Design Thinking: developing inquiry and questioning

This post describes a practical session I ran with a group of teachers and some of their year 7 & 8 students. I have been working with them for 18 months now and have got to know them well. This was our very last session together. It takes us through a design thinking process to explore how to generate inquiry questions and support an inquiry process for learning. A Design Thinking process also aligns with the principles of the Technology Learning Area and supports how teachers can approach integrating the Digital Technologies Curriculum content across the curriculum.

I had decided, given the time (4 hours) to use the analogy of a play in three acts to structure the session;

The Prologue aligns with opening minds to ideas, to getting to know the content, to getting to know each other, to exploring (Te Pō)

Act 1 is brainstorming, ideating, blue sky thinking (Te Wehenga)

Act 2: Scene 1 is identifying a question, exploring ideas more deeply, trying ideas out, refining, seeking feedback (Te Ao Marama and Te Whakaata)

Act 2: Scene 2 is redeveloping, improving, refining, reflecting, iterating, improving, taking action. (Te Ao Tangata and Te Whakahua)


The prologue is all about opening ideas, setting a ‘safe’; environment, whanaungatanga or getting to know each other. We started with looking at what made an effective team and I used an activity from Gamestorming called “Forming, Norming and Storming”. This asked you to consider how you would FORM a team, who you might work with, why, what strengths each of you brought to the team. Then to explore what your ways of working would be – your NORMS – what ‘rules’ or ‘expectations you might have of each other as you worked together, how you might ensure that everyone had a voice and all opinions were valued. Finally, what would you do if relationships started to break down, how you would weather a STORM, what strategies you might adopt to support each other and mend broken bridges.  I am unsure if this might have been a better activity to do later on as a starting activity once everyone had already decided who they would work with. My original thought was that it was useful to think about how to form teams, especially for the students when they tend to pick their friends to work with rather than focus on the kaupapa. In a later session with another school, where there were no children, I included it later on and it worked well as a whanaungatanga activity for the teams to establish ways of working together.

We moved on to a Survival Kit activity in which I asked the participants to make a list of 10 things you would put in a survival kit. I was deliberately vague about the context because I wanted them to have some ‘fuzziness’ about their goal and think broadly.  My aim here was to provoke some thinking but also to set up for an activity later in the session. 

We talked then a bit about the design thinking process and “Fuzzy Goals” and how to start off with your goal might not be well-defined and that’s ok. You can refine and define it more tightly as you explore and go through the process. Your goal might be along a continuum – you sort of have an idea of where we want to go, but there may be a roundabout way to get there. A fuzzy goal ‘motivates the general direction without blinding us to opportunities to divert, explore, pivot on the way, it allows us to follow our intuition.’

Act 1: Blue Sky Thinking

Next step was prompting some thinking. I brought along two artefacts. I specifically chose these as I felt they had a connection to the place I was in and also because I thought they would appeal to the students’ sense of curiosity and because they provided a wide scope for questions.

I gave everyone the chance to look at them, touch, examine and asked them to ‘wonder’ about them. We used “Opening Questions” 

These types of question encourage us to think widely, creatively, create divergence and variation, provide opportunities, they are part of getting to know each other and laying out the ground rules

  • What are ….? 
  • What do you think….?
  • Why…?
  • Tell me about….
  • What do you notice?
  • What is it for?

I asked them to generate as many questions and ideas as they could, blue-sky thinking, think big, be daring, be bold. Then they developed a question that they wanted to pursue – the time was pretty tight for this on purpose. It wasn’t the time to really dig deeply into an issue; it was a time to identify something that sparked curiosity, that they thought they might like to explore further, a time to develop a question and not a solution, a time to work out whether it was a question that was easily answered using a Google search or whether it was a question they needed to do a bit more thinking about. When we want our students to develop questions, we don’t really want them to come up with a question for which the answer is searchable, they need to wrangle a little with it, to come up with a solution that is new, innovative, that will make a difference. 

After a one minute pitch in which they briefly explained what their question or curiosity was, said what they had already learnt and stated what they wanted to explore further, they displayed their ideas on large sheets of paper and then everyone looked at them and ‘voted’ on the ones that they liked or thought they might want to explore further using sticky stars that I had provided them with.  At this point, they could choose to stick with their own idea or go with someone else’s.  We talked about ‘holding an idea lightly’ as this is just a starting point and springboard to further research. They formed teams of no less than 2 (in a bigger group you might stipulate that groups couldn’t be less than 3) and moved on to the next act. 

Act 2; Scene 1

Now it was time to work in teams – we revisited briefly the ‘Forming, Norming and Storming” activity we had done at the start as they worked together – and start to really delve more deeply into their question and do some research. The idea here was to develop more fully what their question or problem was, it was still not time to come up with a solution. It was a time to gather information about the topic. In a classroom situation here, this might be the time for some direct instructional teaching that might arise as needed. It might be point where, as you work with the kids, you identify gaps in their knowledge and work with them all together or in small groups. It might also be a time where you just observe and provide feedback, you may need to facilitate conversations if you spot that relationships are strained, that not everyone has a voice in their group. 

It was time for introducing Examining Questions that help us to find out more about something, to deeply learn and understand. (Marama pū)

  • What is it made of?
  • How does it work?
  • What is it for?
  • What are all the parts?
  • Can you describe…?

Explorative Questions follow on from Examining Questions and prompt us to use our imagination and think about possibilities. It is important at this point that we are still very open-minded and encourage creative, whacky ideas.  They force expansion on new points of view and uncovered areas. 

  • What else works like this?
  • What if all the barriers were removed?
  • What are we missing?
  • What could we do to improve….?
  • How could it be redeveloped, re-imagined…?
  • Have you thought of…?

