Design Thinking: A Success Story!

It’s been a while since I blogged, but I promise my action plan hasn’t been far from my thoughts. My course load over the past two years has been primarily math-based, so I chose an action plan that concentrated on math. See my last blog post for an overview of my action plan. However, I really love teaching Science as well and wanted to share a success story I had when using Design Thinking, a concept introduced to me during the second (my first) F2F.

I’ve been working all year to develop and foster a sense of wonder in and love for scientific ideals in my Grade 6 Science course. This is my first time teaching this class. Some people bemoan new preps, which is understandable as there is a lot to be said for having a base of material to build on and refine. I’m sure I’ll see the value in this even more when I’ve had some experience with re-teaching – however, over my short career, I’ve only re-taught one class. SO, for the time being, building new courses is exciting and yet still familiar to me. I knew I wanted to make each unit inquiry- and project-based. I wanted students to explore their own intrinsically motivating questions and curiosities using the Scientific Method (Question, Hypothesis, Experiment, Analyze Results, Refine, Conclude). I also wanted them to explore the considerable breadth of resources available to them to answer questions they wouldn’t be able to reach conclusions on via experimentation.

With this “interest-led” mentality, we began our first unit, which I titled Scientific Investigation. The end project ¬†would be a science fair-type presentation, highlighting the application of the Scientific Method to a specific problem or issue each student chose. I began by giving small groups of students random materials, for example: worms, flashlights, a box, and a mirror. The students were to generate a question, design an experiment, conduct the experiment, and analyze their results to generate a conclusion). Although the project was overall quite open-ended, it was very structured in its execution. It went well and the students gained an idea of the scientific method and its value.

From here, we moved into the planning of our Scientific Investigation, or science fair project. Students worked individually to develop a question, generate a hypothesis based on previous knowledge or research, and form an experimental design. This section of the project was fairly structured and I conferenced with each student to ensure their projects and ideas were testable. For grade 6 students, this idea of a question being “testable” was difficult to grasp. I had one student who wanted to see if dinosaurs were evolutionarily similar to birds, and another who wanted to see if the price of a pair of basketball shoes was related to their performance (we had a hard conversation about the practical meaning of “performance”). Once their questions were ironed out, they set out to conduct their experiments. This is where we hit a snag.

I’m going to blame my lack of experience with this age group, but I overlooked the fact that these kids needed much more guidance than the students I regularly teach. I mistook enthusiasm and willingness for surety in the process. Many students did a great job carrying out their experiments and analyzing their data. A few, however, did not. They didn’t take the feedback and conclusions we had agreed upon during our conferencing and apply it. In other words, they missed the “reflective” piece of the process and plowed ahead anyway. This was a learning experience for me and I knew we needed a more structured process to ensure ideas were being followed up with tangible plans and outlines.

It was several weeks after reaching this conclusion that I attended the second F2F and was introduced to Design Thinking. I loved the idea of using a very structured method, or protocol, to solve problems or at least examine them in a creative way. I loved the collaborative nature of the process. And I loved that I could make the process immediately visible and tangible for my kids.

The design thinking process. (borrowed from
The design thinking process. (borrowed from

We had already decided as a group that our final product for our Matter and Molecules unit would be a Bill Nye-style video. I decided to make a Design Thinking-based template to guide them in the planning of their groups’ section. I printed this set of documents on 11 x 17 paper and we worked through each section of the process; Empathize/Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. The students got feedback from me and their peers after each step.

Their final products were much more organized and coherent as a result of this planning tool. It really forced them to refine their ideas and focus on the concept they needed to teach and explore in their section of the video. The kids loved the process and appreciated the extra structure – it really allowed them to organize their thoughts. I’m considering using it as a template for the Internal Assessments my IB Math students write at the end of this year.

5 thoughts on “Design Thinking: A Success Story!

  1. Kate! Great to hear from you again!
    This sounds like a really successful experience with Design Thinking in your classroom – I’m inspired by the fact that you did it with 6th grade students, so maybe it wouldn’t be a complete bust in a high school class like I’m worrying about! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi Kate,

    This is an exciting read! The summary of the journey you’ve undertaken with this class illustrates your dedication to expanding their mindset for inquiry as well as making their thinking explicit. These students will take these key skills with them into their courses next year and this experience will help them to continue growing as a learner.

    I applaud how you took the design thinking framework from our second F2F session and made it work for you. It can be overwhelming to try a new approach with new tools! You’ve embraced what Cohort 21 is all about with this action plan. Your teaching as well as your students are the benefactors of this experience! I look forward to reading about more of your experiments in future classes.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi Kate,
    This is great work with the principles of design thinking! I can understand the test part of this being difficult at that age and fear not – I have grade 11s and 12s who plow ahead anyway despite feedback during conferencing as well! I hope you never lose that enthusiasm for creating. I’ve had the chance to re-teach many courses and I’ve never really done them the same – because it’s largely student based and I get to learn a lot along the way as well!

    I look forward to seeing your final project and I hope you’ll continue to blog about your experiences after your year at Cohort21! Who’s next from RNS?

  4. @kwhitters I love the iteration you put on the DT protocol to tailor it to the developmental level of your students. It’s amazing what you learn each time you run DT. Where students get stuck and where they need more structure. Where they need explicit directions and where you can let them run with it. It takes practice and lots of reflection but it is so worth it when it works.

  5. Love it, Kate!

    Design thinking continues to revolutionize parts of the classroom throughout Cohort 21. Your use of the process in your grade 6 science course is a perfect fit and I’m glad you saw success with those creative little minds. They need that release and you have found a way to hone in on it with more intention. Looking forward to your hearing more on Friday!


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