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Reagan Curtis: Redesigning education

Reagan Curtis

A math and science teacher in a West Virginia middle school was teaching a unit on ratios and proportions when she decided to “shift her practice and connect to students’ everyday lives,” Reagan Curtis recalled.

In these classrooms, failure is productive, so they’re filled with learners willing to take risks and try things. Teachers aren’t congratulating students for following a solution path correctly. They’re engaging students in finding potential solution paths for problems with multiple “correct” answers, multiple paths to those answers.

Many of her students came from farming families, so they began learning about industrialized farming and the challenges of raising many animals within a small space. Students researched proportions and unit rates for facilities that could properly house different animals. They looked at the amount of meat consumed in West Virginia to see how local supply could meet demand in a humane and environmentally friendly way.

The teacher implemented a collaborative, hands-on, student-driven approach called “design-based learning,” which she learned from West Virginia University researchers – among them Curtis, the Chester E. and Helen B. Derrick endowed professor of education psychology at the College of Applied Human Sciences.

With Johnna Bolyard, associate professor of mathematics education, and Darran Cairns, formerly an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Curtis has presented that approach to teaching mathematics, engineering, science and literacy in the book “Design Thinking in the Middle Grades: Transforming Mathematics and Science Learning.” 

Q: What’s the heart of this book?

A: The book is about how teachers, particularly middle school science and math teachers, can engage all learners in design projects to build things that help solve problems or improve processes that are meaningful to students. Along the way, students learn and use the mathematics and science they need to design, build and test their solutions – while also learning how to communicate about what they learned.

Q: How does a classroom where design thinking happens compare to a traditional classroom?

A: When most people imagine a “traditional” classroom, they’re probably thinking of places where teachers set the rules, determine what’s taught, “transmit” knowledge to students, teach specific solution paths to single correct answers, and where students repeatedly practice those paths and produce those answers while sitting quietly and working independently in rows. 

In reality, many classrooms follow more progressive, constructivist, problem-based approaches. In those classrooms – and especially in classrooms that combine all the components of our approach – students have autonomy. Teachers collaborate with students on classroom rules, learning tasks and what counts as success. 

In these classrooms, failure is productive, so they’re filled with learners willing to take risks and try things. Teachers aren’t congratulating students for following a solution path correctly. They’re engaging students in finding potential solution paths for problems with multiple “correct” answers, multiple paths to those answers.

There’s hands-on building and experimentation – cutting, taping, gluing, moving around the room and conversation about what is working and what needs improving. Group work around complex, open-ended tasks is key to our approach, so it’s noisier, but productively. Teachers and students bring in found materials to assemble design solutions, and students develop skills with tools.

Q: How does the U.S. compare to other countries when it comes to how we teach science, engineering and math and our success in doing so?

A: The U.S. has fallen behind world peers in research and development – for many reasons, but largely because of our K-12 education system and the fact that not enough students are prepared, motivated and supported to enter and persist in the pipeline to STEM careers. 

For example, my colleagues and I took rural West Virginia teachers to the U.K. for a trip that included doing observations in Birmingham schools. Our teachers noticed that most of the curriculum there was delivered through open-ended, interactive “problem-based learning,” which is a close relative of the “design-based learning” approach we advocate. 

Q: Your approach marks a big shift from memorization and quizzes. Do teachers freak out when you introduce them to these methods?

A: A little bit, at first! That said, the 15 or so teachers who stayed with us for the full three years of the study that led to this book talked about this approach being transformative. They more efficiently covered content standards and objectives, so they had extra time to review toward the end of the school year. They engaged previously disengaged students. They began looking for design challenges and applying design thinking across more classroom activities – even in their daily lives. They also found other teachers in their schools, across grades and content areas, for collaboration.

Q: How can this way of teaching make classrooms more equitable?

A: In most classrooms, some students don’t participate much and therefore don’t have as much opportunity to learn. Often, the reasons those students are less engaged align with demographic, socioeconomic and peer social network inequities. Teachers following our approach actively work to raise the status of those learners. 

And when teachers create design-based learning activities in response to community issues, those can direct students toward critiquing inequities in their local context and beyond, using design thinking to confront inequities with solutions. 

Q: What needs to happen for design thinking to flourish in schools?

A: The challenge is turning enough teachers on to the power of design thinking. We’ve trained 25 or so teachers at once. Now we need a train-the-trainer model to scale up.

Design thinking won’t be right for every teacher, and not all learning needs to be design-based. But if we can get a critical mass of teachers using it for a meaningful portion of their instruction, it could transform education.

Q: What were your own origins as a learner like?

A: Atypical! My father was a programmer in the early days of computers, and I learned to build computers and program in elementary school. 

Q: What’s the scariest thing you’ve done?

A: Probably jumping out of an airplane for my 40th birthday, but maybe dropping off the top lip of Mammoth Mountain on skis or dropping in on a big wave at El Porto. Or maybe it was my first time dropping in on a halfpipe on a skateboard or competing in the Viking Highland Games – something I still do.

Written by Micaela Morrissette

Photographed by Sharleen Curtis