The world’s worst scissors: Why design thinking matters in your classroom

“I’d like to start with a quote.” Yawn.

But really, try to process this one by Bill Moggridge: “It doesn’t occur to most people that everything is design—that every building and everything they touch in the world is designed.”

Let’s prove this. Imagine a contest: a cash prize to the worst-designed pair of scissors. Picture the winning prototype: dull blades that no human hand could manipulate. Or, worse, a Salvador Dalí approximation of scissors, melting and useless.

Do you have scissors nearby? Look at their design. Do they have an asymmetrical grip, one for multiple fingers and one for a single thumb? Is this grip coated in plastic or rubber? Do they have a rounded tip for safety?

Now, check if you could use them left-handed. Probably not, as most scissors are designed for right-handed folks. These scissors went through multiple rounds of approval, and at each level, no one said, “But lefties can’t use them.”

Once I realized that everything is designed, I started seeing the missed opportunities (at best) and the harsh inequities (at worst) in our world. Subsequently, I noticed that as a teacher in a classroom, I design every day. What have I missed? What have I perpetuated, as part of a larger, undeniable inequitable system?

Design thinking: From I dont care” to Theres something there

Although I’m still in the classroom, I’ve had one foot in “ed tech” for a while now, and I need to make a confession: a lot of trending educational topics wash over me. I’m always snidely asking, “Do teachers really care about Jargon A, Hashtag B, or ISTE Topic C? Or are we just trying to survive and do right by our students?”

[I]f I don’t feel passionately about how I design for [my students], then I am probably doing it wrong.

“Design thinking” was one of these culprits. I once even helped write a curriculum on design thinking, and I’ll risk some real honesty to tell you that I walked away from that curriculum with a shrug. While cool and fascinating, no amount of learning about Stanford’s d.school or browsing colorful images of the Design Thinking Cycle sparked my teacher-self into caring about it. It seemed like something that inventors, not I, needed to understand.

I’ll hit you with some more honesty: when I received a professional development opportunity to learn more about design thinking, I was interested in the associated stipend. Money?! To learn?! I’ll learn about anything if you incentivize me. I’m a teacher, for goodness’ sake.

As I participated in this nine-week course, I found myself surprisingly eager to attend. It quickly became about more than the money. I finally internalized that teachers are designers. There is design to my classroom, my curriculum, how I write on the board, how I arrange a test. It made me realize that I do have “end users”: my students. And if I don’t feel passionately about how I design for them, then I am probably doing it wrong.

Why design thinking for equity?

If every system was designed, either intentionally or unintentionally, it has latent fingerprints all over it. And in our society, if we understand and accept responsibility for the inequities that are systemically woven throughout our lives, we must accept those fingerprints of inequity that are—either intentionally or unintentionally—embedded in the designs of our schools, our curriculum, and our own classroom approach.

Hopefully, we as teachers understand that our systems—education, incarceration, government, ownership, advancement—were built during times of significant oppression toward anyone who wasn’t a white male. The school year’s very structure (a long summer break) was built not around an agrarian schedule (a myth that’s been debunked), but around the sweltering heat that wealthier families escaped by decamping to the coast. As the “summer slide” persistently affects our disadvantaged students, one might ask why we still do it. It’s not because air conditioning is as rare as it once was. It’s because it is difficult to change.

I might not be able to change summer break. But I can change my classroom. I can examine my design, empathize, get student feedback, test, and iterate. In fact, the once-stagnant resetting of the school year now feels like an iterative opportunity to test, try, and try again.

The context and the credit

I received a forwarded email for a workshop that would resuscitate my drained spirit during this first post-COVID year of teaching. “Design thinking for STEM equity” was being offered through the Portland Metro STEM Partnership, and the flyer advertised “joy, passion, learning, and connection.” I needed that.

Now I ask, could it be better? Could I redesign it? Does it uplift my students at the margins? And even better: What would my students say?

I worked in a cohort alongside my colleagues and teachers from other schools. While the program was nine weeks long, we had three weeks off to work on our projects, which meant that we met via Zoom for six weekly meetings of 2.5 hours. Our lead facilitator, Katie Krummeck, would walk us through the tenets of design thinking and funnel us into activities that asked us to reexamine and reimagine what could be. When we thought about how homework, assemblies, and lunch are designed, could we say who is best served by those experiences? Who is underserved?

Katie asked us to consider our barriers to changing designs. Was it:

  • Path dependence? “This has always been the way it’s done.”
  • Risk aversion? “You’re not trying out new things on my kid.”
  • Our own baggage? “This is how it was when I was a student.”
  • Systemic challenges? “It’s not my call—it’s the school’s/district’s.”
  • Money? “We’d love to ______, but can’t afford it.”

Once we started asking these questions, we began pulling at tiny threads of potential. What if we just changed this? What if we just tried that?

