UBD, Design Thinking & Art & Science of Teaching: Triangulating the Delta

1402281327938As part of a recent graduate course in mass customized learning, I was asked to apply Marzano’s Art & Science of Teaching instructional framework to one of my pre-existing units of study and note the frameworks impact upon my practice.  While I’ve long been familiar Marzano’s work and have applied techniques and strategies introduced in his other texts, this marked the first time I ever worked discretely with his “confluence” of instruction, management and curriculum design.  What follows is a brief case study of my AP English Literature &Composition Watchmen unit to illustrate where I’ve been with my pedagogy, where I am at presently, and where I am headed as the Art & Science of Teaching framework shapes my practice into the future.   I’ve discovered reasons to pat myself on the back, as well as reasons to examine my craft with a somewhat jaundiced eye.  While I may excel in the art of teaching, the science of teaching continues to confound me somewhat.  
Watchmen Design Thinking Challenge

Each year, I teach my AP English Literature & Composition classes the sheer genius that is Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel, Watchmen.  Last year’s class created an ambitious, but fragmented art installation that related the literal understandings of the novel.  While it was clear the students understood the text, the installation was essentially a cool multimedia illustration.  While students certainly analyzed the text, their products really inhabited the world of comprehension and retrieval in terms of complex reasoning.

This year, I was determined to amplify the reasoning processes on display by applying the design thinking methodologies I’ve been integrating into my teaching all year-long.

Design thinking demands those higher order reasoning processes of decision-making and experimenting, invention and systems analysis.  And thus, I asked my students: How might we create an art installation that both demonstrates our understanding of Watchmen and engages the students of Mt. Blue in a meaningful way?

What followed was a six-week investigation of the graphic novel and a messy, fruitful development of an art installation that filled half the main artery of the school, two floors tall and a lobby-to-the-food court wide.    And a much stronger understanding of my pedagogical past, present and future.

Where I’ve Been: Understanding by Design

Wiggins & McTighe’s Understanding by Design (1998) has been central to my pedagogy for most of my sixteen years in the classroom.  The curricular design’s focus on outcomes and essential, enduring understandings provides instructional flexibility, gateways for relevance, and a clear emphasis on curricular goals.1402281961115

While UBD puts standards and learning goals at the front of the process, it is the essential questions where I almost always start because those ignite the passion points for me as an educator.  I’ve also such a familiarity with our curriculum at this point, I have a fairly strong internal compass.  If I can help students uncover the big questions that will catapult their inquiry, I know aligning that investigation to standards and performance indicators will be the easy part.

With Watchmen, this has been the case.  Over twelve years of teaching the unit, the essential questions explored have ranged from “When do the needs of the greater good outweigh our personal morality?” to “How does the presence of heroic figures impact our own senses of self?” to “To what extent does the world need superheroes?”

No matter our questions, I know the unit meets two key standards for our twelfth-grade ELA curriculum: demonstrate depth of understanding of a text of appropriate grade span complexity and demonstrate understanding of communication through various forms and methods for a variety of purposes and goals.  And I’ve a thick binder of formative and summative assessments designed to help students develop the declarative knowledge of Watchmen, graphic novels, motif and symbolism, allusion and metaphor, necessary to answering and showcasing any question we might investigate.

This year, that question became a “How might we. . . ?”

Where I Am:  Design Thinking

Since August, I’ve been applying the empathy-fueled, human-centered problem solving principles of design thinking to my instructional practice.  In particular, Mary Cantwell’s DEEP DT process of discovery, empathy, experimentation and production, has given me something of a two-fold consciousness going into unit of study.  While asking students to consider their end users in their problem solving, I am pushed to consider my students as my users — to consider their experiences as learners as I craft and shape lessons and assessments.


As my students produced answers to the aforementioned question of, “How might we create an art installation that both demonstrates our understanding of Watchmen and engages the students of Mt. Blue in a meaningful way?” I was asking myself, “How might I measure my students demonstrate their understanding of Watchmen in a meaningful way during the last six weeks of their senior year?”

