Tag Archives: design thinking

Designing a 1st Grade Unit with Making in Mind

Students Sketch Plans for their Lunchrooms

Students Sketch Plans for their Lunchrooms

Now that we have the I.D.E.A. Studio  (Imagination Destination at Episcopal Academy), a new space at my school for interdisciplinary work, I have been excited to collaborate with teachers to imagine new student projects. Our first grade social studies work is centered around an exploration of places, starting with students’ bedrooms and expanding out all the way to the Earth. This exploration begins by reading students the book Me on the Map. From there, students begin following a similar examination of places and maps that the girl in the book explores. Over the past few years, I have developed a variety of projects that integrate technology into this work in meaningful ways, such as the intersections between mapping, coding, and the distance between home and school. This year, I wanted to see if we could bring more hands-on making into the curriculum.

I began to design a new unit (check out this Google Doc to see it) that would bring together students’ expertise and knowledge of current spaces they frequent (e.g., their bedrooms, the classroom, or the lunchroom) and allow them to consider the design elements involved in creating one of those spaces together as a class. This type of project would integrate ISTE standards, Next Generation Science Standards, reading and writing standards, and connect directly to students’ expanding exploration of places from Me on the Map.

It was important that the technology aspects of the unit be integrated with the curriculum because that is the model for all technology work at the school. We strive to have technology learning happen authentically, providing lessons on new skills as they are needed and often directly in the classroom. For this unit, I thought students could also learn some new maker skills: building 3D models with recycled materials and creating working circuits to light up LEDs. Plus, students would continue to use technology as a tool to document learning and communicate ideas with external audiences by creating an ebook.

After brushing up on my knowledge of Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005), I decided to specifically use that framework when designing the unit, starting with the standards and then examining what assessments would best help show evidence of learning, before planning the actual project work. I also wanted students to have voice and choice in the project, so I found ways to incorporate their wants through voting and integrating their personal ideas and designs, as well as their contributions to a how-to ebook (Culatta, 2013). Part of this process also involves students giving one another feedback, striving to empathize with the needs and desires voiced by their peers. Later in the unit, students have a chance to work as a team to remix each other’s work to create a shared product, a skillset that is growing more and more valuable (Lessig, 2008). Since the unit follows the entire engineering design process (with some design thinking empathy work added in), I knew I would need a lot of scaffolding to support students (O’Donnell, 2012) so the unit was designed with resources like checklists and a chance to revisit ideas multiple times throughout the project.

We are just starting to try out this unit with the students now and so far, they seem to be very excited to engage with their designs. Last week, we had a discussion that brought some of their learning and empathy work to the forefront, as a class that was designing a “lunchroom where everyone would feel comfortable and happy” took time to reconsider the addition of TVs. At first, many students suggested adding them as a way to increase enjoyment at lunch but then some students said that this might cause students not to talk to one another any more or fight over the choice of shows. We spent some time problem solving the issue (e.g., we could have a TV and no-TV section, etc) and ultimately decided that to make everyone happy and comfortable, we could find other ways to bring enjoyment (like bubble blowers and music!) instead of TVs.

Although most of the unit is hands-on and active, I cannot wait to get to the circuitry lesson and showing students how they can actually bring lights to their 3D models. I hope to write up a reflection post after the unit is finished to share out things I learned and want to remix myself after doing it with students.


Culatta, R. (2013). Reimagining learning: Richard Culatta at TEDxBeaconStreet [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/Z0uAuonMXrg

Lessig, L. (2008). Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. New York: Penguin Press.

O’Donnell, A. (2012). Constructivism. In APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol. 1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues. K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. DOI: 10.1037/13273-003. 

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design, Expanded 2nd Edition. Prentice Hall.


Takeaways from Attending #SXSWedu

Scaling Innovation SXSWedu Session – Sketched by Dan Ryder

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend SXSWedu in Austin. As I sifted through my tweets and notes from the conference, I tried to look for themes and key takeaways that came up throughout my various sessions.

In general, I attended workshops, panels, and sessions focusing on innovation and specific approaches to teaching and learning (e.g., Design Thinking, PBL, maker). Here are the recurring ideas that could have a truly meaningful impact on our schools if we put them into practice:

School must BE the “real-world”

So often, we talk of preparing students for the “real-world” that they will enter after graduating high school or at least higher education. At SXSWedu, many of the discussions instead centered on the idea of students engaging in real-world problem solving and projects while they are in school.

Students are not just imagining becoming engineers and entrepreneurs nor simply learning skills that will help them to do that work one day/someday, they have become them in many schools. This shift from “playing” a maker to being one in “real-life” is a dramatic change for many educators, administrators, and school systems yet the power of being able to take an idea or a product from something that is conceived in your head to one that is available to the public is immense.

