Our First Class Design Challenge

Shawna Parkinson

Shawna is a Learning Experience Designer at Mason City Schools in Mason, Ohio. You may follow Shawna through Twitter: @ParkinsonLearns.

Typical practice in many high school English classrooms is to have students examine two opposing writer’s views on a debatable topic and then develop their own personal stances using supporting evidence. The debatable topics are current, rich in complexity, and typically engaging for students.

I wanted to continue to push my own instructional pedagogy by venturing into design thinking inspired by The Introduction To Design Thinking from the Institute of Design at Stanford. I decided to create a manageable experience for this new unit, and gave myself the freedom to personalize the design steps, as needed, so that they suited my goals in the classroom.

Prototyping a New Tool: They Say / I See / I Say

To prepare for a project that would incorporate this thinking, our class began to analyze texts and debate the issues within them. When completing class activities, students utilized a thinking model, which I called: “They Say/ I See/ I Say.” The benefits of this model is that it combines analysis with argument to create layers of critical thinking.

Here is how this tool helped us to both analyze and argue:

They Say: Students determined the author’s point of view within the writer’s argument.

I See: Students analyzed the argument to determine the writer’s types of evidence and purposeful choices in rhetoric.

I Say: Students examined how the writer’s evidence and rhetoric impacted their own, personal, original stance regarding the debate topic, and then formed a final stance on the issue.

The advantages of this thinking model is that the analysis standards were not entirely separated from the argument standards (I would add that, in life, our own natural pathways of thought are also rarely separated.) Therefore, by offering the students the chance to both analyze and argue, the critical thinking within the unit was only strengthened.

Taking the Design Thinking Model Out for a Test Drive For Our Class Challenge

Once students had practiced analyzing texts and debating the key issues, I introduced them to our class challenge — to design a media platform to host hot topic debates. In our design process, I asked students to consider that the media platform they would develop would be used primarily by Generation Z. Students then had to complete the design process to meet the needs of the challenge. Here is a description of our project at each stage:


Students had to understand Generation Z in order to develop a media platform that would be effective for this particular audience. To do this, students conducted research and reflected on their own generation. Some students learned through research that Generation Z might struggle with achieving a work/ life balance. Therefore, students who researched this information gained a sense of empathy for 22-23 year olds who struggled to keep up with the latest current events and the multiple perspectives being shared regarding a current event. Gaining an understanding of Generation Z later prepared students to make strategic design decisions when developing their own media platform.


The students’ first debate for Design Challenge 1 was on whether the internet was positively or negatively impacting our own intelligence. (This was sparked by “The Dumbest Generation” by Mark Bauerlein and “The Dumbest Generation? Don’t Be Dumb” by Sharon Begley.) I, admittedly, personalized this stage the most to support my purposes in the class, but students essentially worked to answer: “How might we develop our unique stances on this topic and support our stances with evidence?” This was the problem, they knew, that had to be resolved before they brainstormed their media platforms. To answer this question, students first explored the ways our authors viewed intelligence from the readings. Next, students defined their own personal stances and and shared these perspectives with fellow group members.


At this stage, we next brainstormed all of the possible media platforms that could host a hot topic debate. The debate, the students knew, had to include the analysis of two writer’s opposing opinions, and include their own personal roundtable, in which each student offered their own stance with evidence regarding the debate. To support their brainstorming, students were encouraged to wipe their desks clean, so that all ideation could be written on the poster paper in the middle of their tables.

We followed these steps during this stage of brainstorming:

  1. Students were encouraged to keep an open mind, and instructed that all ideas were to be welcomed without evaluation or judgment.
  2. Students were next instructed to narrow the ideas offered to a small number for consideration.
  3. For these final options, students were reminded that they could complete a pro/con chart for their ideas, which led to conversations in some groups regarding students’ talents and the feasibility of their design choice.
  4. Once the final choice was selected, students were given a recommendation to draw a sketch of their vision to make sure all members at the table could actually describe the background, text, and setting of their media platform.


In this stage, students began to build a draft of their media platform. This allowed students to begin working with the technology they chose, so that all members could appreciate their idea in action. Inside the platform, students could experiment with analyzing the writer’s texts and offering their own roundtable discussion on the debate topic.


With an understanding of the first debate topic and a template of their design thinking in action, students followed a protocol to receive feedback from their fellow group members. Here is the feedback protocol the students used as they pitched ideas in small groups.

Our Next Steps

Design Challenge 1 enabled students to work with a design challenge in a no-risk environment. This experience created scaffolding prior to Design Challenge 2. In Design Challenge 2, students will debate the benefits of competition, and choose the specific subject for competition that they will want to explore. Because they will have already formed the template for their media platform, and because they have already learned the tools needed to address both analysis and argument, they will be able to work more independently in the Design Challenge 2 process. And, in this design process, students will be able to be graded on their achievements by completing a personal reflection assessing the strategic choices in their digital media and the quality of their analysis and argument.

My Reflection

  • By the end of the design challenge process, I realized that my students had encountered several tools for future use. These included: the “They Say/ I See/ I Say” thinking model, the feedback protocol, and the guidelines given for brainstorming.
  • I am proud that the tools offered to students reflected not only content skills but skills for employment. Students, for instance, now know how to lead a brainstorming discussion— this experience can prepare them for college and their future careers. This gives me satisfaction that I am preparing students for experiences outside of our classroom.
  • During teaching I was reminded that my students were just beginners in the design process. While the design steps were helpful, there were times when I added personal checklists or additional guidance underneath each step, to help the students individually assess their progress. This was important to me because I wanted the students to have the confidence and information they needed to be successful during the feedback protocol. Providing this type of guidance also gave me feelings of assurance that I was aiming to provide the support that the students needed at the moment. I imagine as students encounter these design challenges more often, these “personal assessment checklists” may lessen at each stage.
  • Looking back, I also realize that the design process required the organization of clear steps, the anticipation of needed information, and the flexibility to respond to the needs of the students in the moment. For me, this design experience created feelings of excitement and slight nervousness all in one teaching moment; yet, the satisfaction of offering this type of problem-solving experience was more than enough to spark my internal motivation for moving forward.
  • I have realized that I appreciate the learning of Stanford’s design thinking process the most because it has the power to work with many different timelines in a teacher’s classroom. I imagine students could work through the 5 stages in one or two lessons, in a project that lasts 1-2 weeks, or even longer, as students become more invested. Since it could be so flexible with the teacher’s timeline, there are an abundance of Habits of Mind that apply. This is another reason why I think this thinking process could be used time and time again, with many flexible timelines, in a teacher’s course.

Final Thought

Ultimately, in this design process, I appreciated the balance of skills the students employed. I envision students one day leading their own team through a brainstorming process, and, perhaps, feeling a sense of familiarity regarding the need to respect everyone’s ideas without judgement or to persist until the best solution is found. With this in mind, I feel even more confident that the pathway towards personalized learning encourages students to engage in authentic conversations and to build authentic products. The skills for these experiences are needed now, more than ever, as students approach post-secondary opportunities.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments