Design Thinking in the Writing Classroom

Design Thinking

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By Emily Chambers

Emily Chambers is a former WAC GRA and is studying for her M.A. in Teaching Writing and Literature. Her main interests are faculty development and curriculum resources. Prior to coming to GMU, she taught sixth grade English in Culpeper County, VA; now she teaches composition at GMU. She can be reached at

Design Thinking is a way of using the principles of design to think about various problems and projects in contexts outside of design.  When clients give designers a brief, a document outlining the goals and results of the proposed project, the designers use design thinking to create prototypes and final products for the client.  Many educators, innovators, and businesses have sought to apply design thinking to the classroom.  For writing teachers, design thinking offers several principles that are helpful, because it addresses the complex challenges that writers face.  By teaching our students to face these challenges together, with minds open to new possibilities and a willingness to fail, we can teach students a means to successful writing.  Design thinking addresses complicated problems with empathy, collaboration, divergent thinking, and failing often.  

Complex problems

In her essay on using Design Thinking in the writing classroom, Carrie S. Leverenz points out that we often simplify writing prompts for students, but she encourages teachers to do the opposite: to present students with “wicked writing prompts” that require creativity, collaborative problem solving, and more than one possible solution.  Designers use these same means to create solutions, designs, and products.  Leverenz argues that teachers should give “wicked writing prompts” that grow out of a true need, thus necessitating students to respond with meaningful solutions to authentic problems.  Such assignments require students to address a specific audience and offer workable solutions, like designers faced with design briefs from a client.


In order to create effective solutions, designers must also empathize with those who gave the design bid or those for whom the design is intended.  Thomas Riddle points out that stakeholders must be considered during the design thinking process, and they may have valuable input for possible solutions.  Empathy is also required in order to delay judgement and fully consider the thoughts of one’s design team members.  In one educational application of design thinking, students learn empathy through a video of a girl’s struggle to find clean water and through interviews on a water treatment plant field trip.  

Writing students can learn empathy by growing their understanding of the audience for whom they write.  Writers must have a deep understanding of this audience in order to craft their writing to address the audience’s needs, desires, and expectations.  Engaging with that audience in person, as students did in the example above, is a powerful way to build empathy and understanding.


Design thinking necessitates contributions from many voices, though not all in harmony.  IDEO, an expert in design and Design Thinking for Educators, insists that its own designers “defer judgement” so as to glean from the expertise and ideas of other members.  For the classroom application, students in design are dependent on one another to contribute solutions, while encouraging one another to think independently, in such a way as to benefit the whole.

In the writing classroom, collaborative work may look like lessons taught by groups of students, or peer editing, but it can also be group writing.  Even though one of Leverenz’s student said group writing doesn’t exist, writing is inherently social, and the more students practice writing collaboratively, the better.  As they learn to defer judgment, they will come to value one another’s unique contributions and to see one another as vital resources.  A group’s collaboration is dependent, then, on divergent thinking, the next principle in design thinking.

Divergent thinking & creativity

Leverenz points out that college writing students are encouraged to think convergently, to narrow possibilities down to one.  Instead, design thinking encourages divergent thinking, thinking that builds off of other group member’s ideas and encourages “wild ideas,” as in this IDEO video.  Out of this divergent thinking comes new solutions to problems.  

Divergent thinking in the writing classroom may take the form of free-writing, brainstorming, and recognizing that many first drafts are garbage but still worth writing.  Divergent thinking is at the heart of seeing writing as a process, one in which there may be false starts and stops.  In Riddle’s examples, participants in design thinking are encouraged to “ideate” and come up with “blue sky lining” solutions, where money is no limit.  

Fail early, often, and inexpensively

The creativity, collaborative work, and divergent thinking required by design thinking develops ideas into several prototypes to be tested (see examples here and here).  Often, each group creates one prototype, then presents their idea to the group.  Everyone votes on the prototypes, in many cases by placing sticky notes on their preferred prototype.  From here, the creative process begins again as the designers take the best ideas from each prototype and design a final product.  In other instances, after voting, the design process continues until the best prototype is refined into a better final design.

Drafts of writing are easily paralleled to the prototypes of design, and educator Edward Burger requires his students to write “failing” drafts early.   But it often proves harder to convince writers that writing poorly is acceptable, even in the beginning of their writing process.  And for more advanced writers, Paula Krebs notes, it is humbling to remember that writing often fails. Perhaps if we as writers were more honest about our failures, or if we, as teachers encouraged failure as Dr. Burg does, students would be more receptive to failing at writing.  With design thinking, failing is changed from a reason to stop working into another step in the learning process, or, as Riddle calls it, “failing forward.”

