Using the Design Cycle as Tool for Curriculum Design

by Dave Hamilton, Creative Director.

At the end of May, we traveled to St. Mary’s School in Orange County, CA, where we ran a workshop about how to use the design process as a curriculum design tool regardless of the age of your students or the discipline you teach.

St. Mary’s School is the only private IB Programme school in Orange County for early education through middle school, attracting students from over 11 cities. Located in the scenic foothills of Aliso Viejo, it offers an interdisciplinary curriculum that fosters critical thinking and prepares students for the challenges of our dynamic world. They introduce the IB’s design process at all grade levels. For the lower school, the cycle uses straightforward language appropriate for littles: tuning in, finding out, sorting out, going further, making conclusions, taking action. For their upper grades, the cycle looks like this.

Although often thought of as a tool for Art, engineering, or technology classes, the design cycle is, in fact, a problem-solving process we use intuitively multiple times a day to solve any of the numerous problems we encounter.

As an example, let’s apply the four quadrants of the St. Mary’s upper school design cycle to the “real world” daily problem: what to wear to work:

  • Inquiring and analyzing: We open the door to our closet and see various clothing options.
  • Developing Ideas: We select a pair of pants and a few potential tops and lay them on our bed.
  • Creating a Solution: We try on one combination from the options.
  • Evaluating: We look in the mirror and decide what we think.

If we like what we see, we have solved the problem and are off. If we don’t, we might head back to the closet (inquire), select a different top (develop a new idea), try that on (create a solution), and head back to the mirror (evaluate). The cycle repeats until we find an outfit that works.

We use a design process again moments later when faced with the problem of what to have for breakfast, how to get to work, how to acquire a morning coffee, where to park our car, and what problem to tackle first once we arrive. But we don’t usually break down the problem-solving into these quadrants deliberately.

When it comes to curriculum design, taking the time to deliberate about each quadrant can be a helpful tool and an excellent check to ensure your students are experiencing the four different kinds of thinking or work inherent in the design process for every unit, lesson, or assignment.

In our workshop, St. Mary’s faculty, working in small groups, collaborated on a design challenge in which they had to successfully move a marble from a free-standing tower across a table and into a delivery truck using only eight sheets of paper. During the challenge, each group experienced multiple instances of cycling around the design wheel as folded paper sheets stood up, fell over, and needed to be refolded and re-engineered.

In order to use the design process as a tool for curriculum development, consider the following prompts:
When are my students:

  • Inquiring and analyzing?
  • Developing ideas?
  • Creating a solution?
  • Evaluating?
  • How does each of these terms apply to my discipline?
  • How much time are my students spending in each of these quadrants?
  • In which quadrants do students seem the most engaged? What about this quadrant is most engaging (and how might I do more of it)?

These questions are not unique to engineering and design. At St. Mary’s School, one foreign language teacher created a brilliant problem for students. She laid out a buffet of modern and traditional Chinese characters (inquiring and analyzing). Chinese characters are visual symbols – you make words and phrases by combining one character with another, like building blocks (developing ideas). Even without understanding the meaning of each symbol, students were encouraged to play by lining up strings of symbols (creating a solution). Once students created a combination, the teacher would help them evaluate by describing what, if any, word or phrase they had made (evaluation.)

In another class, a science teacher laid out various materials and challenged her students to build a water filter (inquiring and analyzing). Students observed the available materials and selected pieces to test in their designs (developing ideas). Students then built their water filters inside plastic cups stacking their filter materials on top of one another (creating a solution). Finally, students poured dark muddy water into their cups and collected the filtered water from the bottom. Students then compared the color of their filtered water with the starter water to determine how well their filter had worked (evaluation).

A design process is a straightforward way of naming discretely the different moves we make when solving problems. Each move involves a different kind of thinking, and these different ways of thinking are universally applicable to curriculum design.

In his book, Lifelong Kindergarten, Mitchel Resnick, who led the team that invented the Scratch programming language, offers this advice for curriculum developers: Design for designers. He argues, “[Teachers] too often design to deliver: either deliver instruction or entertainment or sometimes both. The best learning experiences and play experiences come when students are actively engaged in designing, creating, and expressing themselves.” To create classrooms where this happens, we must, therefore, design opportunities for students to design. If I could wish one act for all of us as teachers, it would be that we hold our lessons up to a design process and ensure there are always opportunities for students to inquire and analyze, develop ideas, create a solution, and evaluate results.