Great Expectations: The Design Thinking Cycle and Story | Harbord & Khan | 5 Min Read

July 7, 2022

The alphabet has been described as a technology, but what about storytelling? We often hear about storytelling’s importance as a tool to engage students with their learning, but it usually doesn’t fall under next year’s orders, as software does. In his book Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature, Angus Fletcher proposes that literature was “a narrative-emotional technology that helped our ancestors cope with the psychological challenges posed by human biology” and that it can help us with “the problem of simply being human.” The author describes literary devices, such as the stretch (“the taking of a regular pattern of plot, character, narrative style or any other core component of the story and extending the pattern further”) and plot twist, and the neuroscience behind how they impact us. Whether we agree or not with his ideas, most of us are likely to have experienced the power of storytelling in some way, for example, through films, graphic novels, songs, games, books, or cartoons.

As George Saunders writes, “A story (any story, every story) makes its meaning at speed, a small structural pulse at a time. We read a bit of text and a set of expectations arises.” A set of expectations arises and we want to find out what happens next: It causes us to anticipate. Amongst other things, stories can inspire curiosity (what if, what next?), empathy as well as support critical and creative thinking. “In education, we know that emotion drives attention and attention drives learning” (Harbord & Khan, 2020). We might show an emotive, relatable video to introduce our driving question or present parts of our content through stories as a way to generate interest and build a sense of connection. However, what set of expectations and questions might arise if we choose to explore processes that support our learning through storytelling? What if we examined the Stanford’s Design Thinking Cycle through the elements of storytelling, in this case with a focus on English Language Arts? Could this make it a more relatable and interesting way for students to approach ELA?

We show you below how to use the Design Thinking Cycle as a framework to guide student inquiry using Grade 6 ELA standards. The connections we make are just one of many ways this idea could be applied.

Using the Design Thinking Cycle to Guide Student Inquiry

Empathize: Focus on understanding people in the context of the design challenge. Possible questions include: What are the experiences and emotions we can develop insights on that can help us relate to this topic, situation, and the people involved? From whose perspective are we hearing the story, that is, who is the narrator? By being able to understand and share the feelings of others as well as use the insights we have gained, we are better prepared to describe the situation or context and understand the problem. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.6: Explain how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a text.

Define the problem: Focus on the user, needs, and insights. For ELA, we might consider this stage in terms of the following: What are the main themes of the story, who are the characters involved, and what are their beliefs and values? Understanding the genre can also help us gain insight into our characters and the world they inhabit. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.

Ideate: Generate ideas and possible solutions. Imagination and creativity are valuable tools at this stage, especially for developing vocabulary as well as considering options for the plot and how the story moves forward. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.3: Describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution.

Prototype: Create solutions. This includes testing and learning from failure. When creating a solution, it is important to understand what each part brings to the whole. In addition to the author’s conclusion, what are other possible outcomes for this story? CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.5: Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.2.A: Introduce a topic clearly, previewing what is to follow; organize ideas, concepts, and information into broader categories as appropriate to achieving purpose; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

Test: Gather feedback to improve solutions. Possible questions include: If I wanted there to be some kind of resolution, have I achieved this? If the characters went through the story again, how would they react? How could I improve this story after feedback? Does it do what I wanted it to? Stories, even shaggy dog stories, have an end whereas the Design Thinking process is iterative. We might consider the end as the beginning of the next book in the series. We often observe the same storyline in film and television, retold in different ways, because testing has been successful or a second season canceled because it hasn’t done well. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.5: With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.

Grade 6 ELA standards include the following terms: Analyze, integrate, develop, engage, adapt and acquire. Angus Fletcher, again, offers us instructions, which urge us to take some kind of action that will change or enrich us in some way. His sweeping tale includes chapter headings that might seem like a panacea for everything such as ‘Excite Your Curiosity,’ ‘Solve Every Mystery,’ ‘Feed Your Creativity’ and ‘Decide Wiser.’ Where there are nouns and verbs and a sentence to be written, there are possibilities for a story to be told. What connections could you make between your subject and the Design Thinking Cycle? What stories could you tell?

You may also enjoy reading more articles written by Harbord & Khan for Intrepid Ed News.

Harbord and Khan

Meredith Harbord EdD and Sara Riaz Khan are global educators who use ethical dilemmas to enrich and transform curriculum. Their student centric approach is driven by an ethical model and innovative tools that support critical thinking and creativity. Meredith and Sara’s collaboration as Design teachers at ABA Oman International School in Muscat, focused on sustainability, ethical design and global mindedness and inspired them to establish Harbord & Khan Educational Consultants. They develop units of work based on real world issues to engage and challenge students for diverse curriculums (IB, PBL, Common Core and Australian) and are available for professional development and to create programs to meet the specific needs of your school. Meredith and Sara have authored two teacher curriculum books ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 1, 2 & 3’ and ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 4 & 5’ (2020). Website:

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