Design Thinking, or What an English Teacher Learned From Working With Web Developers

Business Casual People Office Working Discussion Team Concept

Where I’ve Been

Often it’s not until you’re pulled out of your comfort zone that you see just how limiting that comfort zone can be. As a middle and high school English teacher, I worked in what I think were fairly typical ways–I’d gather periodically with other English teachers to plan vertically and then more regularly with teachers on my grade level team. I planned most of my daily lessons alone, with the occasional experience of teaching the same grade level and having the same planning period as another teacher with similar approaches who appreciated time to talk or share more detailed ideas. Once or twice a year, there would be a meeting with the social studies department and we’d divvy up components of a larger research-based project. My hunch is that this was fairly typical practice–some occasional collaboration, but quite a bit of independent, siloed work.

And then I found myself working among web designers, developers, and database gurus at an educational technology company. Instead of facilitating a writing workshop, I was standing in front of a whiteboard attempting to understand the challenge or problem and mapping out a process for how a teacher might want to interact with an online curriculum mapping tool. I was translating what teachers might want to do with a tool to a specifications document (or my best effort at a specifications document). I was translating web developer explanations of the impact of certain functionality changes into emails to our partners explaining how curriculum writers would need to use the tools. In the classroom, we talked literature, life, and change. In front of the whiteboard, we talked user experience and SQL. There was a process, but things felt a bit messier and we spent more time in grey territory. I felt out of my element.

In addition to the differences in what I was thinking about on a daily basis, there were differences in how I had to work. While I collaborated with other teachers throughout the year, in the classroom I was responsible for everything, and the success or failure of a lesson depended entirely on me. Lesson planning, teaching, grading, communicating with families. All me. If something wasn’t done, it was because I didn’t do it. Suddenly I was on a team where I actually could not do everything. I couldn’t code. I couldn’t create mock-ups. Sometimes, I couldn’t even effectively communicate to developers what teachers might need an online lesson planning tool to do. When we faced big deadlines, during that sprint toward the finish line as you’re nearing the end of a project, I could essentially do nothing (except answer an occasional question and maybe even bring in some snacks). It was frustrating, and mostly, I felt powerless.

And yet this was the first time I experienced what it means to be on a real team. I learned how to depend on others’ skills in a way that I hadn’t before. I also learned the real value of designing something as a team. My English-teacher-brain was useful, but my ways of thinking were complemented and enhanced by the web-developer-brains on the team. I could lay out a goal or describe a problem that teachers or districts might be looking to solve through a tool, and I could even bring some of my ideas for how we might be able to go about it. But when in a room with a full and rounded team that approached the process from a different angle, we were able to design something that was more useful, efficient, and intuitive that what any one of us would have been able to dream up independently. Sometimes the problem or original goal would morph or become more refined. Sometimes my own hunches for how something might end up working turned out to be relatively inefficient. Together, we would spend hours in front of a whiteboard drawing pictures, connecting boxes, and taking turns leading the thinking or talking through “What if” scenarios. While the silences that sometimes happened during our sessions were ridiculously overwhelming (with ideas like, What if I have to go back and tell our partners that we can’t achieve something they’d really hoped for?), there was a rush when we collectively mapped out plans and pathways that would make possible even more than our partners had requested.

What I’ve Learned

While teaching, I almost always preferred to work alone, later bringing my ideas back to others, who might make a few suggestions for adaptation, with my original plan remaining mostly intact.  Post-ed-tech, however, I’ve realized the limitations of independent design and planning.  Ideation–the brainstorming or planning phase, is almost always better when done collaboratively. And experimentation–testing out those ideas–is always better done with a diversity of approaches. I’ve learned that the design thinking approach is just as useful for building the technology tools for lesson planning and curriculum mapping as it is for doing the lesson planning and curriculum mapping itself.

The Teaching & Learning Lab at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education outlines the fundamental steps of the Design Process, which likely doesn’t sound all that much different than what teachers already do:

  1. Discover–We define the challenge/goal, considering our audience, and seek out resources that might be useful.
  2. Interpret–We make sense of the research and information we’ve gathered, defining key insights and looking for opportunities.
  3. Ideate–We generate and refine our ideas.
  4. Prototype-We start experimenting and trying out what we’ve planned.
  5. Test-We see how it works, tracking learning and considering how we might refine, scale, or evolve our work.

Though it may sound similar, taking the time to work through a more specific process can broaden your approach to each step and will involve others in new, more structured ways.  Rather than simply asking what someone thinks of an idea as you make copies, this process can provide more intentional thinking to shape your work. While districts should provide more time and support for design thinking, teachers can use the process within their own teams, seek out more interdisciplinary teams, or use elements of the approach on their own. IDEO’s Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit includes a workbook that facilitates each step in the design process and can be used on a range of challenges that teachers face including those related to curriculum, classroom space, classroom and school processes & tools, and organizational systems.

Our independent thinking and planning will only take us so far, and might prevent us from being able to reach all of our students all of the time. While there is no silver bullet lesson or curriculum map, we can work towards reaching more students, while at the same time growing our own ways of thinking. As teachers, we must not only encourage our students to grow and expand their minds, but we must do the same in an effort to make even more possible in our own classrooms. Further, as we work to prepare young people for the world they’ll face, to equip them with the skills they’ll need, we must engage in work that challenges us to do what they will be expected to do–understand the layers and dimensions of any given information or challenge, think creatively, work across disciplines to make connections and solve problems, experiment to understand who is served by our work and who might be marginalized, and continue to iterate and evolve with the recognition that nothing is ever really finished. Design thinking allows us to both engage with those skills that our students will be expected to demonstrate and build learning experiences that foster those same skills. We owe it to ourselves and our students to try!

Useful resources on design thinking for schools and classrooms:

For more, see:

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Amanda Winkelsas

Dr. Amanda Winkelsas is Director of the UB Teacher Residency Program and clinical faculty in the Graduate School of Education, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.

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