinking model, to support teachers as they create curriculum that reflects who their students are and what engages them in learning. We have learned a lot through this process and wanted to share some insight as you think through your curriculum development process.
The first step on any journey is critical, as it determines your path. When it comes to developing curriculum that supports students, we couldn’t agree more. There is a lot of talk right now about personalized learning, meeting students where they are, and the instructional strategies used to capture interest… but we often fail to truly understand who our students are. We need to know what makes them tick, what it really means to be a student in today’s classroom, and what they talk about when they go home.
As a parent, anytime you spend time with your kiddos you learn something new about school. Recently, I was sitting with my 13-year-old and her friend waiting for a movie to begin—and all they talked about were their teachers. Everything a middle school teacher says and does is watched and is later talked about. In this case, it was in complete admiration and joy of their teachers being human. But what really hit home was how important the role of the teacher is in not just teaching, but in how they create meaningful relationships.
As a teacher, it is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day needs of the classroom and forget a student’s perspective. It takes those moments of empathy—sitting all day in a lousy PD session, showing up to the PLC meeting without the pre-reqs, or having your work unexpectedly highlighted in a faculty meeting—to remind us of what it feels like to be the student. We are all human. Take a moment to reflect what life is like for your students. Think not just about the day-to-day, but about the emotional aspect of what it is like. That is the hook to engagement.
TRY IT OUT: The best way to empathize with students? Walk a mile in their shoes by attending all the same classes, doing all the same classwork, and reflecting on their learning experiences for a day or two. We recommend first reading Grant Wiggins’ blogpost about shadowing students and then downloading resources from Authentic Education:
One of our favorite activities this past year has been to watch teachers step out of their rote path to think about how a new topic, hook, or engaging concept can be the catalyst to developing a unit. There are many best practices that are about starting with the standards or key concepts needing to be taught, but sometimes we need to shake it up and start with passion. Instead of encouraging all K-3 teachers to do units on dinosaurs, we are asking them to think about their students and begin to mind-mapping an idea. Here are a few of our favorites:
When going through this process with educators there is this sense of excitement during the ideate phase. Ideas are flowing, and connections being made to other disciplines and student interests. Then we switch gears, and work to flesh them out into the skeleton of a unit. This is where the brain work begins and we start to build out three key areas:
1) What is the purpose of the unit? What are the main takeaways?
- Start to bring the standards or learning targets in. Review and reflect not just on your academic standards, but think cross-disciplinary to find connections. With so many of the standards gravitating to skill-based learning, many times the concepts fold in nicely. If you don’t have standards that meet your mind-map, this is a good time to reflect and determine if this is an essential learning for your students. Sometimes, even though we get excited about something, it isn’t a good fit.
- Ask yourself what you truly hope students walk away remembering. Dig deep on this—be clear and focused about what students will understand about your topic. Be reflective on other units being taught in grades above and below, as well as across subjects. You might find that in order to have your students achieve this, they will need support from other academic areas; you may also uncover some assumptions of what they already understand from previous learning.
- Reflect on those key skills that students will need to be able to do in order to get to the level of understanding you’ve established. Knowing your students will help as you think through the scaffolding of these skills. We know where we want our students to go, but the path they take may look different for each student.
2) What is the evidence of student learning?
- Although evidence is such a weighted word in today’s education conversation, what we really mean is how will we know that students have truly learned. There is such a difference between regurgitated information and long-term learning. As you curate, look for the lasting evidence pieces, not instant ones.
- We know students do better when given choice and multiple opportunities to show their understanding. Think about all the ways you gauge student learning—from the small conversations to exit questions to major projects that bring together multiple ways to demonstrate learning.
- While there is a place for testing, it should not be the only way you evaluate learning. I like to think of them in terms of the food pyramid: tests are the sweets – they’re great to have, but they shouldn’t be the foundation of what we base our student learning on.
3) How will students learn?
- For me, this is where the magic occurs! When you think of all the students you have ever taught, each brings their own passion and curiosity to the classroom. The challenge is taking those unique pieces and creating a plan for how you will engage students in learning.
- Teachers aren’t teachers because they really understand the water cycle or how to write an informative essay; they are teachers because they want to facilitate learning. Taking students’ understanding to the next level occurs when a teacher melds who their students are with the instructional strategies, differentiation practices, and the learning activities in the classroom.
This is my favorite part of the process: whether you are designing something new or revisiting current curriculum, you now get to draft it. This process takes into account all the ideations, refinements, and sparks of genius that have happened through the process!
As you develop your curriculum, are you examining the intra-alignment and asking whether what you really want students to understand is being extrapolated in the skills and content? Do your learning activities not just engage your students, but really stretch them to think? Do you take into account the different learning modalities when it comes to your assessments? Grapple with these questions—don’t move past them, because this is where your good unit becomes great.
Take the time to go ask your go-to colleague for feedback. But then take a risk, and seek out the colleague who teaches something very different from you or the one who the kiddos rave about. Or, better yet, seek out a past student.
You might find you have pieces you’re just not sure about—try them out! Teach the unit, jot down notes on what worked and, especially, what flopped. Ask the students to reflect on what they learned and what they now understand after the unit. This is not just about teaching, but about really exploring the learning that happened (and we don’t just mean the test scores).
Ask the students:
- What new perspective/idea do have on what we learned?
- How have you used what we are learning in a conversation with _______ (parents, guardians, coaches, friends, siblings, another teacher)?
- What do you question based on what we learned?
- If you had to summarize this unit into one word, what would it be?
- Is there an unexpected thing you learned, that I didn’t really overtly teach?
Our students are an often untapped resource in understanding what was learned at the heart-and-head level. Regurgitation of facts doesn’t tell us anything, but getting them to intrinsically reflect on their journey through the unit gives us a glimpse into who they are as learners.
Take all the thoughts, moments of inspiration, and feedback and use them as a guide to adapt and adjust your unit. You may need to empathize with your students’ less-than-glowing reviews—congratulate yourself that they felt comfortable giving you honest feedback. Maybe you need to curate the reflections in order to create your next prototype of the unit. The unit won’t be taught until next year, but the new ideas can be woven into future units as the curriculum is molded to meet the needs of the students.
This process is not meant to be how all curriculum is written because time is limited. Challenge yourself to try it with one unit this year. Take the time to find the creative genius that lives in all of us and it just waiting for the chance to try something new.
Our process has come from years of trying new things and we welcome your ideas, thoughts and adjustments as you move through the Curriculum Creation Process. What works, what doesn’t; what sticks, what stinks; what causes lightbulbs to shine, to flicker—all of these moments point us to improvement. That’s what we emphasize with our students; let’s celebrate ourselves, too!