And truly, it was that latter part to which I was most attuned: “How might a group of talented, yet burned out seniors stay motivated through the end of the year?”


So as I considered means of tracking student achievement and collecting evidence, I was particularly aware that anything perceived as busy work could derail the process — no matter how noble in intent or admirable the reason.

Thus, most of my tools for uncovering content knowledge lay dormant in the binder and the Google Drive.  Graphic organizers and activities that have proven successful in unlocking the mysteries of Watchmen suddenly seemed to be more likely burdens and detrimental to the greater goal.  Certainly I could reach back to the toolkit if students seemed to be lacking the understandings necessary to creating a successful installation, but the likelihood of a semantic map being seen as “Ugh — seriously — a worksheet?” was increased thirty-fold just by virtue (or vice) of the unit’s existence in May.

I’m glad those tools stayed right where they were because the students, driven by a desire to do something ambitious and meaningful, that showcased the scope of their artistic talents, much less their analytical ones, propelled the project forward.  (The additional pressure of having a documentary filmmaker en route to capture the project probably had some effect on student motivation, as well, though it didn’t influence my methodology.)

In applying design thinking strategies such as insight mapping and I noticed/I wish/I wonder, I was able to assess student understanding of the text at a basic level of retrieval and comprehension.  20140505_095003 20140505_095011 20140505_095029 20140505_095128As those thoughts were inventoried, they became the data sets to inform the empathy, experimentation and production phases of the process.  That work pushed students into the upper echelons of critical reasoning. Determining what would appeal to users and engage them required perspective analysis as well as inductive reasoning.  Invention and experimentation unlocked possibilities and revealed solutions all the way up to the final moments of the installation’s creation.  And observations and interviews conducted during the installation’s existence prompted deep reckoning and systems analysis — recognizing ways to adjust variables for better outcomes in future challenges such as this one.

In production phase, as students painted metaphorical silhouettes, composed sound collages, maintained terrariums, cast masks, constructed and deconstructed figurative timepieces, and erected six-foot tall Roman numerals in two concentric clock faces, the qualities of reflective, self-directed, and collaborative workers were on full display.  For the space of forty-eight hours, if not the duration of the project, the AP Lit students demonstrated the habits of mind in a palpable way.20140505_115831 20140512_102007 20140514_104150 20140516_122353 20140519_103803 20140520_121911 20140527_132341 20140529_001503 20140529_001518

Challenging, however, was consistent, communicable documentation of the above.  I relied heavily on student blogging and my own pocket-photographer skills to provide concrete evidence of the above.  Certainly, the collective was successful in getting there as the installation happened in large part according to plan and student and staff feedback suggested the AP Lit students achieved their intentions.

But to apply that to a grade book, to a rubric, to be able to identify each student’s individualized achievement and understanding in regards to this particular work . . . that . . . that is where my art supersedes my science and is where I move forward from here.

Where I Am Going:  The Art & Science of Teaching

Our district has adopted Marzano’s evaluative model as our official measure of teacher effectiveness moving forward.  (While we wait for final approval from the state DOE, we march on.)  Thus, it only makes sense that I would want my practice to become more and more closely aligned with the Art & Science framework.

This will be a challenge for me and not because it requires the abandonment of my long standing practices or the curbing of my new found passion for design thinking.  Quite the contrary, I see a  triangulation of the three frameworks that allows for mutually beneficial  co-existence.

At the risk of oversimplifying three complex systems, I suggest that really each can be articulated as a question.

Understanding by Design:  What do we want to know/understanding?

Design Thinking:  How might that knowledge/understanding help us solve a problem?

The Art & Science of Teaching: How will prove the degree of our knowledge/understanding?

I see each maintaining a different point in a triangular pedagogy that I can both defend and perpetuate.

UBD: Inquiry.

