#PYP The Sound and Light of Using Design Thinking To Write a Unit of Inquiry

#PYP The Sound and Light of Using Design Thinking To Write a Unit of Inquiry

I’ve opened a can of worms. After our last Sharing the Planet unit, I felt exasperated and wanted to shift some units around so we could develop more conceptual understandings in science. We have 3 units left since it’s the end of the term, so the choices were: Where We Are in Place and Time, How We Express Ourselves, and How The World Works. We thought that How The World Works would be the best fit for meeting those goals. The Central Idea was: Thinking scientifically helps us to make sense of the world. A lively debate ensued between my co-teaching partner and I–is this the unit that students need?? What other options might we have? So we decided to dig up “old units” to evaluate what was “best fit” for our students–the old vs. the “new” UOI. This didn’t feel very satisfying either. We had to write a new unit.

 

ben franklinSince we had a planning retreat we started wordsmithing some new central ideas so we could “get down to business” when our team is all together but then I experienced a perfect storm of inspiration after reading “Agency” and the UOI and Being a PYP Teacher: Collaborate with Your Students.These perspectives got me thinking that I really need to ignite student interest by tuning into what scientific concepts fascinate them and putting them at the forefront of our planning of this upcoming unit.   I find that design thinking is a creative and effective way to problem solve, so I thought I would take the opportunity to apply this process to crafting a Central Idea because student interest would take center stage naturally.

So even before we had our planning retreat, I created a poll using Plickers to have students express what their level of curiosity around 5 scientific concepts that would be new to students and are developmentally appropriate:

  1. The purpose of physical structures of animals and plants (adaption).
  2. The properties of materials and states of matter.
  3. Growth and care of living things.
  4. Natural Cycles of the Earth and Weather.
  5. Light and Sound Energy.

We discussed what each one of these “big ideas” might entail as we explored it during a unit of inquiry. Students made comments and asked questions about what sort of things we’d be learning about. After the poll, the students had to put these concepts into a list of learning priorities that I represented visually, just to make sure I captured their interests accurately.

 

learning priorities
The English language learner-friendly rating system

 

design slideI was very surprised that light and sound came in first place with 12 students indicating it as their first choice, with materials and matter coming in 2nd with 8 students picking it as their main interest.  Armed with these results, I felt confident enough that this basic knowledge of our 1st graders was enough to begin using Design Thinking to draft a unit. Although there are different approaches to Design Thinking, I decided to go with the d.school’s model.

Empathize: We began with thinking about how we perceive our students and discussing what we know about them as learners.  I shared the survey results and we considered how this unit could develop scientific thinking and experimentation.

Define: Then we began discussing the challenge of writing a transdisciplinary unit around light and sound that complemented a nearly equal student interest in materials and matter. This landed conversation us smack dab

Ideation: There are different ways to ideate but I chose to explore ‘prototyping’ as our framework for creating a unit of inquiry. We worked on our own and then collectively to come up with a “prototype” of what this unit could inquire into. Because we hadn’t designated a transdisciplinary theme indicator (ie: the natural world and its laws; the interaction between the natural world (physical and biological) and human societies; how humans use their understanding of scientific principles; the impact of scientific and technological advances on society and on the environment.), this broadened our swath of possibility.

“Ideation is the mode of the design process in which you concentrate on idea generation. Mentally it represents a process of “going wide” in terms of concepts and outcomes. Ideation provides both the fuel and also the source material for building prototypes and getting innovative solutions into the hands of your users.”
– d.school, An Introduction to Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE

As we explored related concepts in various domains, we collated what could be “driving” transdisciplinary ideas in a How the World Works unit in order to “build” a central idea around. What emerged from the ideation process was the conceptual understandings of :

  1. transformation
  2. energy
  3. data
  4. communication
  5. process
  6. classification
  7. movement
  8. diversity
  9. discovery
  10. behavior
  11. properties

Prototype: After deliberating and scribbling out all the perspectives that could make this a powerful learning experience, we settled on the central idea:

Understanding energy helps us predict behavior and can lead to new discoveries. 

  • Types of energy (Form)
  • Transformation of energy (Change)
  • Ways of knowing (Reflection)

Energy=science (light and sound)

Predict= math/science skills

Behavior=PSPE (personal social and physical education)

Discovery=Social Studies

We started digging into the curriculum documents, thinking that we had “nailed it”. But one of our team members sort of sat there blankly as we started choosing the conceptual understandings and learning outcomes. Our PYP coordinator said, “now aren’t you excited to teach this?” And she clearly articulated that she had no idea what this unit was about, which stung a bit because we had sat there discussing ideas for so long. Then she added that the “kids wanted to learn about sound and light and do experiments and we’ve written a unit about energy”.  We’d spent an hour on writing this so there was justification–“light and sound are forms of energy” in which she retorted, “But if I am a teacher who hadn’t been involved in this planning, I would have no idea how I might approach this.” She was right. She was right on both accounts. We had designed a prototype which hadn’t met the needs of the “users”–the students AND the teachers.  She echoed a feeling I’ve written about before in Central Ideas: The Good, The Bad and The Messy. How the Primary Years Program Can Rethink and Define Them. We’d been too clever, too adult and created something close to gobbly gook. We needed to go back to developing a central idea based on honoring the students’ curiosities.

After our meeting, we homeroom teachers continued this discussion and spent an hour debating if “sound and light” were topics vs. concepts. (Good lord, you know you’re a PYP teacher when you care so much about nuances.), examining curriculum documents.  We created a refined version that would require less “unpacking”:

Exploring how light and sound works can lead to discoveries and open up new possibilities.

  • Light and sound as forms of energy (form)
  • Transformation of energy (change)
  • The use scientific thinking in everyday life. (reflection)

Because I have never considered so thoughtfully the interests of our students, it is hard to say if this central idea meets the prototype criteria from d.school’s Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE:

  • the most likely to delight
  • the rational choice
  • the most unexpected

Nevertheless, I am going to push these versions of the UOI through to the students and move onto the next step of the process.

Test: On Monday, we will present both prototypes of the unit to the students and observe their reactions and collect their responses. Hopefully, this will provide greater clarity of how this unit could be shaped. I reckon that we will continue to refine this unit and engage in more pedagogical conversations.


So, this is what might be considered “first thinking” when it comes to “designing” a unit vs. “writing” a unit of inquiry. I feel very grateful to be a school that allows us to challenge how we approach our curriculum. Sometimes people in leadership can be more focused on efficiency vs. innovation in planning and implementation of our curriculum, desiring to tick off boxes rather than dig deep into what and, more importantly, WHO we teach.

“To create meaningful innovations, you need to know your users and care about their lives.” , d.school’s Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE

There is an award-winning designer, Onur Cobanli, who says that “great design comes from interaction, conflict, argument, competition, and debate”.  As a team, we are definitely in the throes of some of this. But I’m wondering if anyone has any suggestions or comments that might help enhance our approach.

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Judy Imamudeen

Judy Imamudeen

Developing learners as leaders is my joy! As a highly qualified International Baccaluearate (IB) teacher and educational leader, I am committed and passionate about executing its framework and empowering students in creating a future world that works for everyone.

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