In this way, design thinking parallels the writing process in that both are recursive, non-linear process.  Those who practice either design thinking or the writing process will proceed forward, retrace steps, take time away from the process, then begin again, always recognizing that the final product can be continually refined.  

Further, both processes benefit greatly from reflection: when writers and designers reflect on their processes and products, they are able to grow.  Such reflection is essential to the design and writing processes, as many solutions are possible for each problem.  Students must reflect on their work in order to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses, brainstorm new ideas, and continue the process.

How will you incorporate design thinking into your writing instruction? Let us know in the comments.

Further Resources:

TED Talks: Changing education paradigms Ken Robinson describes what’s wrong with education today and how design thinking can cultivate the rich resources within students.

Girls Against the World, Scientifically Speaking | Edutopia How do we get girls interested in STEM? The basic tenets of Design Thinking are applied to this initiative.

5-Minute Film Festival: Design Thinking in Schools | Edutopia A rich resource of videos showing DT in the classroom.

“I Cannot Prepare Students to Write Their (History, Philosophy, Sociology, Poly Sci., etc…) Papers” by John Warner

First year composition courses are often expected to cure students of all their writing woes.  John Warner addresses this false assumption by examining why students’ writing often falters outside the first year composition classroom.  Not only are students often underprepared and still learning content material, but they do not grasp the requirements of different genres and rhetorical situations.  Even when armed with an understanding of rhetorical questions to consider when writing, students often struggle to apply these to a new field of study.   Continue reading

Resources and Reflections from the Northern Virginia Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute 2016, Part 2

Image via The New York Times Learning Network

Image via The New York Times Learning Network

Emily Chambers is a former WAC GRA and is studying for her M.A. in Teaching Writing and Literature. Her main interests are faculty development and curriculum resources. Prior to coming to GMU, she taught sixth grade English in Culpeper County, VA; now she teaches composition at GMU. She can be reached at

Each year, teachers who participate in the Northern Virginia Writing Project Invitational Study Institute (NVWP ISI) create an incredible number of resources, and this year was no different. At the ISI, each teacher consultant (as graduates of the ISI are called) presents a demonstration of a writing lesson they have successfully taught in their classroom. This year, teacher consultants presented on everything from found poetry, to improv, to visual literacy. Each lesson is focused on teaching a writing skill to all students; what follows is a sample of just a few of those lessons.


Instead of directing class discussions herself, one teacher consultant turned the tables on students. After instruction on types of questions, she asked students to create questions. Students answered questions on their own before discussing the questions together. The teacher consultant was amazed at the ownership, higher-order thinking, and engagement of all students in this activity. It allows all students to collaborate after preparing individually, which can help more reticent students be willing to engage. This strategy for class discussions is easily adapted to any reading or topic.

Authentic Writing*

Several teacher consultant’s crafted unique writing assignments for students that required them to engage with the world outside the classroom in authentic ways. These assignments help students understand the power and importance of writing in the “real” world. In one such assignment, students write profiles after interviewing someone in their community. In another, students write “This I Believe” essays based on the NPR series. Beyond these specific writing prompt assignments, students often need help creating topics and research questions from their interests. To address this, another teacher consultant used a chart from Kelly Galleghr to help students map out different genre approaches to their favorite topic. The genre chart would help students in a composition class to brainstorm topics, or students in a WI course map writing prompts within their field.

Visualizing Lessons

Using visual writing prompts became a sort of theme among teacher consultant presentations this year, which reflects the visual nature of many current publications. These demo lessons included a nontraditional mapping project, a lesson on using visual prompts with English Language Learners, and one on using primary source analysis to write. One teacher consultant focused solely on visual literacy, engaging students in perplexing photos (such as the one above) to examine the photos’ narratives, counternarratives, and other thought explorations. Each of these prompts recasts writing in a new way that allows students to see it afresh or to craft original pieces from visual inspiration. These lessons could be used to help students revise their writing or could be used as low-stakes writing prompts.

Guided Freewrites

Though I have participated in many freewrites, the Institute was my first experience of guided freewrites. In a freewrite, the participant tries to write without stopping within the given time. The director of the freewrite will occasionally remind participants of the time remaining, but nothing else. In a guided freewrite, the director gives an initial prompt, then periodically interrupts with suggestions of things to incorporate into the participants’ writing. I found this to be very effective: the freewrite and time limit forced me into the act of writing, and the suggestions provided challenges or inspiration to incorporate into my writing. One such guided freewrite we experienced at the NVWP ISI was Progroff Journaling, given by Dave Arbogast. Guided freewrites have a clear application in the classroom: when you give students a low-stakes prompt, try suggesting insertions as they write, but remind them that they are not required to use them, either. Consider allowing students a chance to share their writing afterwards as well.

