Making School a Better Place

By Gwynne Richards, October 18, 2009

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • School Design

Subject Area

  • Language Arts

Lesson Time

320 minutes of classroom activities


All schools have problems or areas in which they need to improve. Since students are often affected by these problems, students can benefit by being part of the solutions. In this unit, students will identify problems at school, discuss the relevance/significance of the problems, and choose one problem to improve. In doing so, students will come to a better understanding of topic selection, the importance of looking at solutions in depth/detail, and the persuasive techniques of presenting a desired outcome/solution. These understandings, in turn, relate to the Language Arts standards of verbal communication, working effectively with others, the production of oral presentations that include visual information, and written communication.

National Standards

Language Arts

Standard 1. Level III. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process

4. Evaluates own and others’ writing (e.g., applies criteria generated by self and others, uses self-assessment to set and achieve goals as a writer, participates in peer response groups)

11. Writes compositions that address problems/solutions (e.g., identifies and defines a problem in a way appropriate to the intended audience, describes at least one solution, presents logical and well-supported reasons)

Standard 4. Levels III and IV. Gathers and uses information for research purposes

1. Gathers data for research topics from interviews (e.g., prepares and asks relevant questions, makes notes of responses, compiles responses)

3. Organizes information and ideas from multiple sources in systematic ways (e.g., time lines, outlines, notes, graphic representations)

4. Uses a variety of criteria to evaluate the validity and reliability of primary and secondary source information (e.g., the motives, credibility, and perspectives of the author; date of publication; use of logic, propaganda, bias, and language; comprehensiveness of evidence)

Standard 8. Level III. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes

1. Plays a variety of roles in group discussions (e.g., critical listener, discussion leader, facilitator)

6. Makes oral presentations to the class (e.g., uses notes and outlines; uses organizational pattern that includes preview, introduction, body, transitions, conclusion; uses a clear point of view; uses evidence and arguments to support opinions; uses visual media)

7. Uses appropriate verbal and nonverbal techniques for oral presentations (e.g., inflection/modulation of voice, tempo, word choice, grammar, feeling, expression, tone, volume, enunciation, physical gestures, body movement, eye contact, posture)

Working With Others

Standard 1. Level IV. Contributes to the overall effort of a group

2. Works cooperatively within a group to complete tasks, achieve goals, and solve problems



Students will be able to:

  • identify the basic steps in the design/problem-solving process
  • identify a relevant, valid problem
  • locate, analyze, and use a variety of resources
  • work effectively as a team
  • present an effective oral presentation that incorporates visual materials as support
  • write a self-reflection that identifies the effectiveness of the individual and team choices made during the design process


Computer with Internet access

overhead projector or SmartBoard


  • paper
  • pens
  • markers
  • 11 x 17 drawing paper
  • construction paper
  • dry erase board or overhead projector
  • poster boards
  • Design Process Handouts (See Appendix A)
  • 3 x 5 note cards
  • Problem-Solving Self-Evaluation Form (See Appendix D)


  • client: a person or organization to whom goods or services are provided or sold
  • significant: having a major or important effect
  • valid: being well-grounded on principles or evidence; having a solid foundation or justification


Session 1:

1. Show the image called “Problem-Solving Image” via computer and projector. (See Appendix B.)

2. Ask the class, “What do you see happening in the image?” and “What do you see that makes you say that?”

3. Paraphrase their responses to validate understanding of observation.  Then ask, “What more do you see?”

4. Continue this discussion for a few minutes and then ask the class, “What do we know about the process of problem-solving?”

5. Record responses on a dry erase board or an overhead projector.

6. Continue to elicit responses by asking, “What more do we know?”

7. After a reasonable number of responses have been recorded, tell the class that over the next week, they will all become problem-solvers. Also, at the end of the project, they will review the process and compare it to their original ideas.

8. Ask the students to take out paper and a pen and list at least three problems that exist at school. Allow time for students to create this list. Circulate among the students and prompt those that are having difficulty by asking questions like, “Do you see problems among students?" "Do you see any problems with the building?" "Do you see any problems with any procedures or policies?”

9. Discuss some of the ideas on the list to prompt further thinking about problems.

10. Collect these lists at the end of class and compile all the problems into one list to be used in class during the next session. Make copies for students to use the next session.

Session 2:

1. Distribute the master list of problems generated after the previous session.

2. Ask students to take out pen and paper.

3. Introduce the terms “significant” and “valid” and ask, “Are all the problems on this master list significant and valid?” and ask for an example of one that is and one that isn’t and discuss each so that students see that perhaps not all problems they identified are problems worth solving.

4. Have the students make a three-column chart on their paper with the following headings: Not Actually School Problems; School Problems but Not Significant Enough to Solve; Significant School Problems Worth Solving.

5. Students should then work in groups of three or four to discuss each problem on the master list and talk about the category into which each problem should be placed. Remind them that they don’t all have to agree, but it is important that they discuss each problem. Each student keeps his or her own list as the discussion takes place.

6. After the problems have been categorized, discuss those problems that students may have placed in the Not Actually School Problems category so that if there are any invalid problems, they can be eliminated.

7. Next discuss the problems that students placed in the Significant School Problems category with the intention of finding three or four that the class agrees would be good problems to solve.