My breakthrough: Maximize your morning

One activity stuck out for me early on in the process. I consider it my breakthrough that allowed me to understand what, exactly, design thinking is.

Katie partnered us up with a teacher outside of our own school. We were tasked with creating something—a tangible something—that would make their mornings go more smoothly. This exercise started with an interview, of course:

  • “Tell me about your mornings. Walk me through it. The alarm goes off…”
  • “Oh, okay, so the problems start the night before…”
  • “You have kids? What is the breakfast routine?”
  • “Wow, two dogs. What’s their morning like?”
  • “What’s your commute like? Do you listen to anything on the way?”
  • “Are you a coffee or a tea drinker?”

I had to deeply know this stranger’s morning to design for it. This was the empathize step I never understood as a teacher, when I’d encountered design thinking before. As aware as I consider myself to be as a teacher, I never contemplated sitting down and interviewing my students! (By the way, I prototyped a waterproof speaker/alarm for my interview partner’s shower. I taped a plastic plant atop my Echo Dot.)

I learned that good designers make prototypes, hand them to users, and then (almost wordlessly) watch them try to operate them. Where did that user think the button was? Where did they get lost while trying to make it function? The designer takes notes, goes back to the iteration board, and adjusts. They don’t correct the user; they correct the design.

I typically have to walk my students through a test and how I want it completed. “Please rewrite the numbers on the number line.” “Make sure you draw an arrow from the drawing to the equation!” But what if a student isn’t an auditory processor? What if their test stress made it hard for them to follow oral instructions? Maybe I should sit back, watch how they take the exam, and adjust my test; e.g., they need blank boxes above the number line, or they need an example problem with an arrow already drawn.

I shouldn’t fix the students. I should fix the design.

Epiphany: You dont need five fingers

Our culminating project was in groups with our colleagues, and we were asked to choose a real problem in our school and go through the design process to address it. We chose one of my colleague’s opportunities: one of her students was reluctant to ask for help in math class. When my colleague interviewed the student, she discovered that her reluctance was partially because of a lack of in-the-moment recognition that she needed help, and partially because it’s intimidating to “need help” in front of others.

We ideated on ways to help this student. Could she text the teacher privately? Could she have a special signal to ask for help? And then we realized that this student wasn’t in a singular situation. It wasn’t just this student in this math class, reluctant to ask for help. It’s probably a lot of students in a lot of classes.

[A] deeper understanding of design thinking has led not to massive shifts but, rather, a quieter examination of everything. If everything is designed, let me get curious about it.

We zoomed out and asked ourselves how we could design a classroom system that made asking for help easier, less intimidating, and more immediate. We set out to design prototypes of a system or a product that would alleviate this stress.

In my ideation, I had some unusual ideas: Could I build a booth where, like in reality TV shows, students can step in and give on-the-spot interviews? Could I set up an elaborate system of lights on the desks where students could activate a color that I could see meant “distress”? I was out of control. In a good way.

In the end, I spent two days with my students prototyping a method where we improved upon the “five fingers” approach. You know, the exit ticket where they hold up one finger if they don’t understand it, and five fingers if they really get it.

I explained to my students that I wanted a better way to get a temperature check on their understanding of math concepts that day. I explained the five-finger process and asked them to point out the flaws in it. Sure enough, my sixth graders immediately identified that students don’t always want to hold up a one, for fear of “looking dumb.” They also pointed out how useless a three was—right in the middle. We eliminated the five-finger process because of this! It became one through four.

Then, we started breaking down how a one is different from a four. To them, a one meant “I’ve been taught this, but I am super lost and need more practice.” (They argued for a while about whether a one meant “I’ve never seen this before,” but they quickly determined that was a zero.) A four meant “I understand this so well that I could confidently teach it to another student.”

Establishing those extremes was easy. The conversation around two versus three was harder. That’s where we got to the really good stuff. And that’s also where we realized that in addition to words, we needed other aids: Emojis. Colors. One-word feelings.

By this point, we started making a chart, with our numbers across the top, the “I can” statements underneath, and associated emojis beneath that. Then, as we argued about colors, we realized that every student had their own colors associated: one student picked “black, grey, white, rainbow,” while another picked “red, orange, yellow, green.”

I hope you can imagine how joyful this became. How normal it became to talk about the feeling of “not getting” something. How we settled on a common vocabulary. How, since we all built this together, it became less intimidating to share.

After empathizing with my end users, I built a prototype reference chart that explains what one, two, three, and four mean. And next year, I’ll test. I’ll iterate.

How I am vastly different, or how I quietly grew

As I plan for the fall, I don’t feel the same pressure I felt after past professional development events to level up or make this the year when I finally accomplish X, Y, or Z. Somehow, a deeper understanding of design thinking has led not to massive shifts but, rather, a quieter examination of everything. If everything is designed, let me get curious about it.

Now I ask, could it be better? Could I redesign it? Does it uplift my students at the margins?

And even better: What would my students say?

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