Design Thinking in the History Classroom
A MiddleWeb Blog
I usually have a clear idea of what I am going to do in my first unit. I have my set historiography activities that I expect (well, hope) will blow the students’ minds when they realize that history is an interpretative narrative and not necessarily a string of facts.
This year, however, is different. This year I’ve decided to embark on a Design Thinking challenge for every regular unit that I teach. That means that my units on the Constitution, the Revolutionary War, the Federalists and Democratic Republicans, Westward Expansion, Causes of the Civil War, Civil War, and Reconstruction (and, if I’m lucky, the Progressive Era) will all be looked at through the lens of Design Thinking.
It’s the wild west of teaching, and I am both excited and nervous to embark on the journey.
The elements of Design Thinking
Design Thinking is a process for creativity and innovation (Kelley & Kelley, 2013).
This method is being used now in some classrooms to encourage students to problem solve, to look at inquiries in new ways, and to invent and create solutions to challenges. This is an emerging educational strategy, with many methodological similarities to Project Based Learning.
I strongly recommend the resources put forth by IDEO if you want to delve more deeply into the strategy. The process that I will follow with my students will be broken into the following steps:
- Define and Research
- Experiment, Reflect, Revise
While Design Thinking and its best friend, Project Based Learning, are found in many a science classroom, it seems to me that history classrooms are a bit more reticent to take up the mantle of, especially, Design Thinking pedagogy. Why?
Why Design Thinking belongs in history class
Any teacher reluctance may have to do with the fact that Design Thinking is a truly relevant and engaging pedagogy that is meant for students to solve problems that exist now. And, obviously, in history class we are dealing with the stuff of the past. Also, history is a subject where content often is king. It’s hard to cede control of the content and relinquish the goal that students might hit every content mark that’s expected.
So applying Design Thinking in history courses could be seen as challenging, but I see it as a great opportunity. For my U.S. history students, what could be more relevant than looking for solutions to challenges that were created in the past and are still having impact on our lives today?
For my students’ first challenge, they are going to head to a local college and interview the students about what they think needs to be fixed in government. This will help my eighth graders come to a place of empathy – the problems they will hear about are problems that real people have.
Then, my students will choose one problem that spoke to them or possibly relates to their own life. That’s their design challenge: to create a solution to the problem that they heard about.
Will they get to every bit of content about the Constitution that I would have hoped? Possibly not, but on the other hand, the students are going to find themselves hard pressed to be able to solve a problem in government without a great deal of context to support their ideas. They will have to delve into federal, state, and local issues, I expect.
Discovering solutions, whether past or present
Later, the students will identify a problem in the Civil War or Reconstruction. You don’t have to be a history teacher to draw a through line from those 19th century events to current civil rights issues (as this map demonstrates). So the students will look at history, go back in time, choose a problem in Reconstruction and solve it – either in the past to affect the present OR in the present by implementing something that would fix a problem Reconstruction had created.
Design Thinking in history requires the same tools as in other disciplines: strong and rigorous research, free and creative brainstorming with wild ideas, convergence with analysis of desirability, feasibility, and viability, and reiteration and reflection.
The stakes can be high for these students engaged in Design Thinking in history – they really could get in there and help to think of new solutions for problems we face. They will just be looking at history to guide them.
Bringing together writing, soft skills and content
I see the history classroom with Design Thinking as a three pronged approach. Students still need to write — I will have my students stop periodically to do workshops on expository reading, research skills, and writing (all based on what they are need for their projects) and then do an on-demand writing after the unit/project.
Additionally, there has been much talk of the “soft skills” that students will need to get along in this new world that awaits them: collaboration, perseverance, creativity, etc. Design Thinking activates these skills and more: it creates self-efficacy, risk-taking – all of the things we say we want to see in our students.
And, finally, a promise to those who love history and the details of history: students will learn content. It may be not precisely what one might expect that content to be: it may be deeper, it may be better, and it may surprise us what they learn and understand as a result of looking at the content in this new way. And it may reinvigorate teachers, too.
Reference: Tom Kelley & David Kelley, Creative Confidence (2013).
Image credit: Map from Strange Maps contributor Mark Root-Willey, used in The Black Belt: How soil types determined the 2008 election in the deep South, November 17, 2008, The Vigorous North.
Jody Passanisi is the author of History Class Revisited: Tools and Practices to Engage Middle School Students in Social Studies. Co-published by Routledge and MiddleWeb, this practical guide will help teachers consider the unique needs of middle schoolers, who are in the midst of many social and emotional changes and need to see why the study of history matters to their own lives. Use the code MWEB1 at the publisher’s website for a 20% discount.