Students Use Design Thinking to Propose Solutions to an Authentic Audience

Four years ago, I started teaching Public Speaking at our high school. It was a brand new course, which meant I had the freedom to design it as I thought best. Score!

My main goal for the class, especially since it’s an elective, was to make it as relevant as possible. I also wanted to link to the school and community as much as possible.

Since that first semester class, I have continued to tweak the main two strategies for accomplishing these goals: mock interviews and the group proposal.

The most recent iteration of the group proposals has been my favorite and I think it could easily be adapted to your classroom!

What is the Group Proposal?

The group proposal is the only group speech my students have to give. Essentially, it allows for students to tackle an issue they perceive in our school and propose a solution to the administration team.

In the past, I’ve let students brainstorm perceived problems and then choose one to solve. For the past two years, one of our admins came in before kids got started to let them know what the admins were looking for in a solution, and give them a little boost of motivation.

After choosing their problem, students brainstorm a solution (or solutions). They then research their ideas, gather information from the internet and our own school (surveys, interviews). With this information, they create a proposal and accompanying visual to present to the administration. Finally, after practicing a lot, they present their ideas in the conference room to the administrators and counselors.

This has been one of my favorite parts of the course, and it’s continued to improve each semester. I think this year, though, had the best outcome.

This year, I decided to use design thinking to get students started on their group proposal, which I think helped make it a success. 

design thinking group proposal

Group Proposal: The Steps

1. POV Statement

We started with a POV statement. I put the statement in the middle of a piece of paper and groups annotated it. I asked students to consider what it meant, what questions they had, and to translate it into their own words. POV statement design thinking group proposal

The next step was to come together as a class to come up with a whole-class understanding of the statement. We had a fabulous discussion while I added their annotations to the screen while we talked. In the end, we all agreed that we had a pretty solid understanding of the POV statement, so we were ready to move onto the next step.


2. How Might We…?

Next, we brainstormed how might we questions. This is one of my favorite parts of design thinking and the part that has most affected my thinking in general. Kids struggled with this, for sure. When we did this activity as adults in the different design thinking days I’ve been involved in, we’d fill entire sheets of paper with our HMW questions, but the kids came up with only a few. In the future, I’d like to push them a bit more, but unfortunately, we had some time constraints. Anyway, kids came up with questions and shared them in their groups. As a group, they chose a question (or questions) that they were all leaning toward and rewrote it into their guiding HMW question for the rest of the process.

3. Solutions

The final part of these early stages was brainstorming solutions. Again, kids struggled a bit with this. They do not seem to have the stamina to fill up a sheet of paper with ideas. They all tended to constrain themselves, despite being told to “shoot for the moon.” After brainstorming, they shared their ideas and chose one or more to focus on for their proposal.

At this point, I shared the complete assignment: expectations, requirements, and details.

4. The Initial Pitch & Critical Friends Protocol

Once they chose their solution(s), they did a more detailed brainstorm and then worked on creating their pitch. The pitch was a presentation of their initial ideas: their HMW question, their solution(s), their research plan, and their presentation ideas. We started doing this pre-proposal pitch last year, and it was great for helping the students refine their ideas.  This year, I used a modified version of the critical friends protocol (which I had just watched 7th graders at The Lovett School in Atlanta using–it was amazing!!). I put directions up on the screen (see presentation link below). Each group shared their idea while their classmates listened. After, the rest of the class shared things they liked, questions they had, and suggestions. It was intimidating for some kids, but overall I think it was very helpful! After pitch day, groups debriefed and planned their next steps.

5. Research

An important part of the design thinking process is gathering empathy. We do this a little backwards for this particular project, but it’s still a key part of the unit and it comes in the form of research. For some, this meant scheduling interviews with administrators, counselors, secretaries, teachers, or students. For others, it meant creating Google Form surveys (which I shared with all the teachers for their students to take). All the groups were also expected to do some outside research: find schools that had tried similar plans, gather statistics to support their arguments, etc.

6. Write speech/create handout/design visual presentation

group proposal handouts

As part of their final performance, students must have a handout to give each member of the audience and a presentation to accompany their speech. This process takes a few days because students also have to practice before they present. Since groups would only be performing for the “real audience”, they practiced in front of the rest of the class, which was great for getting a lot of feedback before the big day.

The End Result & Final Thoughts

Finally, the days came for students to present their proposals to administrators, counselors, and other teachers. Groups came to the conference room dressed for the occasion in “business casual” (or at least what they think business casual means). At each seat in the room there were handouts and on the screen a thank you note for taking time out of their day to listen to these presentations the kids had worked so hard on.

group proposalEach group did so well. Sometimes, because I’ve watched them perform all semester long, I watch and think they could have done a little better, but the audience never fails to be dazzled by these young people. Because we used a POV statement this semester, proposals were much more focused and appealing to the administration.  The kids handled the Q&A session like champs–I was seriously impressed by their poise under fire!

All in all, I love this project and implementing the beginning stages of design thinking made the process and final outcome significantly better than past versions.




6 thoughts on “Students Use Design Thinking to Propose Solutions to an Authentic Audience

  1. This is such a neat idea! I wish they would have had a public speaking class when I was in highschool. It sounds like you are giving them a great opportunity to practice their public speaking.

    Teaching Tidbits and More with Jamie


    • I love teaching Public Speaking! I honestly can’t remember if we had it when I was in HS, but I remember taking it in college-ugh!


  2. I love this so much! I can tell it’s higher level grades than what I teach, but I may have to find a way to adapt it to my 7th Grade classroom. It encourages higher order thinking and is super creative. Great post! Thank you for inspiring me! ❤️


    • I definitely think it can be adapted! I linked to the first post I wrote about design thinking that might be more accessible for 7th graders and then the proposal stuff could be slimmed down a bit!


  3. I love this idea of a group proposal! It really helps students to recognize that public speaking requires preparation and this walks them through the whole process. Such an important life skill that many adults still struggle with, myself included. I’d love to adapt this for my second graders!


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