At the start of December, I attended a workshop at the Detroit Port Authority Lofts, which, it turns out, is an event space, not a place where ships check in. I’ve lived in southeast Michigan my entire life, and spent many, many hours in the city. But I didn’t know this place was there. I thought, The city of Detroit is like teachers: there’s so much good stuff happening, but no one knows about it, or the ones who do know treat the information like it’s secret.
Teachers are terrible networkers. We don’t collaborate very well, and we tend to keep ideas to ourselves, especially the really effective ones. It’s not all our fault, though, and it doesn’t have to stay like this. But we do have to make more of an effort to reach one another, to build relationships—professional and personal.
Professional development can help. Take the event I attended in Detroit, which was cohosted by the Henry Ford Learning Institute and Teacher2Teacher. The event introduced teachers to the principles of Design Thinking. We ate and talked and were lead through what is called a “rapid cycle design challenge.” That’s a short activity that introduces the elements of Design Thinking in an interactive way. Participants use Design Thinking principles (Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype/Feedback, Reflect) to redesign something for their partners. We talked to one another, worked together, and learned how Design Thinking works.
Considering the Audience
Design Thinking is a set of moves developed at the Design School at Stanford to solve problems and to design products. At first blush, it sounds like it would be limited to an academic setting. But as I’ve worked with it over the past few years and seen it in action, I’ve discovered how well it fits with other effective teaching practices, like feedback, formative assessment, and audience-driven writing.
One of my colleagues, Dawn Schupbach, a math and science teacher, came away from the professional-development session with some great ideas. She took what she learned at this event back to her classroom, where she turned her Honors Algebra 2 students loose on a challenge: to use Design Thinking and conics to redesign logos for the different departments in Avondale High School.
In the past she’d had the students design logos for businesses. But one of her takeaways from the professional development was the importance of audience, empathy, and feedback. It’s important to know that those are key moves that my colleagues in ELA have been working with over the past few years.
With the idea that everything needs to be designed with a user—in ELA we say audience—she sent her students out to find what the members of the departments (the users/audience) thought about their respective disciplines—not what they wanted in a logo, or what they thought about themselves as a department. This is called Empathy in Design Thinking, and it’s vital. How can you design or write for someone you don’t understand?
Teaching Across Disciplines
Math students—let me say that again, math students—came to English and science and foreign language teachers, in order to talk about design. Look at all the cross curricular connections being made, all of the opportunities for teachers to talk to students about their disciplines. I know it sounds like a joke. “A math student walks into an ELA classroom to talk about design . . . .” But it’s really a model for what we ought be trying to build into our curricula. I want to teach writing and reading in ways that make students better at math and science and art. And I want my students to take what they learned from Mrs. Schupbach’s Geometry class into my writing class.
In the end, her students took the feedback back to their math classroom and combined it with what they were learning about conics. With that, they created logos for us to vote on. Most of my department picked the logo shown on the right. It reflected our desire to have a design that opened a conversation, by provoking a person to ask about the logo. The shapes are meant to represent aspects of our discipline and practice. We didn’t want books or pens or apples. Too cliché.
Everything that’s great about the project—collaboration, Design Thinking, cross-disciplinary work—these things happened because a good teacher had the chance (and the drive—she attended the workshop on her own time) to learn from other teachers. She not only took what she’d learned about Design Thinking back to her class. She took the way she learned it—collaboratively, interactively, cross disciplinarily—and created a rich experience for her students and, I’d argue, the whole school. That’s what happens when you put teachers together and give them time and space to learn.
Rick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.