3 Reasons to Keep a Growth Mindset about Design Thinking in the ELA Classroom

I tend to do this thing where I learn about something new and jump right in with both feet before I have time to think it through fully. So it should be no surprise to anyone who knows me well that I tackled incorporating design thinking into my English class pretty much right after I learned enough about it to get started. As a matter of fact, my work bro and podcast cohost, Cade Somers, and I interviewed Dan Ryder about makerspaces on a Friday afternoon following a long three days of professional development the week before school was to start, the conversation quickly focused on design thinking, and I began my first project 10 days later.


Probably not my wisest idea. But. I like putting that word by itself. But it turned out okay. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. There were days that were a hot mess. There were days I wish I could have afforded to fly Dan Ryder to Alabama and have him save me from the disaster I was witnessing. But. (I told you.) But then at the end of the project, I had students reflect on their learning, and here are some examples of the feedback I received… (Please don’t judge their grammar. Believe me, it’s on my list.) 🙂

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So after considering my own reflections and reading theirs, I came up with three major reasons I will definitely continue to assign design thinking projects.

  1. It teaches them empathy. My students had no idea about some of the injustices that exist in their world. When I talked to them about what a social injustice was, many of them could not identity a single one. I was blown away. We are all guilty of cuddling up in our own secure bubble and focusing on our own needs at times, and I believe teenagers are even more susceptible to this tendency because, for the most part, they are only responsible for themselves at this phase of their lives. Technology hasn’t helped either. Technology can be a wonderful thing and can even be used to unite us. However, it can also disconnect us from those who are in our actual physical presence, in turn keeping us from being aware of the needs of those even in the same room as we are, much less the needs of those miles away. If there was absolutely no other reason to use design thinking in my ELA classroom, this reason would be all I would need.
  2. It teaches them to be creative with constraints. I wish I could remember what wise person on Twitter posted this, but I have said it and thought it several times since I saw the tweet: Creativity craves constraints.Oh, how this is true. I’m sure there are some amazing people out there who are able to be creative with 100% freedom, but I know very few people who can function that way. When I give my students freedom, even in small doses, they get overwhelmed and often shut down or go straight to the security of the same old thing they’ve always done. If you are tired of watching dozens of PowerPoint presentations, give your students choice, but give them constraints. I learned this lesson not from what went right but from what went wrong. I gave my students complete freedom to create their prototype–of super heroes, might I add–in any way they chose as long as it met the qualifications of the rubric. Here was the “meets expectations” part of the rubric:

Your prototype shows great creativity and is well thought out and demonstrates a thorough understanding of the challenge. It only uses recycled material (i.e. there is no evidence of purchases being made other than glue, tape, or paint.)

What I got was posters and pencil drawings on lined paper. Even though I introduced them to TinkerCAD and talked to them about how they might bring in materials to build their superheroes, they went with what was easy. I learned my lesson. When I tried design thinking again, this time with different classes of students, I gave them constraints. They were building Utopias, and I told them they could only use makerspace materials, TinkerCAD, or Minecraft. Better does not begin to describe the difference in these prototypes. And here’s the lesson: It wasn’t about the students; it was about the constraints. I have no doubt that my first group of students could have created prototypes just as marvelous as the second group did, but they needed constraints in order for their creativity to shine.

Here are some pictures of my second group working:

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3. It teaches them about real-world work situations and growth mindset. One thing I noticed in the student reflections is that a great deal of what they learned had to do with what they learned about themselves and their classmates as workers and learners.

“I need to get my work done early rather than late.”

“This project helped me learn to collaborate with others.”

“I was able to improve on leadership skills and teamwork.”

“I’m going to take this as a way to practice and look for ways to improve on future projects.”

“I wish my group would have focused more and gotten the work done on time rather than waiting until the last minute.”

These reflections were from my first group of kids, the ones without the constraints, the ones that participated in what I thought was a disastrous attempt at design thinking. But. But they learned. And I learned. I was very transparent with my students. I told them I didn’t really know what I was doing, that they were my guinea pigs. I told them as we worked our way through that I was learning more about what not to do next time than what to do. And I think that transparency gave them the freedom to be transparent with me as well. They know they didn’t do their best work. They know the product they produced was not the best reflection of their abilities. But they learned. They learned to work with people they had never even conversed with before. They learned to empathize with people who go through situations of which they were completely unaware. They learned to solve a problem they didn’t know existed. They learned to manage their time more effectively…by not managing their time effectively. And they learned student-centered learning is hard work.

Incorporating design thinking into your English classroom is going to be a struggle, but I’m here to assure you that it’s a challenge worth tackling for both you and your students. At my school, we call this “productive struggle.” It’s the goal we set for rigor in our classrooms for our students. And it should also be the goal we set for ourselves as educators. If we aren’t struggling, we aren’t growing. Now that I think about it, maybe we could use a little design thinking ourselves.

Note: You can listen to our podcast episode about makerspaces and design thinking here.

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