DT: Empathy.

AST: Accountability.

And where do I struggle most?  Accountability.

Now this does not mean I do not require students show their work or demonstrate to me the strength of their understanding.  This does not mean I shrug it off and say, “Well, yeah, sure, I guess you probably know stuff.”  No, I hold my students to high standards; I push them to make sure what they create actually demonstrates the concepts and understandings called upon in the standards.  I drive them into revision and the reiteration process.  My students fail up and sometimes they fail because they have not yet shown evidence of their understanding in a way that I can see.

Where I fall apart, however, are the routines that enable the degrees of achievement and understanding to be easily communicated and analyzed for future growth.  I am a concrete random individual who needs tangible examples to understand what is to be done, who needs assurances and signposts, yet the flexibility to go about getting there by whatever means happen to be most available at the moment and little worry about whether it is how we did it last time.   It’s the curse of an improvisational mind.

As I read through Marzano’s framework, my anxieties shudder.  Not because I disagree or take exception, but because I am more and more tuned to the value of recording and transmitting student achievement data.  I see the importance of being able to identify more discrete learning targets, to scaffold them to the greater learning goal, and to know just where the gaps are.

Moving forward with the unit next year, I will likely break out more readily measurable learning goals.  As evidenced in Marzano’s Art & Science, thebetter defined and more succinctly stated the goals, the more effective efforts to track student progress become — including the student’s own reflective practice.  As I move toward and more and more customized learning model, having these parsed out learning targets should make it easier to identify individual student progress and help students to determine actions to maintain that growth.

I’m also realizing that design thinking produces data.  Copious amounts of ethnographic data.  Inventories, surveys, empathy maps, trends, interviews and observations.  So how might I leverage my passion for DT data into a collection system of data about my student’s achievements?


Perhaps this will help me traverse the chasm that exists for me between my art, where I thrive, and the science, where I struggle.

I conduct inquiry-based project-based problem solving based on the work of Grant Wiggins & Jay McTighe, the structures of Buck Institute for Education, and the design thinking process models of David Kelley and Mary Cantwell.   I run a standards-based assessment model based around the work of Rick Wormeli and Ken O’Connor.    And now I need a framework that holds it all together and holds me accountable for managing it all as I move toward the customized learning championed by Bea McGarvey and Chuck Schwann.

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The shift toward Art & Science isn’t a tremendous leap for me in theory.  And it isn’t a hard sell.

It just requires me to be vulnerable and be certain that my fail up experiences are just that: mistakes that lead me and my students to routine successes.



About Dan Ryder

Dan Ryder & Jeff Bailey, co-founders of Wicked Decent Learning, a blog, podcast, Twitter feed and who-knows-what-all-else devoted to teaching and learning in Vacationland and beyond. Teachers, dads, actors, writers, geeks, buds.

8 thoughts on “UBD, Design Thinking & Art & Science of Teaching: Triangulating the Delta

  1. Pingback: Reblog: UBD, DT & Art & Science of Teaching… @wickeddecent « DEEP Design Thinking

  2. Thanks for sharing your endeavour Dan, it was great to read about and echoes much of the struggle that I see day to day with schools and teachers. Just had a couple of questions for you:

    How much room do you allow your children to define the problem themselves? Is this something that occurs more readily in other units of work, this one being more aligned to a design brief?

    I recently spoke at a conference about the false pedagogic dichotomies we are presented with in our trade. It would seem that you are enjoying the complexity of the balance, the endeavour of planning for the best of many world and staying true to the instinctive choices you make.

    Thanks again for sharing.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Tom.

      This was my first year really using design thinking with intention in my pedagogy. Prior, it was applying DT methods/protocols per IDEO cards and such and using BIE’s project-based learning strategies which have a nice fit but don’t share that empathy & user-centered drive necessarily.

