Running with the Squirrels: Design Thinking in the English Classroom

One of my favorite Super Bowl commercials is the “Running of the Squirrels.” EDS was brilliant in their parody of the annual event of Pamplona. As one man states, “You have to be faster and quicker than the squirrels; you have to have very good reflexes.” A woman later comments, “You get confused because of the size, I think. Very small, I can manage them. No, that is not true, you can’t.” While EDS helps businesses manage this ever-increasing amount of information, teachers are responsible for helping students manage this constantly evolving world.

A New Role for Teachers

Teachers are no longer the sole purveyors of information. Rather, in the 21st century there is a paradigm shift in the classroom, and our job is to help students run with the squirrels. We need to provide them with the skills to manage the constant barrage of information they face every day, filter that information, and use their critical thinking skills to assess the information and determine what is useful to them. Wikipedia is a constant reminder to us that it is no longer a priority for students to remember the date of Shakespeare’s birth because the information is at their fingertips. Now, it is our job to help students assess the veracity of this information and understand how this may or may not influence their reading of Hamlet.

This shift is not an easy one for most. Teachers spend their lives planning classes and living on a schedule. In our minds, Tuesday at 10:09 am will always be the beginning of period 3. Giving up or sharing our role as expert in the classroom is unnerving for most. It seems to rival the feelings that many of us share when another 16-year-old gets his license and we realize we are all sharing the same road. Shifting our orderly worlds to the chaos that technology and the inundation of information brings to our classrooms requires risk-taking behaviors that many teachers haven’t practiced since their college days.

Enter Design Thinking.

A Means for Helping Students Tackle Today’s World

For the past five years, the MICDS Upper School English department has been using Design Thinking (once the purview of startups and engineering firms) as a way to help students tackle the seemingly overwhelming world we live in. We’ve created issue-based projects.

Through issue-based projects like our Local Action Project and Global Action Project, students are tasked with using this process, predicated on discovery, ideation, iteration and evolution, in order to arrive at a new understanding and oftentimes a proposed solution to the challenge they are examining. It has worked its way into senior electives as our students create video games that reinforce the skills of building a narrative, as they create documentaries in Creative Nonfiction class, and as they design their own capstone project in Advanced Literary Topics.

While the naysayers suggest that Design Thinking was a creation to keep the Post-it Note industry in business, our students find comfort in a process that can address the seemingly unmanageable. Throughout our halls you will see clusters of neon Post-it Notes, white boards filled with flow charts and copies of thinking maps floating around as our students attempt to organize and imagine the information they have discovered in new and more valuable ways.

Design Thinking has helped our students see themselves as creators, not just consumers in the 21st Century. Alvin Tofler states that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” David Warlick takes this a step further by stating that we need those who are capable of “learning, unlearning and relearning so that they can shape the world into something better.” There is not a day when we do not walk into our classrooms hoping to shape this world into something better, but more importantly, to help our students learn the skills to make those changes themselves.

Design Thinking is one of those skills that we now arm our students with as they leave us for the bigger world. As the commercial states, “If you lose respect for the squirrel, you will have problems.” We cannot deny the ever-changing world that our students live and participate in, with or without us. It is incumbent upon us to help them develop the skills necessary to find their way in this world of infinite possibilities and safely run with the squirrels.