The Questions that Drive Me Forward

At the end of the day, there are always more questions than answers and this is what keeps pushing forward to learn more.  Guided Inquiry and Deign Thinking were never intended to work together, but they do have interesting similarities that can be leveraged to benefit each other.  But what are the challenges that present themselves when using these models either together or individually?

The first that comes to my mind is in the process of helping students to find their Third Space.  How do we better connect students with topics that are meaningful to them?  I’ve spent significant time with students who just can’t seem to find that topic that has personal meaning within the curricular domain that we are studying.  I’ve had students who flip flop between projects as they try to find that one design problem them that they really need to solve.  Guided Inquiry certainly has some ideas that support this process through the Open, Immerse and Explore phases and these can be leveraged in or before an Empathy phase in Design Thinking but there always seems to be one or more students who are so connected to the game of school or disconnected from the subject matter that finding Third Space seems to be impossible.  They just want to be told what to do and they will go off and do it.  Give them a hoop, and they will jump through it.  What can we do for them, hopefully without devoting so much time to one or two students that we neglect the rest of the class?

Creating and Prototyping require skills.  There is a second domain of learning that is required for a student to be able to make anything.  We spend years teaching students how to write an essay.  When they are asked to write a paper on topic X, they know what to do, but what happens when we say, “OK, make whatever you want to demonstrate your learning.”  Or if we say, “Here’s the problem.  Make something that solves it.”  We need to structure the Create/Prototype phase in a way that at least helps the student take inventory of what they know how to do so that they can apply the right skills to the problem at hand.  I have had students jump into projects only to find out that they don’t have a clue how to go about what they’ve set out to do.  I’ve also had students hell-bent on presenting something in a way that demonstrates their skills in making in a particular way but is completely ineffective in demonstrating their learning of the topic.  What structures can we put in place or how do we otherwise support these students so they don’t get overwhelmed, lost, or simply default to an essay or powerpoint because that’s the only thing they know how to do?

Finally, where does an inquiry unit really end?  The dream is that a student will become so connected with a topic that there are more questions that come from their research or the product that they build is simply version 1 of a long line of constantly improving versions.  Our assignments turn into their life’s work.  But we don’t have time for that.  We need to move to the next chapter in the textbook or next unit in the curriculum.  How do we support the students when they do get it right in a transformative way?  What can we do to build that next unit so there are opportunities to reflect on their work in different ways and continue to follow their passion?  I know that this is highly situationally dependent and one jurisdiction will be more tightly prescribed in how they move through the content of the course than the next, but isn’t this the Holy Grail of teaching?  Isn’t this what it’s all about?  Once the student does make that meaningful connection, how do we continue to support them to follow their interests as far as they can take them?

I’ve enjoyed sharing my thinking here on the 52 Weeks of Guided Inquiry blog.  I know that I have clarified my thinking in some areas through the act of writing them down for you, and I truly hope that at least one person has got something out of it.  I’d be curious to know what you thought of any or all of the last three posts and would love to continue the conversation here in the comments, via Twitter (@marc_crompton) or even through email (  And if you’re ever in Vancouver, come by the school and we can show you what we’re up to!

Thanks for reading,

Marc Crompton

Teacher Librarian

St George School

Musings on GID vs DT

Last post, I talked briefly about the relationship between Design Thinking and GID.  Today, I’d like to dig a little deeper into that relationship and look at how these two models can complement each other.  As we will see, each model has its strengths that can support the other assuming that the context is right.  One thing to keep in mind through this discussion is that the origins of each model are significantly different and so the emphasis is different in each.  Guided Inquiry came out of the recognition that student research projects were ineffective and often caused students a range of unintended emotions.  Carol Kuhlthau’s research looked at identifying how (or if) students were engaged at various points of the research process and looked at ways of increasing that engagement.  Almost exclusively, the typical medium for demonstrating one’s knowledge was the research essay.  The Design Thinking model came from an attempt to understand how folks who make new things work.  This looked at trying to codify the often messy process that someone building anything from a car engine, to a lemon juicer, to a prosthetic might use.  While these are very different processes – and one might argue that the way one person operates within a research or design process might be very different from another carrying out the same task – there are enough parallels to make the discussion fruitful.

Let’s start at the very beginning.  After all, it is a very good place to start!  Both Design Thinking and Guided Inquiry begin with open collection of information.  This begins with a broad spark from some experience that kicks the process into gear (Open in Guided Inquiry, the design brief in Design Thinking).  Guided Inquiry breaks this process into three phases – Open, Immerse, Explore – and allows students a period of loosely guided wallowing in the topic in order to build genuine connections and interest.  We recognize that the topic is likely brought down from on high by the teacher, but every attempt is made to ensure that the student sees a real connection with their own life.  Likewise, Design Thinking uses an Empathy phase.  This is a very human-centred process that builds understanding of the needs of the users of whatever is being designed.  This will include interviews and other forms of research that simply build an understanding of the problem.  While this phase is typically human-centred, I find that there is also an element of research here as well.  To understand other’s needs and to truly understand the problem, there is likely some straight-up book or web research that digs into the concepts behind the issues.  For example, if one is building a prosthetic hand for someone else, one needs to understand how the hand is going to be used (an office worker might have different needs than a rock climber), how materials affect the way the hand can be used, and perhaps what other designs may have been used in the past to address similar issues.  Of course, an understanding of the bone and muscle structure of a normally functioning hand would be immensely useful!

