top of page

Design Thinking in Humanities

The 8th-grade students are tasked with creating an American History museum that will cover 1800 – 1945. The idea is overwhelming at first. Full student autonomy, research, engagement, scaffolding, the initial project outline is missing the HOW. Students are used to being told how to work, what to design and when to design it. They excel at this, but we are working on becoming the designers and breaking out of our preconceived notions.

Breaking down a large project can be intimidating, but often once you get started the process is easier than expected. This is one of the lessons I want my students to learn. No matter how big the idea is, we can chunk it down to doable tasks and begin executing them, or pull them to done on their kanban boards immediately. Some small pieces can always be worked on. You can always be moving forward and accomplishing.

Design Thinking in the Classroom

After choosing groups, time periods, and deadlines students have the framework that they must work within. They’ve defined the scope of our project, the working teams, and the subjects we will be learning about. Now is the time for creating.

Students will be utilizing design thinking to help them execute a successful museum. Like with our integration of SCRUM and Agile, they will have no idea they are learning skills that will transcend this project, content area, and school. Through mini-lessons, and small group discussions I will help lead them through the process, but they will internalize it as their own thinking. Hopefully, they will own this process which will enable them to apply the design thinking protocol in all areas of their lives.

I have not led many mini–lessons this year, but when it is necessary they are usually interactive tornados of collaboration. Imagine being in a discussion where thoughts, ideas, and opinions fly around the room in a whirlwind. The thought of a student on one side of the room sparks the imagination of a student in the other corner. The domino effect ensues.

This is the goal of a mini-lesson. The brainpower of many can aid the community. Together we all build deeper understanding and build stronger connections.

Design thinking begins with the empathy stage, exploring the needs of the consumer. In this project the consumer is… themselves. Their task is to create a museum for middle school kids. Slides with tomes of text will not do.

Launching this activity they draw from their past experiences. They are prompted to remember museums we have been to before. What did we like and did not like? What did the museum feel like? What kinds of museums do we love and what are their qualities? What museums are boring and why do we think that is?

They then explore museums of all different subject areas virtually. What do we like about the layout? What is engaging? They estimate how much time they would spend at each exhibit and what they may learn.

This is an open discussion. There is no specific protocol, no real rules to reign us in. Students speak when they are conformable and easily build on each other’s ideas. When the energy and excitement had peaked we captured our thoughts on a jamboard. Each screen was a different prompt to help students refine their thoughts.

“If you had to design a museum for YOU what would it be like?” This was the final prompt that brought the exercise in empathy back to reality.

Drawing Conclusions

We discovered that students wanted hands-on, interactive exhibits. They wanted to manipulate the physical parts and be able to navigate the virtual ones. They did not want large blocks of text, but rather visuals to help them gain knowledge. They acknowledged that at a typical museum, they skimmed information, walking around and preferring the social aspect to a museum trip to spreading time at each exhibit diving deep into the content presented.

This was an experience of honest reflection from 97 8th graders. In each of the six sections, the answers varied slightly, but the overall message was clear. Museums were not reaching middle school students where they were and because of that students were not overly interested in creating their own.

This was the first lesson in knowing your audience. The content can be excellent, but if students do not want to interact with it there is no purpose. Students learned that it is incredibly important to empathize with your audience and understand where they are, what they believe in, and what their needs are. However, this is the easy part. The next step is the truly difficult part.


How might we solve this problem of boring museums and create an environment of learning and engagement?

How is your group going to adapt to their feedback and create a museum exhibit that reaches and engages with your audience?

The energy of the room had died down now that there was a realization that this exercise was not just for the airing of grievances, but they were now expected to solve the problem. The question hung in the air as students were suddenly shy. Silence filled the classroom, but with no one else to break it, the students had to rise to the occasion.

First, there was one voice, then another, and a few more followed. The ideas were generic at first, they were suddenly unsure and lacking the confidence to share. In order to bring them back we worked on a specific problem. I did a quick lesson about American intelligence work during World War 2. In 10 minutes I told an overview of the Navajo Code Talkers and a brief explanation of their accomplishments. Awed by the story students were reenergized and again began to brainstorm how to bring this extraordinary idea to life.

The students had a specific and compelling story to work with they jolted back to life. Ideas began to spill out, superficial at first, but built with discussion. Carefully placed prompt questions pushed the conversation deeper until students were again confidently sharing ideas and breaking down their ideas of what a museum exhibit had to be.

Again, we captured these brilliant ideas to reflect upon as the project progressed.

The purpose of stepping into the design thinking protocol was to use empathy to break down the barriers that students had in their minds. They thought that they already knew what a museum must be like, how information must be presented, or what exhibits looked like. In reality, these were the preconceived notions that they were carrying from their background information. They were able to discover that none of these boxes mattered because they were here to redefine them.

The students were now ready to meet with their groups and move to the “Ideate” phase. Through group brainstorming and discussion they were able to break that idea of what must be done to open the world of possibilities to what could be done. They were open to returning to their research, prioritizing information, and brainstorming with their group members to develop plans to bring their time period to life.


bottom of page