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Teaching Design Process — How?

I recommend first reading the summary` of this page.

Use the Foundation of Teachers:  This page builds on the foundation of "ideas-and-skills already used` by most teachers, especially those who do problem-solving Inquiry Activities... [because] advocates of Inquiry Instruction have thought deeply about learning & teaching... to develop ways of teaching more effectively" so in this page I merely "describe ways to adapt familiar principles of teaching" to teach the principles of Design Process.

Use the Foundation of Students:  A teacher should build on the foundation of what students already know about design and Design Process — by building educational bridges from design-in-life to design-in school, and from previous experiences in a school's spiral curriculum` — to help them learn more, consistent with constructivist theories of learning.  The sections below assume that, although students have some experience with design, they have no prior experience with Design Process.  If students do have experience with Design Process in a coordinated spiral curriculum you can adjust your teaching strategies.

We'll begin with two types of sequencing, and strategies for combining them:


• A Sequence of Activities — Deciding HOW to Teach Principles

Experience, Reflection, and Principles:  This is a useful sequence for teaching Design Process.  First, students do Design Activities* so they gain experience in a process of design.  Second, they think about their design experience by asking “what did we do, how, and why?”, with reflection on their experiences.  Third, you guide them in understanding the principles of Design Process, helping them learn from discovery supplemented by explanations to clarify & organize.

Flexibility in Timing:  Although I've described these activities sequentially (first, second, third), in practice they will overlap.  For example, at any time (before, during, or after a design experience) you can use mini-activities (asking questions, responding to questions, giving hints,...) to increase awareness, guide attention, stimulate thinking, and promote reflection in ways that will help students learn principles, either immediately or eventually.  Lively discussions, in student groups or as a whole class, can occur in all three phases, with discussion being especially useful for a transition from reflections to principles.

* Design Activities include design-inquiry and science-inquiry, plus learning strategies.  I recommend beginning with design-inquiry.


• A Sequence of Ideas-and-Skills — Deciding WHAT Principles to Teach

A strategy of progression, beginning with simplicity and gradually building understanding in easy-to-master steps, is used by most teachers in most of their instruction.  Here is a useful progression for teaching the principles of Design Process:

Begin with the simplicity of a Two-Step Cycle (Generation & Evaluation) and then help students see how, during evaluation, designers use 3 Comparisons of 3 key elements (goals, predictions, observations) to do Quality Checks (the essence of design) and Theory Checks (the essence of science).  Then decide how deeply you want to examine each of the 10 Modes of Thinking-and-Action, and their functional interactions.

A five-stage progression — with a basic Two-Step Cycle, detailed Two-Step Cycles, 3 Comparisons, and Using the 3 Comparisons — is explained verbally & visually (with words & diagrams) in an overview of Design Process.  Each of the four stages begins with "Learning and Teaching" to describe how "students can discover essential principles... during guided Reflection on their Experiences" that occurs before, during, or after a Design Activity.

The sections below assume that you know the first 4 stages of the progression: 1, 2a-2b, 3.  While you're exploring each stage, imagine a classroom in which students already have done everything in Design Process — physically & mentally during hands-on/minds-on Design Activities, and mentally during minds-on Reflection Activities, as in the recommended Sequence of Activities — so the thinking-and-actions of Design Process are concrete personal experiences.


Strategies for Combining the Two Sequences

Two-Step Cycles:  Using the Activity Sequence, let students get Experience by doing a Design Activity, and Reflect on their experiences, and then you teach (i.e. you help students learn) the Principles of Two-Step Cycles from Stages 1 & 2 of the four-stage progression.  You will make decisions (pre-planned & improvised) about details of the sequencing and pacing, because options are available.  You can decide to help students learn all principles (in Stages 1 & 2) for the first Design Activity, then again (at a deeper level) for a second Design Activity, and so on.  Or you can spread a teaching of principles over several Design Activities.