Help students understand their writing process

It’s important for students to understand their writing processes in order to know themselves and their writing better. Sometimes this knowledge leads them to see the ways they are inhibiting their own writing or to change ineffective writing habits. At other times, this knowledge builds community in the classroom and helps build resilience as writers. NVWP Director Sarah Baker led us in a demonstration lesson that explored how we write. Many of the prompts here (What is your writing animal? Who are the characters in your head as you write?) can be used as low-stakes writing prompts, especially at the beginning of the semester. They would also be interesting to revisit throughout the semester as students’ writing process morph.

These resources from the NVWP ISI 2016 are not comprehensive of all the resources shared, but they do point to the rich resources available in other teachers. How often do we ask fellow teachers for support? How can we create a community of collaboration among teachers? The NVWP is one place to start, along with the resources from WAC on our blog and Facebook, and those available from CTFE at Mason.

*for more on authentic writing, see

This is part 2 in a series of reflections by Emily on her time with the NVWP ISI this summer. See part one here for an overview of the NVWP ISI 2016.

To get involved in the NVWP, visit Plan to attend the Language and Learning Conference in March. For more resources on the NVWP ISI 2016, visit the three co-directors’ blogs: Peter Anderson, Jen Orr, and Michelle Haseltine.  Or visit fellow-participant Katlyn Howes Bennett’s blog here.

The Importance of A Writing Community: Reflections from the Northern Virginia Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute 2016, Part 1

Image via Peter Anderson

Image via Peter Anderson

Emily Chambers is a former WAC GRA and is studying for her M.A. in Teaching Writing and Literature. Her main interests are faculty development and curriculum resources. Prior to coming to GMU, she taught sixth grade English in Culpeper County, VA; now she teaches composition at GMU. She can be reached at

For four weeks this summer, 18 teacher writers met in a crowded conference room, with a beautiful view of treetops, and natural sunlight filling the room through a wall-length window. Three tables were pushed together to form a “U” shape, and the tabletops were crowded with journals, laptops, pens, and coffee cups. Each day, the teacher writers discussed their teaching practice and wrote page after page. With chairs pushed close together, they shared insights, inspiration, and struggles with each other. In the morning, the room filled with the smell of breakfast and coffee brewing, the tea kettle just about to boil nearby. The teacher writers’ voices reverberated and resounded through the halls outside the room.

This is the scene for the Northern Virginia Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute (NVWP ISI), 2016. The NVWP is one site of the National Writing Project, a national network of teacher-leaders seeking to improve writing and learning for all students. The NWP operates on several core principles, among them that those who teach writing are writers themselves, that teachers have teaching expertise to share with other teachers of writing, and that teachers should write with students. These principles guide and direct the Summer Institute, placing an emphasis on teachers teaching one another and on teachers developing as writers. Moreover, the institute’s director Sarah Baker recognizes the importance of creating a community in which this learning and writing can flourish.

That community of learner-teacher-writers is the main benefit of the NVWP: participants in the ISI gain access to an incredibly rich network of like-minded teachers, both in their summer institute, in the broader NVWP, and in the still broader NWP. This community inspires, encourages, and provides resources for our teaching and writing. The NVWP forges long-lasting relationships, and many former ISI participants return to give demonstration lessons at the ISI. Many participants call their ISI experience “life changing,” in large part because of the relationships they form while there.

Within this incredible community, teachers write, and write, and write some more. This is the second benefit of the NVWP: teachers are given time and space to write. Many participants testify to writing more than ever before and even being surprised by the writing they are able to produce. Even though some participants had previously experienced writing groups, the ISI community offers something new and different through a community of like-minded teacher-writers. That same community of writers is available at George Mason through weekly write-ins for faculty and graduate students, or through independently formed writing groups and writing retreats. Writing is, after all, social, and our writing grows when shared with others.

In fact, seeing themselves as writers was a new and difficult identity for some teachers to adopt. Participants repeated to one another, “I am a writer,” enforcing the idea that they practice the writing they teach. The benefits and experience of the NVWP ISI caused me to wonder: what great benefits would we reap if all teachers of writing saw themselves as writers? Then, seeing ourselves as writers, how will we be changed by spending time writing with students? What more can we accomplish as we look to one another as fellow experts?

