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Design Activities (for Design-Inquiry & Science-Inquiry)

I recommend first reading the summary` of this page.

In a goal-directed design of instruction we define goals for ideas & skills, and then "design instruction with Learning Activities and Teaching Strategies that will provide opportunities for experience with these ideas & skills, and help students learn more from their experiences."


Learning Activities:  Any experience that stimulates thinking is a thinking activity, and a Learning Activity.  During a thinking-and-learning activity, students can listen and talk, read and write, question and answer, explore and observe, investigate, analyze, and solve.

Design Activities:  One type of thinking-and-learning activity is a Design Activity.  For teachers of any subject, with students of any age, the range of options is wide because the objectives of design — a better product, activity, strategy, or theory — include almost everything students do.  This wide scope makes it easier to find activities that are life-relevant, that will be “fun now and useful later” for students, who thus will be more motivated to think-and-learn during their design activities in school.


Design is Inquiry:  Opportunities for inquiry occur whenever a deficiency of knowledge — in conceptual knowledge (so students don't understand) or procedural knowledge (so they don't know what to do) — stimulates thinking, and students are allowed to think on their own.  During a design activity when students are exploring situations and trying to solve problems or answer questions, they are doing inquiry.  If we distinguish between General Design and Science-Design, a Design Activity can involve two basic types of inquiry:

  Design-Inquiry occurs in general design to solve problems, when the main objective is a better product, activity, and/or strategy;
  Science-Inquiry occurs in science-design (science) to answer questions, when the main objective is a useful experiment and/or a better theory.

overlaps:  Most design-inquiry (especially when the goal of instruction is to teach ideas-and-skills) also involves science-inquiry.  And science-inquiry can include some design-inquiry.  Therefore, often it would be more accurate to call an activity design-and/or-science inquiry, although usually I will refer to one or the other.   We can use Design Process as a framework for comparing the two types of inquiry, to help students understand their similarities & differences, and overlaps.

terms:  Although most educators use "inquiry" to mean science-inquiry, I think the term should be used more broadly to include all design activities.  Therefore, when I say inquiry, inquiry activity, or design activity, this means “a design-inquiry activity and/or a science-inquiry activity, i.e. either, or both together.”  I will refer to science-inquiry or design-inquiry when I mean one or the other.


With a broad definition, Design Activities include Design-Inquiry and/or Science-Inquiry (described above) and also:

  • cognitive-and-metacognitive Strategies for Thinking to improve the quality of thinking for learning and performing.  Students use a process of design to develop-and-use a wide variety of thinking strategies, which (along with design-inquiry and science-inquiry) are a third type of design activity, as part of their Personal Education.



The rest of this page is about Strategies to Generate Options (old or new) for Learning Activities (e.g. Design Activities / Inquiry Activities).


Finding Old Activities

This is possible, and is productive, because...

Nothing New is Required:  Currently, many inquiry activities are used for instruction.  No new activities are needed to teach Design Process because it's compatible with other approaches so principles of design thinking can be taught (with Design Process and other models) using any currently available inquiry activity that a teacher generates by borrowing from other educators (so it's “old”) or (so it's “new”) by inventing it yourself.

For example,...

Guided Inquiry and PBL & PBL & CSL:  Design Activities for science-inquiry and/or design-inquiry already are used in Guided Inquiry and Problem-Based Learning & Project-Based Learning & Case Study Learning, and other approaches.    {some links: Learning by Design - POGIL - Process Education- PBL - PBL - Case Studies and more that will be here later}

Scientific Logic:  A simple model for science-inquiry logic (Predict-Observe-Explain) is the basis for a variety of activities that can be used to teach principles for Science Process and Design Process.  And old activities, adapted to teach Design Process, can be supplemented by new activities specifically developed to teach Design Process.

Argumentation:  In all design projects, Evaluation is Argumentation and “argumentation activities” can be structured using Claim-Evidence-Reasoning or in other ways.

