Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Design Cycle in Humanities Class

This week I am away on an offline vacation. Rather than let the blog be dormant or rerunning old posts I decided to give some other people a chance to share their experiences and ideas with you. I hope you enjoy the posts. 

The first time my students used the Design Cycle, it wasn't because I told them to. My middle school student council representatives needed to create a website for the student government events. My 7th graders, trained by Kim Cofino in MYP Design and Technology class, immediately started to investigate what other student council websites looked like, designed and planned the website by hand-drawing what they wanted the site to look like, and then created the site. Periodically throughout the year, they evaluated their work, asked for student feedback and changed the layout as needed. And when I saw what they were able to accomplish, with minimal input from me, I realized the Design Cycle was something I could implement in my grade 7-9 humanities classes*.

In middle school and high school humanities, most of our summative assessments are project based. I truly believe that humanities offers students an opportunity to learn about the world and start to think about how they can be change agents in today’s world. So the Design Cycle easily fits the demands of our class*.  

In the investigation phase, student have to identify a problem, discover how it relates to their lives and figure out how to solve it. They also need to investigate different ways to to present their information. I rarely, if ever, assign a specific tool for them to use. This can mean that students have to experiment with a list of tools to see which best fits their product needs.

  • In my grade 7 humanities class, students investigated what a infographic was and then made one using analog tools (like popsicle sticks and balloons). It was a chance for them to think about how they can communicate their understanding of statistics using infographics and what tools work best.
  • In my grade 8 humanities class, students had to investigate what storytelling tool they wished to use to create a family history presentation. This took a lot of time and was often frustrating, but this is a constant struggle in project work. For this project, we also investigated characteristics stories shared. We watched short commercials, mash-ups, and excerpts from movies to think about how sound, visuals, and voiceovers could add emotional impact to a historical facts. 

For me, this part is often the most important. What I'm really looking for is if they have thought about how they will accomplish the objectives of the assignment and how they are going to present their work. And the plan and design phase often has more bearing on their final grade than their final project.

  • Grade 9 students created movies answering the unit question, “Do leaders make history or does history create the leaders?”  My students know that if they are not allowed to turn on the camera until they have created a storyboard and written a script. I want my students to take pride in these and they are posted on their websites along with their final project.
  • Nothing is worse than sitting through a bad PowerPoint presentation. So Grade 7 students, in the Story of Yokohama project, had to create a hand-draw "slides” that showed what pictures they wanted to use and the order they wanted. This ensured that they were thoughtful about what went on the slide, what order their presentation was in, and they did not use any bullet points. The Presentation Zen style was much more interesting and demonstrated that students knew the topics they were discussing and and weren't relying on the slides to prompt their speeches.

This is the fun part. Students put their plans into action. My students run around the school filming, using their storyboards as hall passes. They create awesome research projects on world religions, that demonstrate analysis and research, but are more exciting than a five paragraph essay.They create awareness campaigns for Child Labor, including Tumblr pages or Facebook groups.The plan may change, but not a lot and the changes are always justified. I try to limit the days for project means they have to have a good plan in place and they have thought about what they have to accomplish on each day. Creation days are a buzz and they do amazing things.

I must admit, this is the part my students always groan about. They have to evaluate whether they met the goals of the assignment, if they followed the plan, and if they solved the problem they investigated at the start. This is often done on blog posts, either written or included as an embedded video. And while they may not love this as much as the other phases, it has equal importance to the learning and cannot be skipped.

Final thoughts
The world my students are entering is one where they will have to create projects, whether they are creating a website, a pitch for non-profit, or an awareness campaign. My students are much more likely to do these things, once they leave school, than a write a five paragraph essay. So it is imperative that I teach them how to create a project in a thoughtful and creative way. The Design Cycle gives both me and my students a framework in which to accomplish our goals. And my students are able to do so much more than I ever imagined. 

*Just a quick point, I probably don’t implement the Design Cycle the way they do in MYP technology. I’ve adjusted it for my own needs as a humanities teacher. Also, in this post I haven’t talked about how I teach other skills like research or how I teach the content. Check out my blog to see how I do those things. 

Rebekah Madrid is a MYP Humanities Teacher at Yokohama International School, Yokohama Japan. Her professional blog can be found at and your can see what is going on in her classroom at . Follow her on Twitter @ndbekah