This is part 1 in a series of reflections by Emily on her time with the NVWP ISI this summer. Read part 2 here, featuring resources from the NVWP ISI 2016.

To get involved in the NVWP, visit Plan to attend the Language and Learning Conference in March. For more resources on the NVWP ISI 2016, visit the three co-directors’ blogs: Peter AndersonJen Orr, and Michelle Haseltine.  Or visit fellow-participant Katlyn Howes Bennett’s blog here.

“Professors Can Learn to Be More Effective Instructors” by Coleen Flaherty

Coleen Faherty reviews Faculty Development and Student Learning: Assessing the Connections (Indiana University Press), a book based on a multi-year study of faculty development at Washington State and Carleton University.  They found that faculty development improves faculty’s teaching and positively influences students’ development.  Developing outcomes the faculty believed in was important, the study found, and the improvement to faculty’s teaching persisted over many years, even spreading to others who did not attend the same development. Continue reading

“When More is Less” by Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty reviews a new study, a collaboration between the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Council of Writing Program Administrators, which finds assigning more writing assignments does not necessarily mean better student writing.  Instead, the study’s authors suggest that better, not more, assignments (ones that are interactive and deeper) improve students’ writing and learning.  “Meaning making” writing assignments, or those assignments that require students to construct their own knowledge by interpreting texts or learning experiences, are especially helpful for students’ growth, the authors report.

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The High School/College Writing Classroom Disconnect by John Warner

John Warner’s assessment of the disconnect between high school and college writing classrooms is surprisingly more critical of college professors.  In fact, Warner argues that professors are responsible for connecting college writing assignments to the outside world.  In addressing primary and secondary teachers, he acknowledges that they have good goals in teaching their students restricting writing rules, but he would instead have them, along with all writing teachers, help their students focus on the rhetorical audience and purpose.

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Mason’s WAC Program Ranked among Top in the Nation

For the 15th consecutive year, Mason’s Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program has been ranked among the best writing in the disciplines programs in the US by US News and World Reports. Mason’s WAC program supports the efforts of faculty across the curriculum to make student writing a priority in course work for the major. “We’re very honored to be among the programs ranked nationally once more,” director of the WAC program, Michelle LaFrance, said. The rankings were generated through nominations from 1,500 schools taken during Spring 2016.

Mason’s WAC program, established in 1993, was designed to develop students’ understanding of the writing in their disciplines, as well as their ability to communicate as professionals within their respective fields. The program fosters a number of ideals about writing, including that:

  • writing is an important tool for learning and discovery,
  • students gain proficiency as writers when they are given frequent opportunities to write for various audiences and purposes,
  • faculty across the curriculum share responsibility for helping students learn the conventions and writing practices of their disciplines,
  • students benefit from revising their writing based on meaningful feedback from their instructors,
  • and writing instruction must be continuous throughout a student’s education.

Frequent opportunities to write in diverse contexts and for diverse audiences, to receive feedback, and to engage in revision strategies help students to think more creatively and critically, engage more deeply in their learning, and transfer their learning from context to context.

The list of educational institutions ranked by US News and World Reports includes Brown, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and several others. George Mason University was among six other public universities to make the list. Other public universities listed were: Colorado State, North Carolina State–Raleigh, University of California–Davis, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, University of Missouri, and Washington State University.

Congratulations to Mason WAC!

To see the listings, go to:


“Small Changes in Teaching: The Minutes Before Class” by James M. Lang

James M. Lang begins an excellent series on small changes in instruction with an article on making the most of the minutes before class.  In this short time, Lang urges teachers to take advantage of the time with students, instead of using it as a time for administration or organization.  Drawing from three books or studies, Lang suggests building relationships, displaying an agenda, and wondering with students.   Continue reading

Elisabeth Pain “How to (Seriously) Read a Scientific Paper”

As scholars in our various disciplines, we know that reading papers in our field is the first step in being able to write papers in our field. Many of us integrate these readings into our courses as a way of introducing our students to scholarship in our field – what kinds of claims we make, the evidence needed to make those claims, how we organize information, what kinds of citations and formatting are required –  however, it’s easy to forget that students need instruction on how to read in a new field just as much as they need instruction for how to write in a new field.

In her piece, “How to (Seriously) Read a Scientific Paper,” Elisabeth Pain compiles a number of scholars’ and practitioners’ voices on reading scientific writing: how they approach a paper, what they do when they don’t understand something, if they ever feel overwhelmed, and other tips. The collection provides different perspectives and strategies for reading scientific papers.

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