Affective questions which reveal people’s feelings about something. How do you feel about…?

Reflective questions that encourage more elaboration. What do you think causes…?

Probing questions that invite a deeper examination. Can you describe how…?

Analytical questions that look for the roots of a problem. What are the causes of…?

Act 2: Scene 2

After they had had a chance to do some exploration and research they had to prepare and deliver another One Minute Update to the whole group to explain what their problem was, whether it had diverted from their original, what they had learnt, what they saw as things that could support them and what might hold them back as they explored further, what else they needed to know and what support you might need.  

They reflected afterwards that this was a valuable way to keep kids on track as they worked, it was a useful way of seeing what progress they had made and it was extremely valuable for them as participants to have to stop and focus on where they were, and what they needed to do next as it was easy to fall down rabbit holes when they were researching. A teacher’s role as a facilitator in this would be to provide feedback to the groups as they presented, to ensure that One Minute Updates were only one minute, and to then follow up with any support that they felt they needed. You may also identify support that they need that they weren’t aware of! This is also a place where you could bring in outside expertise. If the kids are working on an issue around pollution, for example, you might get them to approach the Environment Agency to answer some specific questions.

We returned to our Survival Kits for a follow-up activity. This was designed for two reasons;

  • a brain break, to take them away from what might be a bit of a fug as you grapple and to possibly break any tension. As a teacher, if you were working with a whole class, you might introduce a brain break at different times for each group as you notice that they are going round in circles or struggling in their team. It is useful for kids to start to identify these points and have a range of strategies to use. 
  • to model how useful it is to prioritise and to learn how to identify things which you might think are essential to solve your problem but aren’t really – to hold your ideas lightly.

I asked them to take their 10 essential survival items and lay them out in order of importance. This is an individual activity so also provides time to think without lots of white noise around.  Then they compared with others in their group and had to explain why they chose those items in the first place and why they were now in that order. They also had the chance to change the order after discussion. The crunch came when I asked them to take 5 away. Some of them simply took away the bottom 5 but then reconsidered – were they really the least important now they couldn’t have them at all? 

Other brain break activities could be;

Creativity 12 basic symbols 

You can create anything from these 12 basic symbols. This and the following activity (Squiggle Birds) are fun activities to show that you can create anything with some imagination but that constraints are often a good thing to help focus and develop creativity


Start with using them to form the numbers 0 – 9

Then use them to draw 5 different cats or dogs…


Squiggle Birds is a really quick activity which gets people used to stretching their visual thinking muscles. Just get everyone to draw random squiggles on a blank piece of paper and then add a beak, wings, a tail and feet on them so they look like birds. It’s surprisingly easy and demonstrated that our mind is wired to make patterns, that we don’t need a heap of drawing skills to convey an idea. You don’t even have to use birds – try anything!


Act 3: Prototype/Te Whakaata & Test / Te Ao Tangata

We didn’t have time for this part but it is the point where lots of wrangling goes on, the discussions get messy, you start to get confused and your direction sometimes just doesn’t seem clear. Your goal seems to be getting fuzzier but it is the time to really focus in on it and remind yourselves what you are aiming for.  Research sends you off down rabbit holes but you have to start to narrow down the options, set actions, roles, and timeframes. Another One Minute Update in this phase is useful to keep focus and to reset. The feedback from the facilitator/mentor at this point is crucial to support kids to stay in touch, to feel like they are making progress and to encourage them to think of opening up their minds again as they may have got bogged down. At this stage, you would also gather some feedback from outside your own group about the validity of your idea – if you are working on a product to sell and nobody actually needs or wants it, there is little point in continuing. If your presentation is confused and unclear to the recipient then you will need to re-evaluate and re-design. You would use the Closing Questions to focus on selection, decision making, commitment and action. We need to make some decisions, really narrow down the options and select one to move forward with.

  • What do we need to prioritise?
  • What is feasible?
  • What can we do in the short, medium and longterm?
  • Who is going to do what?

A final presentation to conclude should be short and sweet; 3 – 5 minutes to present then some questions. The actual product or documentation that goes along with the presentation should be appropriate to the issue or problem. It might be a website, a written report, a video, an app, a physical artefact but the presentation that goes with it needs to explain clearly;

  • What the problem or question was that you were seeking to address
  • What you learnt
  • What the enablers and blockers were
  • What your solution is
  • How it will help others
  • What you see the next steps would be

Feedback for One Minute Updates and for the Final Presentation should come from the floor, encourage everyone to be involved in the feedback process. It is an opportunity also for kids to learn about giving and receiving effective, respectful, critical feedback and forward.

For our session, we finished off with a reflective activity. We had talked before about the importance of reflecting on our mahi and what we have learnt and how it can help us as we set goals and actions for the future. I asked them in their groups to reflect on these 5 things:

We spent a good 20 minutes on this and I used the 1 – 2 – 4 – many approach – time first of all for them to think individually, then time to share in a pair, then share as a group and then feedback to the whole group. This gives people time to think if they ‘think to talk‘ people and then still time for those who are ‘talk to think‘ people.  The feedback was hugely valuable for me as a facilitator and for them as teachers and learners, we discussed as a group what they had written and had a chance to question each other and clarify. One comment from each of the elements;

Positive aspects; “Learning with the teachers and getting involved.”

Things you have learnt: “The benefit of working together and sharing ideas. Also the importance of focusing ideas to get a clear idea of what I’m researching.”

Stand out moments: “Reporting back to the group: so neat to see the variety of ideas that can come out of the stimulus provided and the enthusiasm to share ideas. It’s okay to think differently.”

Something I struggled with: “Going off on tangents whilst researching.”

Actions: I would like to use this with my class in future to generate enthusiasm for a topic and a process for effective research.”

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