Design Thinking

Incorporating Design Thinking in the Study of Literature

English language arts teachers can borrow design thinking from STEM classes to support a deep understanding of literary characters.

February 4, 2022
NoSystem images / iStock

Many students struggle to make connections with classic literary texts and especially to understand a character’s point of view. Teachers can help students expand their opportunity to have an immersive experience with literature they read through the process of design thinking. Good teaching and design thinking are interrelated because both focus sensitively on where adaptations and adjustments are needed to reach the desired goals.

While design thinking is often used in STEM classrooms, using this approach to engage with literature brings new life to the characters and can guide students to have engaging relationships with the characters. Although it can be tough for students to empathize with Shakespeare’s characters, for example, because the language is complex, a design thinking approach helps the characters’ feelings and needs become tangible and meaningful.

Even though part of this understanding comes from maturity, teachers can catalyze the minds of students to ask questions so that they are genuinely interested and involved in the characters’ emotions and motivations underlying their actions.

Why Use Design Thinking With Literary Texts

Design thinking makes difficult literary texts more concrete and relevant for students by creating empathetic points of view, generating inquiry from those points of view, and guiding students to analyze the texts for the purpose of meeting the inquiry’s needs.

Students examine parts of the story and use them in evidence-based reasoning to find creative problem-solving products that would help the character of their choice reach a conclusion that suits them. Then, the student defends or presents their product and reasoning. This inquiry process moves students from general curiosity to critical understanding of a character’s complex conditions.

The 5 Stages of Design Thinking

I applied the five stages of design thinking to Shakespeare’s Othello to help my students gain a deeper understanding of its themes.

1. Empathize: Teachers can start this stage by asking their students human-centered questions: “Why do you…?” “How does it feel…?” “When was the last time…?” and more. These questions will help students discover characters’ needs and empathetic points of view. Students look at the characters and ask similar questions like, “What does Othello feel when…?”

Students engage in this process with a beginner’s eye, without judgment, in order to immerse themselves in the life of the character. One of my students picked the two main characters, Iago and Othello, each of whom are struggling with self-worth, as her “users”, i.e., the group of people the designer is trying to understand and empathize with. In the Stage 1 exercise she completed, she asked herself several questions and found textual evidence from the characters’ perspectives to answer them.

2. Define: Students synthesize the observations from Stage 1 to identify the characters’ problems and needs. In Stage 2, students use textual evidence to find the characters’ conflicts and problems. The empathy that students experienced in Stage 1 now allows them to define the problems that the characters are experiencing.

One of my students demonstrated this synthesis by describing the main characters’ predicaments in clear terms that were informed by the previous stage and also identified similarities between them.

3. Ideate: Students can start gathering multiple solutions to their inquiries (i.e., the characters’ needs) by asking: “How might we…?” With many possible paths to find solutions, some shown in this example, ideation is the process of generating many actions or solutions that can carry students to the end stage of design thinking.

4. Prototype: Students create possible solutions to problems or conflicts that the characters have. This stage uses the empathy and understanding of the problems from the earlier stages to give students opportunities to create solutions to the problems. One of my students chose to create an advertisement for rose-colored glasses for Othello and Iago to wear in order to solve or help ease their problems.

5. Test: In this stage, students test the solutions, get feedback on the tests, and refine the plans that would engage the literary characters (“users”). During this process, students present their product to teachers and other students and make adjustments as needed. This iteration process of design thinking is key, according to brain research: We have to continue to revisit the same concept on different occasions again and again before we can internalize that new knowledge or understanding. If actors who’ve played Othello on the stage could give feedback to students using virtual meetings, that would be really helpful and insightful, too.

A complete assessment and analysis of characters using design thinking is demonstrated by students’ final created products that they make with the characters’ needs in mind, after going through all five stages. Students can describe their thinking process as they progressed through the five stages and show how their product fulfills characters’ needs. My students love sharing their products when they’ve really connected with the characters’ points of view and empathized maturely.

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  • Design Thinking
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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