Case Studies:  By putting inquiry-experience into the context of a “story”, a case study can frame the first-hand experience of students when they do inquiry in design & science, or give them second-hand experience when they actively examine the problem-solving adventures of other designers & scientists.  Students benefit from first-hand experience by doing a problem or project, whether or not it's presented as a case study.  But well designed second-hand case studies — framed as “mystery stories” with a problem to solve or question to answer, based on fiction or actual history (ranging from the distant past to current events),* or some of each — also stimulate thinking, and students can learn problem-solving principles while they gain experience in a wide variety of situations, in an interesting, time-efficient way.   {e.g. using Case Studies about Energy in a Wide-Spiral Curriculum}

* Illustrative Stories:  Everyone likes stories, so just telling stories that illustrate principles can be an interesting activity that stimulates thinking-and-learning, whether or not students are actively doing inquiry.  We can use stories (fiction or non-fiction) for all topics (fiction or non-fiction), because non-fiction does not mean non-story.


Arguments - in Design Thinking and in Life   (put into LEFT frame`)

Evaluation is used for Argumentation:  We can help students transfer design-thinking skills from school into life with inquiry activities (science-inquiry and design-inquiry) that let them use Evaluative Thinking (for Argumentation) when they evaluate a claim by asking what is the evidence-and-logic supporting this claim?”  An argument is a result-of-logic, constructed using a process-of-reasoning* that can occur within a person and also with others.  Almost always, a process of logical argumentation should not involve antagonistic attitudes or confrontational actions.    {You construct an Argument in a Reasoning Process that combines Evaluative Thinking with a Persuasion Strategy and Communication Skills.}

A Wide Variety of Argument-Activities:  Students use a process of productive Design Thinking (with a creative-and-critical combining of Generative Thinking and Evaluative Thinking plus Ideas-Knowledge) for almost everything in life.  A student uses Evaluative Thinking to evaluate a claim, made by them or others, about the quality of an option being proposed for any objective, for designing a strategy, activity, or product (in General Design) or (in Science-Design, i.e. Science) an explanatory theory.  Due to this wide scope, we can develop a wide variety of argument activities (doing design-inquiry & science-inquiry) to let students use evaluative thinking (in contexts ranging from special scientific logic to general critical thinking) with reasoning based on evidence & logic.

In one type of goal-directed Aesop's Activity, students analyze arguments that contain logical fallacies of various types.  And they can explore other aspects of generalized critical thinking.  Or, in the context of an argument that's intended to persuade, they can evaluate the meaning & significance of data that is presented verbally or visually, with lists & tables & graphs and in other ways.

How?  Instruction already is available, using CER & POE and other formats.  For example, students — on their own or working with partners, during informal discussions or formal debates, by listening & speaking or reading & writing — can generate options, and evaluate options by trying to objectively examine the pros & cons of each option.  Or you could ask them to argue for one option, and then another, with some preparation time before each shifting of position, and with some time for cognitive/metacognitive reflection.  And, of course, teachers can share ideas whenever they want.


Appropriate Humility:  One worthy educational goal is to help students develop an appropriate humility (not too little, not too much) and appreciate the value of Accurate Understanding & Respectful Attitudes and the rationality-and-foolishness of postmodern relativism.


Models for Instruction:  A variety of Argument Activities already have been designed for teachers to use with two similar models of Evaluative Thinking, with POE (Predict, Observe, Explain) for Science-Design, and CER (Claim, Evidence, Reasoning) more generally for Science-Design or General Design, in all areas of life.



Strategies for Generating Activities

Here are some ways to generate ideas for instructional activities.


Goal-Directed Activities – Aesop's Activities:  A variety of Learning Activities (including Inquiry Activities) can help students achieve educational goals that are general or specific.  Aesop's Fables teach specific lessons about life;  by analogy, goal-directed Aesop's Activities are designed to help students learn specific ideas and/or skills for life.

For example, whole-part-whole activities can teach principles for one or more modes of thinking-and-action in a process of design, with the mode(s) being emphasized in the activity itself and in reflection activities before, during, or after it.  Or you can try to help students learn principles of critical thinking such as recognizing logical fallacies.  Or your goals can be general, when you are confident that an activity will be educationally useful even though you haven’t explicitly defined how it will be useful for improving specific ideas-and-skills.  This occurs, for example, when a teacher lets students design their own activities as one way to build motivational bridges between school and life.

Finding Goals:  Educational Goals can be defined by external standards and by yourself.  For example, you might imagine a life-situation where an idea (or skill) would be useful, and you define this idea (or skill) as a worthy goal.  Your imagining can be stimulated in many ways, as with interesting exam questions (found in a journal, forum, or test bank) requiring an idea or skill that also could be useful in life-situations.

