Student Choice and Design Thinking

Teachers who believe in student choice know that it is just one of many guiding principles in curriculum design. Throughout my career, from HS English to Elementary Maker/STEAM, I have put Student Choice as one of my greatest goals, and I have done some of my best work in pursuit of this goal.

Getting to Know Design Thinking

When I joined my current school they asked me to go to a 5-day Design Thinking Camp sponsored by The Nueva School. I had not read much about Design Thinking before this point and it took me 3 full days of work before I felt like I even knew which way was up. I can’t take you through my 3-day journey here, but I can say I figured out that Design Thinking is a process focused on translating the needs of a specific user into action to support that user. When we use it as a lens for making it focuses the conversation on what you are doing for others.

Can it Work for My Kids?

The longer I teach, the younger I go. My PreK-2 students are amazing and eager to make things. When it came time to create a curriculum for them I wanted to get them started in Design Thinking, but I’m working with 45-60 minutes a week. I needed a way that my kids could access the needs of various users. I began a project called Design Thinking with Puppets, and now I have over 20 videos and prompts in this project. In fact, there is a short series “Dragon Rocket Labs” focused on STEAM lessons, with dragons and rockets.

Can it Work for Your Kids?

I’ve posted these videos on YT, and the next step is to write and share about how I use these in class. I see a real gap in meaningful lessons for PK-2 around design and STEAM, and I hope to be sharing lessons more frequently. 

How Does it Work?

When I am using these prompts with my kids, I tend to follow a routine:

  1. Students arrive in class and tour the available materials to build. This is a hands-off walk by the resource table(s). We quickly chat about what we might be doing today. I get them thinking and give them a quick chance to share their thoughts.
  2. We watch the prompt video. They are all captioned and I make sure the captioning is on. I try to not talk over the video, but it is a challenge for me. I take notes on the whiteboard as the video plays and I use them to guide the goals conversation after the video.
  3. We talk about the choice the students need to make, which of the users will they be helping? What are the needs of each user?
  4. Then we plan. I have them draw a plan on paper. This step is really important because it gives us a document to talk back to later. We want a record of the ideas at the start of the process. The plans don’t have to be good, but they do need to be able to explain what is on their plan. 
  5. Build time is about a third of the available class time. They get to build and the adult in the room spends the time problem solving and ripping pieces of masking tape. As we near the end I don’t do a countdown, I just proclaim “Let’s bring our building to a stopping point.” They tend to test as they build. We 
  6. Document and Clean Up. The class ends with documentation and then clean up. Documentation can be tricky and everyone is making their own SeeSaw video. It can be simple and I can snap quick pictures of each student and their work. We might be comparing plans to builds, or we might be creating a commercial to show off the design features to the user it was designed for.

A Process in Process

Creating these lessons for my students is important and rewarding work, and I’m not anywhere near done. If you are a teacher reading this, let me know what you think. Reach out to me on twitter @sampatue if you give one of these lessons a try.


About the author, Sam

Sam is Makerspace coordinator at Echo Horizon School, the nicest little school on Los Angeles' West Side. In the classroom since '02 Sam has taught grades PreK-12. Every lesson is a writing lesson.

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