By inviting students and teachers to engage in innovative ways of teaching and learning (e.g., design thinking, making, and global collaboration), schools can become another piece of every child’s real-world experience. For example, as Amanda Kruysman said, “DT is a way to solve problems for real users & you can look to your home community for those problems.” In fact, the Design Thinking in the Humanities panel eloquently demonstrated with concrete examples from their classrooms how valuable (and feasible) it is to bring the real-world into the classroom and invite students to engage in human-centered problem-solving that not always, but many times, has far-reaching and tangible real-world results.

Stop Accepting Space Constraints

There was one important ingredient to facilitating these real-world school experiences that was raised repeatedly at SXSWedu – agile spaces. As Steelcase demonstrated with their crowdsourced poll, everyone learns and thinks differently:

So having rigid, single-use spaces that cannot shift to accommodate different learners or learning activities will inherently leave some students behind. I ran into this first-hand when trying to setup the room for our core conversation on Scaling Innovation, which was arranged in concentric circles and was not conducive to small group work.

One of the Buck Institute for Education PBL sessions I attended also addressed this issue. We spent a lot of time discussing transformational learning experiences which almost always involved addressing real-world problems. To facilitate those types of learning experiences attendees came to the conclusion that schools need spaces that support active, hands-on work, hacking, play, collaboration, and a wide variety of learner interactions. Another session focusing on holistic design also discussed making schools more flexible and agile to respond to students’ needs. In small groups, we problematized the idea of traditional roles and spaces, imagining all teachers as learning coaches and every space as a place for discovery and collaboration (e.g. Learning Stairs). Schools were re-imagined to have “neighborhoods” with centralized resources and spaces that could be responsive to change over time. Ultimately, though…

Innovation Leaders can Help 

To help the people involved in schooling change their behaviors, schools need support and guidance. One way to achieve this is to ask for help by appointing one or more educators in your school who can serve as Innovation Leaders. Lindsey Own and I led a core conversation on this topic at SXSWedu.

Our hope was to give people a process (resources here) that they could bring back to their schools and organizations to explore the question of how to scale innovation and also help everyone walk out with some concrete takeaways (i.e., challenges to scaling innovation and a job description for an Innovation Leader).

Innovation Challenges

We began by asking everyone to map what innovation currently looks like at their schools, thinking about whether it is centered around specific people/hubs and how it flows (or doesn’t) within the school. From these maps, we invited groups to pull out challenges they saw (e.g., silos, a lack of resources) and after organizing by these themes, groups worked together to dive deeper into why these challenges might exist. Using the 5 Why’s exercise and small group discussions, attendees were able to get to the root of the issues and discover what would be needed to help overcome these challenges.

The groups were then able to chart what mindsets, professional/personal qualities, experience, and team needs an Innovation Leader would require to overcome that specific challenge. Combining all of their responses together, we could see clear themes that align with with many of the ideas of other SXSWedu sessions. For example, having varied experience (e.g., working at a startup or in a specific industry) and empathy are key outcomes of the real-world experiences students should be able to have in schools and being flexible and a risk-taker are helpful when trying to re-envision learning spaces and think differently about traditional school setups. .

Final Thoughts

One of the reasons educators attend conferences like SXSWedu is to come together and hear inspiring stories and learn from amazing speakers. These stories give us hope that every student and each classroom can become a place for students to have those “wow” factor experiences that can be life changing for both students and teachers.

Just look at the stories shared by Emily Pilloton about her work in If You Build It or with nine year old girls who have learned welding and an assortment of other equally impressive, tangible skills! You’ll notice how the homework she assigned everyone is also connected to my SXSWedu takeaways and does not involve a single worksheet.

And I think Mimi Ito, in her closing, might have shared the key that we are all looking for when we come to these conferences – connected learning. She encouraged everyone to help students find a #learninghero:

Isn’t that exactly what we, as attendees, are searching for?

While I learned a lot in the different sessions I attended, the most meaningful part of SXSWedu was connecting with my tribe, the #dtk12chat colleagues and friends (Thank You!!) I knew from Twitter (but mostly never face-to-face) and the new people I connected with who are passionate about innovating and using technologies to create and connect students globally. These connections and the natural exchange of ideas, resources, and support that come with them, are the key to my own growth and learning. I think it is the hidden, unnamed link we all share as innovation leaders.

The attendees in our session did not seem to notice that their very presence in the session speaks to a powerful component of an Innovation Leader. She or he is always looking for connections and new learning heroes who can “infect them with passion and expertise” and inspire them to connect school experiences to students’ own passions and interests. In order to help students capitalize on connected learning, bringing in local and global real-world problems and reimagine what classrooms can and should look like, we need Innovation Leaders who are connected, leaders who are always looking to add one more learning hero to their network.

One of the biggest challenges raised in our Scaling Innovation session was silos, within schools and between them, but maybe we are not so siloed, we just have to help each other and our colleagues find their tribe and understand how to nurture and build upon the creative synergy that results from being part of a virtual neighborhood of learning heroes.