Being based out of the Mount Vernon School, Muont Vernon Ventures has the privilege of seeing Design Thinking and Student Agency happening all around us. We recently published a story before the winter holidays regarding work being done on the Upper Campus that involved humanities students being given a large amount of freedom in empathy based PBL (project based learning). Today, we want to turn our focus to the Founders Campus students and a multi-week project being done in the grade 5 math classes that continues to highlight the buy-in and craftsmanship that can happen when students are given freedom and choice.

Next week we’ll conclude this in-depth classroom series as we look at how Darlington School has begun to implement Design Thinking in multiple areas of their school.


This is an edited and expanded cross-post from Mount Vernon Presbyterian School’s blog. Original post can be found here.

When students in Ben Hendry’s and Margaret Gunter’s grade 5 math classes were asked to create 3-dimensional models related to something about which they were passionate, they weren’t yet sure how it would relate to math. The only stipulation for the project was that the final piece was to be comprised of rectangular prisms. Since choice was a major component of the assignment, students were encouraged to be creative when exploring inspiration for their individual models.


According to Mr. Hendry, the students were surprised by just how much choice they were allowed. When interviewing the students about their work, it became clear that with choice came investment and craftsmanship; nearly every hand rose when asked who wanted to share the details of their work and the excitement shown when presenting and discussing why a subject was chosen was immense. Learning outcomes were based in understanding mathematical concepts but what the students presented was ultimately up to them. The majority of students created their final projects using graph and grid paper, but one student, in particular, decided to work with 3-d modeling software. (Concepts included: factoring the area of each face, formulating the total surface area, and determining the volume. In addition to the numerical values discovered for each project, students communicated the background for their interest, descriptions of their mathematical notations, and specific step-by-step plans, should anyone want to recreate the item.)

Final project topics included pollution (oil to water dilution), favorite books, athletics (football field representation), house modeling, and forestry. See below for a sampling of the projects and student reflections.


We often hear that math and science classes are the hardest to implement design thinking and student agency. The work is often expressed as needing to be formulaic and having to include certain pre-requisites to establish baselines of understanding, there are just things you have to know to move to higher disciplines. The deeper question is how we create those building blocks and how we lay those foundations. We have to recognize that when students are engaged, and when students are exploring their interests and passions, the work will reflect the buy-in. Even small amounts of choice can help push the needle and create an environment that leads to higher levels of learning.

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