8. Finally ask the class to vote to find the one problem they want to solve. That problem becomes the focus of the remainder of the project.

Session 3:

1. Divide the class into teams of four or five and distribute the Design Process Handouts. (See Appendix A.) Ask the class to identify which steps they have already taken and which step is next. Discuss the remaining steps and clarify if necessary.

2. Students are then to redefine the problem so that it is clear and specific. For example, if they chose the problem of  “school lunches,” they need to specify what the specific problem with the school lunches is. A clarification might be “The school lunches are not nutritious.” or “The school does not offer enough choices for lunch.”

3. Introduce the term “client” and ask students to discuss who the client(s) is/are in this design problem.

4. Encourage the teams to identify other people, businesses, organizations, etc. that are possibly involved in the problem other than the clients.

5. Have each team develop a list of questions that need to be asked of the clients and of the other people/groups involved, and bullet list a plan as to how these people will be contacted.

6. Depending on the kind of problem the class has chosen, teachers may also need to introduce the idea of formal research. In this case, ask the teams to consider what the research says about the topic/problem.

7. At this point in the team planning, ask each member of the team should take on a specific role. Choices of roles include: communicator/interviewer, sketcher/drawer, reader/writer, and data collector/analyzer. Students may work in pairs in these roles. Each team member should be ready to begin his or her part of the investigation during the next session.

Session 4:

1. The focus of this session is to investigate the problem and reframe it if necessary.

2. Teams are to conduct their investigations. This may involve interviewing, reading research articles, observing, note taking, sketching, gathering of physical evidence/examples, taking photos, and analyzing the information gathered. Remind students that some or all of this “evidence” may later become part of their presentations.

3. As teams gather information, ask them the following questions: Has your investigation affected your initial reaction to the challenge? Did you correctly identify the problem? If not, what really is the problem?

Session 5:

1. Review the term “brainstorm” as a whole class.

2. Then have students participate in a role-playing activity that helps illustrate what brainstorming is and what it is not.

3. Break a group into pairs. One person tries to plan a party and makes suggestions to the other person. The other person has to say "No" to every idea and must give a reason why it won’t work. For example, the first person might say, “Let’s plan a party for Saturday night,” and the second person would say, “No, I have to wash my hair.” This goes on for a few minutes, as the first person continues to get more and more frustrated trying to come up with any idea the second person will accept. Once this runs its course, the roles switch and the second person takes on the job of planning a party. The first person has to say “Yes” to everything and must build on the idea. For example, “Let’s have a party on Saturday night.” The response might be, “Yes, and I’ll bring a cake.” This goes on for a while and the ideas can get wilder. In some cases the parties end up under water or on another planet, and involve all sorts of exotic food and entertainment. (Source:

4. Lead a class discussion about why the first pair got frustrated and why the second pair did not.

5. Summarize this discussion so that the students have a list of the Dos and Don’ts of Brainstorming. Keep this list posted for future reference.

6. Distribute several pages of 11 x 17 drawing or construction paper and markers to each team. Teams then begin brainstorming solutions. The goal is to get as many solutions as possible. Remind students to not eliminate any ideas and to suggest unusual/creative ideas. Teacher should circulate and encourage creative thinking, remind students of the brainstorming guidelines, and prompt students when necessary. Each team should record ideas through writing, sketching, modeling, or diagramming. Remind teams that these artifacts may later become part of their presentations to help explain their thinking.

Session 6:

1. Teams should share their ideas for solutions with clients if possible. However, if that is not possible, teams should pair up and share their solution(s). Teams should ask eachother the following questions after they have shared their ideas: What’s the strongest part of the solution and why? Is there anything you think we should do differently and why?  Did we leave anything out of the solution?

2. After receiving this feedback, teams should begin to finalize the solution.

3. Distribute copies of the Presentation Rubric and discuss requirements of teams’ presentations. (See Appendix C.) Also distribute poster board and markers. (Note: All students must be part of the oral presentations.)

4. Presentations should also include the following:
  • An introduction to the problem.
  • An explanation of how the problem was validated by the team.
  • The details of the solution.
  • An explanation of how the solution was validated by the team.

These guidelines can be written on a dry erase board or an overhead projector.

5. Distribute 3 x 5 note cards to each student for his or her part of the presentation.

6. Teams should begin preparations for their presentations.

Session 7:

1. Teams should make final preparations for their presentations. Write the following reminders on a dry erase board or an overhead projector:

  • Does each team member have his or her part written in note form on 3 x 5 index cards?
  • Are your team’s visual artifacts ready for display?
  • Have you addressed the criteria in the rubric and the four guidelines given in class?
  • Have you rehearsed the presentation?

Session 8:

1. Students will need paper and pens on which to take notes.

2. Each team then gives their presentation. As each team presents, other students are to take notes on the various solutions. Students will use these notes in a follow-up activity.

3. Assesssment (see below).


After the presentations are completed, distribute the "Problem-Solving Self-Evaluations." (See Appendix D.)  Each team member completes one and turns it in.

Enrichment Extension Activities

Students will later write a problem solution essay using the problem they investigated and the notes they took during the teams’ presentations.

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