3 Comparisons:  Here, the main new concept is a Reality Check (Theory Check) that is the logical foundation of Science Process.  You can begin to help students learn this science idea during a Design Activity (or Reflection Activity) while they are learning Two-Step Cycles, by choosing appropriate times to ask science questions — “when you compare your Predictions and Observations, what do you find, and what do you conclude?” — to form an experiential basis for understanding the concept of Reality Checks.  In this way, learning about “the third comparison” begins before the concept is explicitly taught, before you give it a name and show it (and its relationships with the other two comparisons) in Diagram 3.  You're asking science questions during design activities, and this mixing helps you build educational bridges from Design to Science.  For each type of evaluation, first in a Quality Check (the essence of general design) and then for a Reality Check (the essence of science-design), ask students “How are you defining quality in your evaluation criteria?”

3 Comparisons with Details:  Compared with Stages 1-3 (simple Cycles, detailed Cycles, simple 3 Comparisons), Stage 4 (detailed 3 Comparisons) is more complex, but is easy to understand "if you study it one part at a time, and build on your knowledge from Stages 1-3."  I strongly recommend Stage 4 because it contains "educationally important new ideas" that are "essential for a deep understanding of Design Process" but you can decide when to help students learn its principles, and how.


Flexibility in Sequencing

In addition to the two changes discussed here, for representations and perspectives, many other variations are possible.


Using All Diagram-Representations:  Although I suggest a sequence of activities (experience, reflection, principles), "in practice they will overlap."  Similarly, using overlaps is educationally effective with a sequence of progressions like the four stages.  A progression is not a unidirectional restriction, it's just a plan for initial sequencing-and-pacing to gradually introduce new ideas.  Returning to earlier stages in a progression can be useful.  For example, comparing several diagrams will help students understand how diagrams that look different (due to their differing spatial arrangement, selections of what to include, and levels of detail) represent the same Design Process.  Returning to diagrams, and the ideas they represent, is a “spiral curriculum” experience in which students will see-and-think-and-learn with their current perspectives, knowing more than they did at an earlier viewing.  And spiral repetitions produce distributed learning (from every experience with each diagram) that is more effective than massed learning all at once without repetitions.


Whole-Part-Whole Perspectives:  You can shift perspective from the whole process of design to parts of it (allowing a deeper examination of those parts, maybe with instruction to let students temporarily focus on the parts), and back to the whole again.  The Modes of Thinking-and-Action in Design are especially useful for reflection-and-discussions to examine parts of the design process.*  When we use the logical framework of Design Process to show (verbally & visually) the interactive relationships between modes — as in the interactions between Generation-modes and Evaluation-modes during the "creative-and-critical Retroduction" explained in Stage 4 of a teaching progression` — this combination of verbal-and-visual instruction will help students understand the logical organization of design-thinking in a whole process of design.

* Whole-Part-Whole Instruction:  Two useful functions of Modes are for shifts of perspective, and to adjust the difficulty of an activity by scaffolding some modes of design (so these are easy) but not others (so these are more challenging).  For example, in one activity you can provide already-designed experiments for students, followed by a reflection-and-discussion that includes these experiments;  then in a later activity you remove some of the scaffolding and let students design their own experiments.  Or you can use activities where students do only one mode, so they can focus on mastering this mode.  Then shift to other modes, individually or in combinations, to help students improve all modes.  In a goal-directed design of instruction some activities can let students improve individual skills, which (in other activities) are coordinated into an overall process of problem solving.  Design Process will help students improve both levels, for individual thinking skills and whole-process skills.

One approach to whole-part-whole instruction was SAPA (Science: A Process Approach) which began in the 1960s.  In my opinion, the "whole" aspect of Process was not emphasized enough in SAPA, as explained in my overview of SAPA.


The Benefits of Experience and Organization

Experience before Principles:  Have you studied the 4-stage teaching progression while "imagining a classroom in which students already have done everything in Design Process" physically-and-mentally during Design Activities, and mentally during Reflection Activities, "so the thinking-and-actions of Design Process are concrete personal experiences"?  Do you see how this context of personally meaningful experience will help students learn Design Process more easily?

Are the principles of Design Process too difficult for students.  No.   Why?


First, consider the model.  Although the 4-stage teaching progression begins with simplicity in Stage 1, the model of Design Process gradually becomes a complex system of actions-and-interactions in Stage 4.  But, as advised by Einstein, a model should be "as simple as possible, but no simpler."  I don't think Design Process could be any simpler, and still be an accurate description of design.