      So I haven’t really allowed my students to define the problems themselves yet because I’ve needed to shape more of the variables. At the same time, I’ve created units where I define the initial problem and then the possibility of solutions creates a whole other set of definitions needed. For example, in Humanities, while I defined the problem for our latest unit as “Start Something That Matters,” having students lay foundation work for creating non-profits or for-profit endeavors that illustrate basic principles of social entrepreneurship, their solutions have ranged from free baseball clinics to advice-giving Twitter-feeds to eco-friendly customized fishing boats. They defined the sub-problems as they crafted solutions.

      I love your term “false pedagogic dichotomies.” Yes. That. I believe our best possible pedagogy is a masterful hybrid of practices that constantly evolve and shift with the needs of our users: our students.

      • The choices we make pedagogically seem to be polarised all too regularly in the way people perceive them, as well as in media style commentary.

        Your blog post shows the worthy struggle of seeking the balance between those different elements and I appreciate learning rarely is unequivocal in any sort of position. This is forever fleeting I think and so polarising our choices or having a 2 dimensional view never does it justice.

        One such tension, in my opinion, is the degree of constraint we have in designing learning. The DT process needs this, the creative process needs more than we think. Allowing students the opportunity to enquire and explore within a narrowly defined constraint has amazing benefits. With less constraint and a more generative approach at the start units of work can potentially lead to deeper student connection with what is being explored. After all they are the ones carving those furrows and actively seeking their place within it.

        • I think constraint has tremendous value in working with students as well — particularly adolescents. While we may perceive absolute freedom as the ideal, the reality is that developing minds need structure and scaffolds to help them along their way.

          I’ve spent two years trying to pilot an independent learning program that came to a close this year. I’ll be applying what I’ve learned to my “traditional” (hardly) classes and one outstanding takeaway? Responsibility for one’s freedom has to be learned and fostered and does not come naturally to most students.

          It comes back to balance — the critical element so missing from so many of our schools today. With emphasis on quantitative measures and high stakes accountability, of epic scale reforms and “what we’ve been doing is all wrong!” Chicken Little thinking, we have lived in those polarities of which you speak.

          How might we construct a constantly equalizing balance in our schools? Innovation requires as disequilibrium, yet it also demands the establishment of a new status quo so that we may get a lay of the land and then move even further forward.

  3. Thanks Dan, great to see your twitter ponderings of a week ago becoming such a comprehensive post. Some echoes here of what we are considering at the moment at HPSS. How to prove that our cross curricular design thinking approaches are more effective than traditional schooling approaches. You are right that DT does produce a lot of evidence as students progress with their learning. I struggle at times with getting the balance right between being ‘in the moment’ and stepping back to capture evidence of what is occurring. I have found this better in my most recent module where students defined their own problems from the overall focus. It seems this has given them more ownership of the learning and they are doing far better at capturing their own learning evidence.

    I remember my first intro to DT from Ewan McIntosh and his point of trust the process. I have tried to do this but it becomes hard to just trust when people throw words like accountability and rigour at you. This scientific evidencing to combat the claims of accountability etc. is quickly becoming a need for us all to collaborate on so we can prove the efficacy of our approach.

    • Ahhhh . . . collaborating to solve this problem. That’s where I think the internet has only just begun to be the transformative agent education needs. We can start sharing the workload in a non-heirarchal, bureaucracy-free manner. Sure, this isn’t anything new to a great many industries and professions — I just haven’t seen it quite snapping and popping with education the way I believe it could — yet.

      I’m finding that collecting evidence in any form is better than nothing at all. I’m actually hoping that I can get into a dialogue with the university about having an intern to help JUST with the data collection and labeling and sorting and crunching side of things. Help me — and who all else — develop a system.

      Have you seen my three pillars of improv? Accept, Communicate, Trust. I believe these three pillars are the crux of any successful interpersonal endeavor. How we go about developing these three skills, ahhh, that’s what I’m working on.

  4. Pingback: UBD, Design Thinking & Art & Science of...

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