Juliana Agostino

Re-thinking learning for the 21st Century

One Simple Change

I think one of the most underrated parts of design thinking is also the most important and that is to empathize with the user i.e. our students. Teachers are in the business of giving feedback, but how often do we stop and ask for it from our students? Taking the time to empathize with my students was the most useful part of the protocol we employed during the face to face. As I have struggled with student engagement and buy-in in the past with this unit, it was time to start putting myself in their shoes. I had to try and think of what an “effective” interdisciplinary unit would look like from their perspective rather than just mine.  From there I was able to further focus my HMW statement to its next iteration which is currently:

HMW design a relevant, engaging, authentic and manageable interdisciplinary unit with clear connections between humanities and science that empowers students to solve real world problems in their community?


It is a bit long and may need some refining (i.e I’m sick of saying “real world problems”), but each descriptor was chosen with the students in mind. One of the most important words I realized had to be added was manageable for several reasons. In the past students have struggled with the sheer enormity of the task of solving climate change! What we ask them to do as their final product has to be more age and stage appropriate. I think we have overestimated what that is in the past. It also shouldn’t feel so overwhelming in terms of the workload and the complexity of the problem and its solution. I also realized that student buy-in might increase if I give them a more relevant and authentic task to complete. Solving California’s drought problem might be a bit of a stretch for a 15 year old. Asking them to understand and reflect on the consequences of their own actions might be more realistic and interesting to them.

The first thing I did when I went back to school was create a survey for the students to ask for their input on what they wanted the unit to look like. Here are some of their thoughts.

What are your initial thoughts when you hear that you are going to have an ID unit with World Issues and Science on climate change? What are you excited about and what concerns you?

  • I think it sounds interesting, but I am worried it’s going to be a lot of work.
  • I am really excited. A promotion of interclass work by the school is great.
  • I didn’t really have any initial thoughts. It sounds kind of cool that the subjects are integrated. However, it worries me if the final project is worth a lot of my grade.
  • I’m excited about the unit it seems like it could be fun I’m concerned that it will be repetitive
  • I don’t have many excitements about this unit to be completely honest. This sounds like a really complex unit and climate change as a whole is a complex subject and I think I would really struggle having this as a unit.
  • I am excited to find out how science can be applied in other subjects, and the science behind the issue of climate change.
  • That’s sounds cool.

I’m not too surprised by these responses. A lot of their concerns mirror what I expected. They are mainly worried about the workload and their grades as well as the complexity of the topic – not to mention this is something they have already seen in depth in grade 8. Their ID unit in humanities and art centred around climate change as well and hence they may be feeling the fatigue of studying this particular topic. I was happy to get many positive responses though! That was refreshing.

What type of assessment would you enjoy doing the most?

There was quite a range of responses, but 31% chose an infographic. I think this would be a good choice for several reasons. They have experience making infographics in grade 9, but have yet to do one in grade 10. It’s something they are familiar with, but is not overdone. It would also lend itself well to a unit where they are collecting some data on themselves.

The next few questions I asked had to do with the focus of the unit. Did students want to focus on themselves? Their school community?  Toronto?  Canada?  Students were asked to choose between 1-5 on a Likert scale where 1 was “Strongly Agree” and 5 was “Strongly Disagree.”

The top 2 choices were a unit that focuses on me and also the globe. I thought maybe with these two responses students might like to connect with other teenagers around the world. The response to this suggestion was very lukewarm so we might have to come up with another way to connect the students to what’s happening in the international community.

I was really happy to see that most of the students actually wanted to take action on what they were learning in class and apply it to their lives. I think this adds to the authenticity and relevance of the unit.



I asked many other questions about class activities and assessment that I thought would be useful. For example, I found out that no one is really interested in having a guest speaker come in, nor are they keen to present their projects to other students at school. This is why asking them for feedback is so important. I would have gone ahead and planned an assembly thinking that it was an awesome idea!

After Megan and I went through the data we decided to come up with a unit and assessment that focused more on what our students want and need and less on the prescribed rubrics. Feeling free from these shackles, we were able to be more creative. Currently we are thinking of calling our unit “One Simple Change.” It will focus on each student’s personal carbon footprint and have them evaluate the simplest change they could make in their daily lives that would have the greatest impact. Rather than having them try to solve all the world’s problems, we are going to see if this shift can help the students remain engaged with the issue and feel hopeful and empowered about how they can be change agents. We are still in the early stages of refining the project so if anyone has any resources out there to share about calculating your carbon footprint based on the consumption of food, water, transportation etc…we could use some help! Our next step is to introduce students to the project in February so that they can have a month to actually do some tracking before they start to evaluate their impact.

I’m looking forward to discussing our action plans more at our next F2F to take advantage of everyone’s expertise and ideas.


  1. @jagostino – it seems like you’ve done a ton of reflection about this interdisciplinary project and you’ve truly embodied what it means to empathize with your user.

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