Why Design Thinking is the Secret Ingredient to Student Agency

Why Design Thinking is the Secret Ingredient to Student Agency

Not that long ago, the International Baccalaureate (IB) issued a reflective “cheat sheet” of how schools can examine learner agency in the Primary Years Programme (PYP). Some of the key indicators include exploring the frequency and depth that learners are…

  • Actively engaged in various stages of learning, including thinking about, planning, modifying and creating 
  • Actively involved in discussion, questioning and by being self-directed in their creating (as opposed to passive receiving)
  • Apply their understanding of concepts through the construction of their projects/play
  • Make connections to the real world by taking past experiences into their play worlds
  • Have an active voice and stake in the classroom/community
  • Face challenges and are given the freedom to independently overcome these or fail through trial and error or experimentation
  • Are risk-takers
  • Express their theories of the world and these are honored in the environment
  • Reflect on their actions and self-regulate.

When I superimposed this framework over my classroom, I scrutinized my own practices and the culture in my classroom. Who was doing the leading in the classroom? Was I giving them freedom to learn and the space to lead?

These were the questions that played in the “background music” of my mind as I went into the planning of our last unit for the year. I know that this time of year can be a convenient time to take things easy and maintain the status quo of the established routines of the classroom, but I decided that I wanted to squeeze more out of the year by introducing design thinking into our classroom. I felt that this would be the secret ingredient to learner agency as design thinking organically gives them choice and voice, provided that I do not micromanage their learning.

My current unit is from the theme, Sharing the Planet whose central idea is: We grow and use plants in many ways. The central idea is accessible and easy for the 3-5 years old grasp and the lines of inquiry are straightforward: Growth of a plant (change); ways that plant parts are used in human life (connection); care of plants (responsibility). I’m still mid-unit, but I can share the process so far.

From there, I introduced the design thinking process, which I’ve obviously had to simplify for the Early Years. I stole ideas from American STEM schools like the  Benjamin Banneker School as a model for my class. To begin with, I wanted the students to choose what they wanted to grow. When we began the unit, I asked parents to go out shopping or bring in plant seeds that the students personally chose. (If I had chosen the seeds, I would normally have picked beans or radishes–something that is very easy to grow and would sprout quickly.) Of course, that’s not what the kids picked. They brought in a variety of flowers and vegetables such as broccoli and bak choy. In this small change to my “normal”, I had already shifted the dynamic significantly to cultivate greater agency, enthusiasm, and depth of the inquiry–it all started with the seeds.

design and scienceThe design-thinking process language I am using is:

  1. Understand
  2. Focus
  3. Imagine
  4. Prototype
  5. Try

Understand: What do we need to know about plants? And who are the “users” of plants? (the “we” in our central idea)

FullSizeRender 86

These were the first series of questions that the students wondered about and began our jumping off point for our project: To design a garden for an end user.  In the beginning, the students weren’t really thinking about a “user”, but through daily questioning prompts in our morning meetings and investigating what lived inside the homes provided by plants, sIMG_4623tudents began to grasp the concept of the relationship between plants and animals. I decided to also create some compost with the students so that they may appreciate the symbiosis of plants with one another and how humans can support the growth of plants by turning our rubbish into food. We used food scraps from the school kitchen like egg shells and banana peels and blended it into our dirt. We then used this enriched soil to plant our seeds in recycled toilet paper tubes, which would later transplant into the gardens we created.

 

 

 

Focus: How is the care of our specific plant different from each other and what considerations will we need when building our gardens? 

At this point,  2 groups had emerged: the vegetables and the flowers, and the students decided that the end users would be different. 1 group was going to focus on people (vegetables) and the other group wanted to focus on butterflies (flowers). If we were successful, then the end users would appreciate our gardens by eating the vegetables and getting nectar from the flowers.

IMG_4804

Before we could build the gardens, we had to consider the needs of those plants–no plants meant no happy end users! So the students had to research the basic requirements of their particular plant and this was definitely guided as we Googled and perused through books. Not a great deal of independence here, but the understandings of this greatly influenced the ideas of their garden design’s first renderings.

Imagine: Where might we put this garden and what would the structure of this garden look like?

So now we began to examine different types of gardens. We visited the wetlands park to and will go to a working farm. The students have made their first sketches of their gardens. What really surprised me was the thoughtful considerations the students made. They absolutely thought about the level of sunshine that the plants would need, and they put those details into those drawings. For example,  the “pink flower” group wants to make a heart-shaped garden near a tree, but not under a tree. While the “purple flower” group wants to be near the vegetables because that garden needs to be in a sunny area.

FullSizeRender 87 We will have a morning meeting to think about their designs and come up with questions for the farmers. (Going back to the “understand and focus” part of the process) After the farm visit this week, the students will review their designs to see if they feel they are on the right track.

Next week, they will create models of their designs out of cardboard and have the students put these prototypes in the area of our school where they think the plants will grow best. That will be the “try” part of the process before they actually go and build the real model and officially plant the plants. I will have to update their progress on this project later, as I reckon they will make changes in their designs

But I can say that so much of this unit’s inquiry has been given over to the students, as design thinking has allowed this project to be more personalized and focused on what they think is important. It’s sort of an odd feeling, especially as an early childhood teacher, to move out of their way and just be the “helper” in fulfilling their imaginings. I look forward to posting the end results later in a future blog post.

To be continued….

And I am curious how other teachers or schools have used design thinking to shift into a more student-centered culture and approach to the learner. What am I missing? What ideas might you have to extend my 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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