Second, consider instruction using the model.  The level of complexity in Design Process is appropriate for instruction, because we can use the benefits of experience and organization:

Experience increases Understanding:  For a variety of logical reasons, we should expect a well-designed combination of Experience plus Principles to be more educationally effective than either by itself.  As explained above, “Experience first” will help students learn “Principles later”.  And in the long run, learning Principles will help students learn more from their Experiences, and they can transfer more of their learning to new Design Experiences due to bridges between design & science and in other ways.

Organization increases Understanding:  The logical organization of Design Process makes it easier to understand because organization increases understanding, as illustrated by moving from Quiz 1 (22 unrelated letters) to Quiz 2 (6 meaningful words) and Quiz 3 (1 logical story).



Problems to Solve (to make Design Process better)

Flow and Fun:  How can we teach Design Process creatively in ways that won't be a distraction (so it won't interfere with the flow of design-thinking in a design activity) and so students won't think “this is boooorrring” compared with the design activity itself?

Maintaining the Flow:  As a teacher, you can minimize “interfering with the flow” in two ways.   • Use a general instruction sequence of experience, reflection, and principles.   • When you “overlap phases of the sequence” by promoting reflection during a Design Activity, use the same kind of awareness-and-judgment that allows wise decisions in all Regulation of Guiding.

Letting Students have Fun:  You can minimize feelings of "boooorrring" with two types of strategies.   • Make the teaching of Design Process more “fun” so it's intrinsically interesting and enjoyable.   • And persuade students — by motivating them to pursue their own Personal Education — that they should place a higher value on "personally useful" activities (that "will help them achieve their goals for life" by improving their design-skills), compared with activities that are merely "fun now."  For example, consider a context where students can learn more if they place a higher value on Personal Education:  if they are focusing on “the thrill of victory” in pursuing a design objective or game-objective,* remind them about the joys of long-term victories, to shift their value-weighting of performing versus learning.  *But you may think a total focusing is best for them, so (when you think about student metacognition and effective regulation of guiding) you decide to just let them totally focus so their "flow" continue, and then do reflection-on-experience and learning-of-principles after the activity.


Five valid concerns of teachers when they are asked to help students improve their thinking skills, along with possible solutions — how can we make it easier for teachers to use design activities and teach Design Process? — are examined in the conclusion of Curriculum-and-Instruction Design.


Here is a useful question at the college level:  Should we teach cognitive-and-metacognitive Strategies for Learning?  For K-12, I think “yes” is clearly the best answer.  If also “yes” for college, then how?  As part of a separate “learning skills” course? (optional or mandatory? non-credit or for credit?)  Or merged into existing courses?    {pros & cons of options}



Strategies for Teaching

The first part of this page is strategies for teaching Design Process by combining an Activity Sequence (experience & reflection, then principles) with a Progression Sequence (2-Step Cycle and 3 Comparisons, plus options to explore 10 Modes).

The middle part examines "problems to solve" regarding flow & fun, plus five reasons to avoid education for problem-solving skills, and options for teaching Strategies for Learning.

This final part has general principles that could be useful for teaching Design Process.

Sharing with Humility:  The principles below, about “how to guide” and more, are part of the ideas-and-skills already used by most teachers, especially those who do problem-solving Inquiry Activities in their classrooms.  Advocates of Inquiry Instruction have thought deeply about learning & teaching;  they have developed, and are continuing to develop, strategies for teaching more effectively.  You can find these strategies in articles, books, and websites, including this website where I describe ways to adapt familiar teaching strategies* for the unfamiliar teaching of Design Process.  Basically, below I'm just summarizing generally known ideas, to serve as a reminder and as a basis for adapting these principles to teach Design Process.   {my humility and confidence}

* Design Process is compatible with other strategies for teaching the process of solving problems, so familiar problem-solving activities (for design-inquiry & science-inquiry) can be used to teach Design Process, and also familiar sequences of instruction and strategies for teaching.


Activities and Mini-Activities

During a Learning Activity, a teacher's interactions with students can produce mini-activities that are opportunities for learning.  For example,...