Next, comes the definition of the problem.  In GID, this comes in the phrasing of the ultimate question being addressed and may look like a driving question, a research question, a thesis statement or any number of carefully wordsmithed structures.  In Design Thinking, this is the definition statement and can come in the form of a question that starts with, “How might we…” or it can look more like a statement that reads “User X needs Y because of Z.”  In both models, we spend time building broader understanding in order to come to a point where defining the problem is effective.  There are plenty of stories of designers who, after an effective empathy phase, define the problem in a way that the end user had never thought of, but on reflection, addresses the true nature of the problem better than the use ever could have.  The solution is something far different than was originally expected.  Likewise, a teacher might have an idea of what directions a student might take a GID unit, but until the personal connections with the topic are made, the ultimate direction of the projects can be surprisingly different!

Once we have our definition, the paths of the two models diverge a little.  In Guided Inquiry, this is where we get down to the work of gathering and digesting information for our research.  In Design Thinking, we can think of the Ideation phase as a process of gathering as many possible solutions to the defined problem as possible.  In GID, the ideas come from others; in Design Thinking, the ideas come from ourselves.  You might think of Gathering as focusing your thinking while Ideation as a process of widening your thinking, although that would only be partly true.  The purpose of Ideation is to consider all possible solutions and then pick the “best” one for the next phase.  While the process is somewhat different, it points in the same direction.

The fun begins in the Create/Prototype phase.  Both of these are where the learning manifests itself into some creation, whether that be a written paper or physical product.  Both involve the playing with ideas that are a result of the previous phases and articulating thinking in a way that will ultimately be shared with others.  It should be pointed out that in both models, the apparent linear sequence is somewhat of a fallacy and I would say, no more a fallacy than between the gathering of ideas and the articulation of them.  An essay writer will find that there are remaining questions that need to be answered and will go back and gather more information as much as an engineer might get to a certain point with a prototype and realizes that the idea simply won’t work and needs to go back to the ideation phase.

Finally, the work needs to be shared and reflected on.  In GID these are the Share and Evaluate phases.  In Design Thinking, we test the prototype and that process, in all likelihood, involves testing against the users’ needs and sharing it with those users.  GID promotes the idea that this sharing should not be the private handing in of an essay to the teacher but sharing learning back to the community of learners in order to extend and deepen everyone’s learning.  In Design Thinking, that sharing is more dependent on the situation.  If the design problem has been presented by a single person, then maybe the sharing is back to that individual.  Usually, there is a larger user group that the prototype is tested with.  The essential point in this is that the purpose of sharing is different.  GID shares to deepen community understanding while Design Thinking shares in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the solution.

It strikes me, as I write this, that GID is might be typically good for thinking about concepts while Design Thinking might be good for thinking about things.  I’m sure that this is a drastic over-simplification, but there is some truth in it.  GID can be used to solve problems by building something, but the nature of the research is primarily conceptual.  You might be trying to understand people’s perspectives or the reasons behind something.  The results of that conceptual research might be manifest in writing, physical objects or virtual simulations, but the concepts are at the focus.  In Design Thinking, the thinking is more about how we make something to solve a problem.  It can be a subtle distinction, but the emphasis is important.  The kinds of things one thinks about when building a solution to a problem might be what materials are best to use, how we connect those materials, what function our object needs to perform and how the design serves the function.  Clearly, there are concepts underlying all of this, but the concepts serve the process where in GID the concepts are the process.  Again, this is likely a drastic generalization and many examples can likely be brought forward that show the weakness of this argument, but I think that there is some use in at least exploring this comparison.

Once we understand the strengths of each model and how they relate, we can use that knowledge to build even more powerful units in particular areas.  Of course, there will be situations where one model stands on its own brilliantly and would likely be made weaker by forcing ideas of the other into it.  But there are situations where the combination is even more powerful.  The research ideas behind Open, Immerse, Explore and even Gather can underpin the Empathize piece for those Design Thinking processes that require more academic underpinnings.  Likewise, the ideas behind Empathize can support more socially based GID units.  Of course, given that Design Thinking is often about building a solution to a problem, some of the prototyping ideas can help similar Create phases of GID.

Next post, I’ll look at some questions and issues that I’m having with both models.  It seems that the more that I explore, the more questions I have!


Marc Crompton

Teacher Librarian

St George School