Reversible Inspirations:  In a goal-directed designing of instruction you begin with goals for ideas-and-skills, and you find activities to help students achieve these goals.  Or you may see an activity that will help students learn a useful skill (or idea), then you’re inspired to define this skill as a worthy goal, so you search for additional ways to teach it more effectively.  Goals inspire activities (usually) or (occasionally) vice versa.


Parts of a Process:  With a whole-part-whole approach to instruction, a teacher can shift the focus of an activity "from the whole process of design to parts of it (allowing a deeper examination of those parts, maybe with instruction [activities] that let students temporarily focus on the parts), and back to the whole again."

Mini-Activities:  Teachers have many options for blending mini-activities into major activities, with clicker questions during a lecture, various types of guiding (by questioning & responding, hinting & modeling, with reflection requests & formative feedback, before, during, or after an activity, to insure that a “hands on” activity is also “minds on”), and in other ways.


Telling Students about Goals:  You can do this before an activity, during it, or after it, with a level of detail — a little or a lot, being specific or general — that you think will be most educationally useful.

Inspirations from Students:  You can choose the topic for a design project.  And, especially after students have some experience with design, you can ask “what do you want to do?” and provide guidance (*) during a process in which students (as a class or in smaller groups) generate options, make a list, investigate, discuss pros & cons, evaluate, and (perhaps by a process that includes voting) decide what to do.   /   * You may want to stimulate students’ ideas, perhaps by reminding them of the ways they use a process of design for almost everything they do so almost anything they want to do in class can be a Design Activity.  And you may need to explain why some projects should be modified (or eliminated) due to practical limitations of time, knowledge, or other resources.

Inspirations from Outside School:  Students can use discovery-research to learn more about “what is happening” and search for potential problems (local or global, small or large) that are "opportunities to make things better," and ask “how might we help?”   {service learning}

Searching for Activities:  In addition to the activities you're already using, you can invent others.  And you can search for activities in education journals & websites, and by networking with fellow teachers in your school, on internet forums, and at conferences.


Strategies for Teaching:  Searching for Activities is one aspect of a Teaching Strategy that guides decisions about curriculum & instruction.  Teachers must decide how to combine different types of learning (by Discovery, from Explanations, during Activities) in ways that optimize the benefits of eclectic instruction.


Helping Teachers develop-and-use Design Activities

The community of educators should help teachers by designing high-quality Inquiry Activities that are educationally effective (in providing benefits, both cognitive and affective), are do-able in a reasonable time, interesting for students, and have appropriate difficulty, with a level of challenge that is “just right” (as in a well-written mystery story) so students won't become bored if it's too easy, or frustrated if it's too difficult.


Why?  Teachers have five rational reasons to avoid inquiry instruction.  Two reasons are concerns about a temporary decrease of teaching quality and increase of preparation time.  Designing high-quality Inquiry Activities is difficult.  If teachers must do this themselves — as individuals, or in groups who are cooperating to develop a coordinated wide-spiral curriculum — and if they want to do it well, then lots of extra preparation time will be required.  Teachers will be more eager to use inquiry activities if we make this easier for them.


How?  As with all design projects, we generate a wide variety of options (for different subject areas, topics, and ability levels, in design-inquiry & science-inquiry), and we evaluate options.  Then we (curriculum developers, teachers and their support organizations in websites & forums,...)* communicate by making short-lists (and longer lists) of the best activities for various educational purposes, describing the pros & cons of using each option for various purposes (which can include an effective teaching of Design Process) and levels of experience & abilities.   Providing a reasonable amount of extra information, but not too much — in “executive summaries” of general principles, and specific tips for particular activities (or groups of related activities) — also will be helpful.   /   Reviews of activities by teachers (with comments and tips for adapting) would certainly be an important part of the evaluation process, and probably the communication process.

This communication should be well organized and easy to use, to avoid overwhelming busy teachers with too much information and not enough guidance in how to use it, since one goal is to decrease their prep-time.  It will be easier for teachers to use activities that are ready-to-use as-is;  but teachers like to have customizing options that let them adapt an activity for their situation by “playing with it” to personalize it.

Yes, I realize that "we" are doing this already, with Inquiry in Problems, Projects, and Case Studies.   In this area, I have justifiable humility so I'm just voicing my support for current efforts, and urging that (due to the importance) we do more and do it better.   /   I.O.U. – Eventually I'll write a page to continue this section with more details plus links to resource-pages.