Problem Solving in Design: Units of Clipboard Squared, Doors Squared, & Paper Squared?
This week was definitely an interesting week. I continue to grow and learn more each and every day. In the past, I have taught a variety of students. However, I had never experienced as large a variation in learning abilities in one class as I have this week. I have one section where I have students who are Honors/Pre-AP level students in the same classroom as students who are classified as exceptional children (EC). I also have a large number of students who are ESL (or EL) meaning that their primary language is not English. Most are functional in English but I have a few who do not speak minimal English at best. I am also working with one student to learn to speak English. The student's native language is Arabic so I ordered some flash cards with both English and Arabic on them. The student's goal is to learn to speak English and many of the students are also helping this student with learning English vocabulary. Also in the class are students who are on the Occupational Course of Study (OCS) track whose focus is to prepare for job training. There are times during this learning where I am challenged to balance the varied learning needs of the students and often have to modify several assignments to better accommodate the unique learning of our students. Needless to say, I and the other co-teachers must always be alert, active and on our feet to serve our students.
While this is a challenging task, I know that it is well worth it. Earlier last week, I attended a twitter chat on Design Thinking. I loved this twitter chat as it helped me connect to other Design Thinking instructors. Twitter chats are a great way to reach out and learn from other colleagues across the globe. During this twitter chat, one of the participants discussed an experience that she had a student in her Civics class. There was a question on a test where the teacher asked students if they will vote at 18. The twitter chat participant said that she would not since she had the choice as she lived in a democracy. The teacher phoned home to complain what was perceived as an insubordinate answer from the student. The participant pointed out that because she lives in a democracy that she has the choice about voting. Based on my perception of her response, she had clearly learned her "Civics" and was duly exercising her right as a citizen. As we explored this experience further, we determined that the student was in a system that was flawed. The system created by the teacher supported an earlier form of education where we simply prepared students for working on assembly lines and factories. Essentially, we only want them to learn just enough to be compliant and do what they were supposed but not move beyond surface level knowledge and compliance. The education system was flawed and the student was pointing it out with her response. While I suppose the teacher found her response to be insubordinate, I perceive her response to be brilliant. She was able to apply the information that she learned in a new way. Essentially, she was innovating. While I think it is important to vote personally, I feel that the teacher missed a real learning opportunity here. The teacher had a student who clearly understand her role in a democracy and was able to apply information in new way. While this way may have been unexpected by the teacher, the response was everything that I would want my students to share and do in our Design Challenge course. The response shows evidence of deep critical thinking and problem solving.
If a student leaves my classroom at the end of the year able to apply what they have learned in a new way to solve a problem, then we will have been successful. Here was the participant from the twitter chat clearly showing that she could apply what she learned in a new way while thinking critically to solve a problem. I was so inspired by what I learned from this twitter chat that I created a new assignment. We had met previously with an awesome interior designer who is helping us transform our spaces. She had asked us to get the dimensions of the room and provide her with this information. So I thought "What if we had our students do this?" I then thought about how we could do it in a different way that involved problem solving. I initially thought about borrowing meter sticks from the science teachers. But then it hit me - how many times do we find that we don't have the tools that we really need to solve a problem. So after consulting with my co-teacher, we decided not to provide any rulers or metersticks. Instead, students would have to figure out a way to measure the length and width of the room. We purposefully provided minimal directions on how to do this. Instead our students had to figure it out. In our course, we want our students to find new and untested ways to solve problems. Several of our students attempted to use their feet/shoes to measure the dimension. While this is not necessarily a bad method, I observed and shared with the students that they were not always putting their feet in the same positions. Sometimes they had a space between their feet while at other times there feet touched each other. I asked them about their consistency and they quickly realized that there may be flaws with their design.
They were challenged to find a new and better way using what resources they had available. How often do we, as adults, find ourselves without the resources that we need to solve a problem? A lot of groups realized that they needed something that would serve as a consistent standard for their unit of measurement. This is where I found our students to be very resourceful. They had to listen to each other's ideas, consider them, and get feedback on them. Several groups came to me for feedback. As we discussed their ideas back and forth, many students became somewhat frustrated with this challenge. They found that it was not as simple as they initially thought that it would be. Also, they had to really think about the resources available to them and had to be creative. In the end, all groups experienced some level of success. Several groups used clipboards to measure the length and width of the classroom. One particular innovative group used poster paper to find the measurements which I found so extraordinary. A couple of groups manage to salvage a broken door from a locker and used it to find the room's dimensions. Students also grappled with finding the area of the room. They had to connect what they had previously learned in math about finding the area and apply it in a real world context. It was amazing how many lightbulbs that I saw go off when they connected the theoretical (what they learned in math class) to the real life (finding measurements that you would need for an interior designer). As a final challenge, they had to report the units for the area. This gave us a great opportunity to create some more confusion but also make a powerful connection to math. When I asked students about the answer to "x times x," most told me "x squared." So I then asked them about the "door time door" and so many of them instantly said "door squared" and then the light bulb clicked again. It was their brain growing and making powerful connections between the theoretical and real world again. I can say that I was very proud of my students willingness to hang in there and really grapple with the complexity of this task. For many of them, it was challenging and pushed them. It also caused them to have to think at a higher abstract level. In other words, they were growing. Growing is challenging and can be very uncomfortable. But I think that they learned the importance of persevering and how to ask for help when needed. Many of them said it was "Friday and they did not need to think that hard on a Friday." With realizing it, students actually paid us a great compliment. They were learning through being challenged and that is what our course is all about.
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The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.