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Designing Lessons: Tips from Improv & Engineering

MAR 6, 2018 | 11:00AM – 1:00PM

Amar Dev

  • ImprovPD

Rachel Fahrig

  • @rfahrig
  • Education Consultant

Pius Wong

  • @piuswong
  • Engineer & STEM Instructor
  • Pios Labs

Activator Question


  • Descriptive activity – with pictures
  • Planting daffodils
  • Nacirema activity
    • American spelled backwards

When Designing Lessons

  • Engagement of Students
  • Creating Community – Culture of Learning
  • Real Life Application
  • Rigor
    • Not well defined
    • Teach to test scores?

End Goal?

  • Standards – Design practice
  • What are you making?

States that write their own standards –

  • South Carolina Education Website – Check it out!
  • Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills – Texas Learning Standards

Part 1: Use improv techniques to help design innovative lessons.

(Research-based improv games)

Arena of Positivity

  • Self-love – burning desire to create
  • Positivity is contagious

General Thoughts

  • Improv is about breaking the rules
  • Yes, and
  • Absurd is good
  • Turn off filter and be creative, what comes to mind?

Partner Activities

  • What do you like about yourself?
      • Partner A keep asking the question, Partner B keeps answering the question
      • Unfiltered responses, vulnerable
      • No rules about length
      • Finish with “I like everything about myself”
        • Modification – I like a lot of things about myself
      • A couple rounds to allow for inspiration
      • Connection with self-consciousness to list things you like
        • Run out of steam and either have to dig deep or you have an out
      • Continually redefine ourselves
        • The moment you say you can’t do something you stop growing
      • Baseline activities
        • What can you grow from this?
        • How can you modify? Or Make your own game?
        • Follow up questions and comments.
  • Yes, I Know (community building)
    • “Yes” validates the other person’s comment or suggestion
    • “And” allows the respondent to add to the thoughts of the partner
    • Always respond with “Yes, I know” no matter what
    • Provide a prompt word to get people started
    • Keep the conversation going for any amount of time
    • Exercise in listening, when people listen it builds people’s confidence
    • Starting in pairs is less daunting than starting in a big circle
  • Yes, I Know (content-themed)
    • When applied to content, even if participants don’t have the answers it can help generate questions and other ideas – cross-curricular and real world application and making personal connections
    • Read prompt or performance indicator or learning target

Written Activities

  • Storyline (9-Word Association or 6-Word Memoir)
    • Choose word to be your starting point
    • Make 9 word associations
    • Compare list of words and find other words that stick out
      • Use second set of words to create lesson plan or assessment




Part 2: Use engineering techniques to help design innovative lessons.

(Engineering thinking, communicating, and collaboration)

Empathic Lead User Analysis

  • Step into the shoes of customer, user, student
  • Designers make better products
  • Talk to customers, focus groups, observers, competitive products, user needs
    • Stated needs
  • How do you listen to unsaid or unstated needs?
  • Lead User – Who is going to run the product into the ground, every day, extraordinary conditions
    • Tent
      • put up tent at 3am in the dark
      • Solo construct with manual difficulties
  • Empathic – read peoples minds
    • Understand peoples background and emotions
    • What does the user care about
  • How do you simulate Lead User conditions?
    • Wear 100 pound weight suit
    • Turn all the lights out
    • Voice thoughts aloud and debrief afterwards
      • Build empathy and generate ideas

Who are your Lead Users? (Extraordinary or Extremes)

  • Homeless students – live in cars
  • Work @ 4 in the morning
  • Get their siblings off to school in the morning
  • Drive their parents to work
  • No electricity, food or internet or phone
  • More responsible than their parents
  • Substance abusers
  • Learning Disability
  • Physical Disability
  • G/T students
  • Behaviour Students

How Can You Simulate Lead Users?

  • Replace letters in a text to simulate dyslexia
  • Translate powerpoints into a different language
  • Take away resources, pen, paper, tech, phone

Observations from Facilitators Empathic Lead User Testing

  1. What was effective about that lesson?
  2. What was missing from the lesson?
  3. What ideas do you have for improving your own lessons?
  4. Other key questions
    1. How engaged were you?
    2. What did you learn?

Lead Users

  • User with hearing loss – ear plugs or head phones
  • User with vision loss – blindfolds and sunglasses

Science Lesson

  • User with hearing loss – ear plugs or head phones
    • Vocab words listed out
    • Discussion transcribed
  • User with vision loss – blindfolds and sunglasses
    • Describing buddy
    • Tactile experiences
  • Gen ed classroom – freshman level course
    • Integrated physics and chemistry – foundations
    • Lab based – content separate – connect content as much as possible
  • No current accommodations – more feedback
  • Density – take up certain amounts of space and certain amounts particles in that space
  • Oil on top of water
    • Add alcohol with food coloring
    • Should have three layers due to differing densities

Math Lesson

  • User with hearing loss – ear plugs or head phones
    • Some with just one ear plug
    • Realize how much fear there is for students to respond incorrectly

Improv Lesson

  • User with vision loss – blindfolds
  • Toes touching for a tactile response to communicate

Experience your classroom.Simulate blind and deaf students (randomly pass out ear plugs and eye blinds to a few members of each group-group of about 10)

ACTIVITY: Icebreaker: Say adjective then your name around circle

Then start with a word and then the next person needs to say a word based on the previous word in the circle


Have participants touch their toes in the circle to create a kinesthetic community.

People say a word that creates the title of the book. When the group complete the title they say books and raise their hands. Then start again.

ACTIVITY: Count from 1-21

Arms over shoulders. Everyone closes their eyes. Group counts one to ten without saying the same number twice. Need to repeat if multiple people say the same number.


  • Designer is also the tester of lesson
  • Have another teacher teach the lesson back to you
  • How are we going to target supports and thoughtfulness for our students, build empathy
  • Peer to peer learning, multiple media of presenting, sharing information
  • Very careful – 100% empathy is near impossible – be sensitive

How do we create great lessons?

  • Act as a catalyst for peer to peer discussion and teaching
  • Sample what it’s like to be the learner – push yourself outside your comfort zone
    • Confront the expert bias
  • Design for Lead User benefits all Users

BOOK: Engineering Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong (

  • We both own a copy and will share for a price.


“What ideas can you take away?”

We design better when we include everybody

~Carolyn and Charlie

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