Guiding:  To help students learn during an activity, a teacher can ask questions,* respond to questions, gives clues, model thinking skills, and direct attention with Reflection Requests.   /   * Questions can be about the problem, the process, or interesting tangents, or... anything that might stimulate thinking and learning.

Reflection Requests:  In this type of guiding, a teacher encourages reflection (before, during, or after an activity) by directing attention to “what can be learned” from an experience, trying to move students from a minimally-aware mode (of just going through the motions) into a more-aware mode, converting a “hands on” activity into a “hands on, minds on” activity that is more effective for learning.  Or a teacher can take a less-directive approach when encouraging reflection, by asking students open-ended questions about their experiences.  The purpose of a Reflection Request is to help students learn more from their experiences.  This can be especially useful in a sequence of Experience plus Reflection and Principles` to teach Principles of Design Process.

Adjusting the Difficulty:  During any Learning Activity, and especially with Design Activities (in design-inquiry or science-inquiry), a teacher aims for an appropriate difficulty.  The level of challenge should be “just right”, as in a well-written mystery story, so students won't be bored if it's too easy, or overly frustrated if it's too difficult, so they will feel challenged but they will succeed.  Like with a good mystery story.  The goal is a difficulty that is educationally appropriate, that is effective for helping students learn.  The level of difficulty for an activity can be adjusted during it by a teacher's guidance, and before it by deciding what students will do, and by helping them prepare for the activity.  One way to "help them prepare" is with a series of coordinated activities in a spiral curriculum in one classroom or in several with cooperating teachers;  a common teaching strategy is to adjust the difficulty by providing more guiding (with scaffolding, coaching,...) early, and less guiding later;  one way to adjust is by letting students temporarily focus on selected aspects of the design process, with whole-part-whole sequencing of instruction.    Helping Teachers by Designing Inquiry Activities


Thinking and Learning:  The objectives of skillful guiding — by wisely choosing the types, amounts, and timings of guidance — are to help students think productively (so they can make progress toward solving a design problem) and learn effectively.  Usually these objectives are cooperative, with mutual support.  But there can be a tension between short-term and long-term objectives of various types, when a teacher tries to help students optimize the total value (in performance + learning + enjoyment) of their educational experience.

Regulation of Guiding:  Develop your own externally-oriented empathetic metacognition (i.e., thinking about the thinking of your students) by observing them, trying to be aware of what they are thinking, how, and why.  This empathetic understanding will help you make wise decisions about how to guide students (and thus to help regulate their metacognitive reflection) by asking yourself, for them, “at this moment, should they focus on designing, or be aware of (and think about) how they are designing?” and asking, for your own actions, “how can I guide (or not guide) in ways that will help students perform and/or learn most effectively?”    {thinking with empathy}

Formative Feedback:  Some guiding occurs by giving students evaluative Formative Feedback about their performance (regarding what is going well, and what can be improved) with the goal of helping them improve their ideas-and-skills knowledge.  You also can facilitate feedback in another way, by helping students improve their cognitive-and-metacognitive skills so they can more effectively generate their own formative feedback by observing their own thinking, learning, and performing.

Summative Feedback:  During a process of educational design, when you are making decisions about educational goals for the ideas-and-skills you want students to learn, you can ask “what evidence would show that students have achieved each goal?” and “what kinds of assessments (if any) do I want to use after an activity or a set of activities?”  In addition to helping you make plans for Summative Feedback with assessments, these questions can help you design instructional activities and mini-activities that include guidance with Formative Feedback.


Strategies for Learning

In a special type of Design Project, students develop-and-use cognitive-and-metacognitive Learning Strategies` to improve their Learning Skills so they can learn, think, and perform more effectively.


Strategies for Teaching

You can:

• motivate students to develop-and-use their Strategies for Learning, and help them do this more effectively;

• develop-and-use Strategies for Learning for your own learning;

• develop-and-use Strategies for Teaching in a process of design that is analogous to developing a Learning Strategy — to learn from your experiences by applying Design Process to PLAN (using ideas outlined above, and many more) and then continue designing in cycles of "use-and-observe, re-PLAN, use-and-observe, re-PLAN, ..." with Quality Checks, Quality Controls, and Reality Checks — to design Strategies for Teaching that will improve all aspects of your own teaching.