Embracing Curiosity and Reflection to drive an improved classroom culture
Design thinking methods and tools can be used to help educators/teachers improve pedagogy as a means to connect concepts within the current curriculum. The aim is to enhance learning outcomes for students. “Regardless of interest, creative thinking and problem solving are invaluable skills.”¹
This article is an excerpt from Design Thinking for Education in India, originally a Master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon University, USA.
This can be done without introducing a new subject or requiring a radical shift. Meaningful value will be derived if the focus moves away from popular terms and explores how change can be brought about using the design thinking mindset. Let’s get design thinking to work within the system rather than being caught up with figuring out how to impose it.
Did you know
Bloom’s Taxonomy categorizes skills students are expected to attain as learning progresses. Originally published in 1956, the tool is named after Benjamin Bloom of the University of Chicago. Now a classic arrangement of intellectual skills, the taxonomy can be used to develop effective learning outcomes.² The 2001 revised edition’s levels are: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create (rather than Synthesize).³
The 5E model was developed by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. The approach has been typically used in the sciences, but its principles can be applied to other disciplines. It provides a 5-step approach for designing individual lesson plans or class sessions: Engagement, Exploration, Explanation, Elaboration, and Evaluation, which occurs throughout the cycle. Like many modern instructional frameworks, this approach is based on constructivist theory, wherein students learn by experiencing phenomena and reflecting upon their learning.⁴
We hypothesize that students can have a more engaging experience if the cyclic pattern of teaching topics in a subject is consciously (and cautiously) modified into a four-phase process to create a better classroom culture.
There are two perspectives inside a classroom — the educator’s and the students’. Children are naturally curious, and this curiosity can be stifled if concepts are unilaterally delivered just because they are part of the curriculum without a clear explanation of why it is being taught and how it fits into the student’s understanding of the world.
Before a new topic or chapter is taught, the educator sparks curiosity to trigger an exploration by the students. This should be done before the formal introduction of the topic in the classroom. It can be a simple question, task, or something to observe in one’s surroundings. This exploration would lead to unanswered questions in the students’ minds and generate interest in the topic that follows. For example, before introducing the concept of gravity, students can be asked to try how, with a simple piece of card, they can stop water from falling out of a glass when turned upside down.⁵ An interested cohort of students would also be a motivator for the educator.
An educator and former vice-principal of a school in Delhi NCR suggested that the reflection phase in our framework could also be called creation. She said, “at the end of the day, we are imparting knowledge which should result in creating new knowledge.” In the present scenario, students are thoroughly disengaged; they are busy with after-school tuition and don’t even have time to play. She emphasized the importance of the four Cs — communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity, and also mentioned that one size fits all evaluation is under scrutiny. The curriculum’s rigidity does not allow for considering the student’s prior knowledge during evaluation.
The educator teaches and delivers the content as laid out in the curriculum, keeping in mind to directly or indirectly address all the questions that came up in the exploration. Students now learn the subject matter and make sense of the phenomena from their explorations.
Teaching and evaluation have been fundamental parts of our educational experience. We believe that the two of us got some of the best available education and look back fondly to our school days. However, now that we retrospect, we are unsure if learning is interchangeable with teaching and absorption with evaluation. There is a distinction.
This leads to a cycle of learning and absorption for students and teaching and evaluation for educators. Absorption is a measure of learning, and evaluation validates it. This evaluation shouldn’t be limited to objective measures through examinations and tests. The educator should have some latitude for subjective measures based on the classroom experience.
Lastly, students spend time reflecting on what they have learned if they can look back, connect the dots to their initial explorations, and identify other instances where this new knowledge is applicable in their environment. This is a self-assessment of the absorption of knowledge. Educators review this cycle and assess the outcomes based on the evaluation phase.
These phases can be aided by various design thinking methods and techniques that are adapted to the classroom context. Students do not need to gain an understanding of design thinking as a concept. Educators who have a good understanding of these methods can wield them effectively to gradually create a conducive learning environment. This can work well with the NEP, which looks to give teachers more autonomy in choosing pedagogy aspects.⁶
An interesting thought came up in one of our interviews with an educator who taught students in India and the US. She told us that teachers are capable of teaching almost all the subjects taught up to middle school. However, larger schools usually assign subjects to them, and they continue teaching the same topics year after year. This construct could be shuffled up such that either teachers switch subjects each year or the silos of subjects are completely broken up on the educator side, and they rotate between topics instead of subjects. Doing so would lessen the inertia of getting set in one’s way, having taught the same thing repeatedly, and encourage teachers to learn and experiment constantly.
Game-like activities help trigger and maintain situational interest because the mind naturally attends to situations that have missing details. To foster student engagement, classroom instruction decisions are based on four emblematic questions — (i) how do I feel?; (ii) am I interested?; (iii) is this important, and (iv) can I do this? The first two questions focus on the attention of the student, and the last two questions gauge the engagement of the student’s interest in the topic.⁷
While looking at previous work that might align with our hypotheses, we came across psychologist Carol Dweck’s research on fostering the growth mindset. She talks about how some teachers make students’ progress explicit by giving pre-tests at the beginning of a unit that purposely covers material students do not know. When students compare their inevitably poor performance on these pre-tests with their improved performance on unit post-tests, they get used to the idea that, with application, they can become smarter.⁸ Our four-phase framework aligns well with her research. Care would have to be taken to establish the distinct nature and purpose of pre-tests as opposed to post-tests which are embedded in the system as unit tests/examinations where the current expectation is to get a high score.
She further states that homework assignments should not feel like mindless, repetitive exercises; rather, they should present novel problems for students to solve, require them to apply what they’ve learned in new ways, or ask them to stretch to the next level. For example, suppose that students are studying the rise and fall of civilizations. Their homework assignment might be to design a civilization that either thrives (by building in positive factors) or implodes (by building in risk factors). They can write the story of their civilization and what happened to it. Alternatively, suppose students were studying Shakespeare’s sonnets. For homework, they could write a sonnet to the person or animal of their choice in the style of Shakespeare.⁹ Evaluating such homework assignments would be a great way to measure learning and for the student to self-assess the absorption of concepts.
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