Critical Problems and Design Solutions | EL Education Curriculum

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ELA 2019 G6:M2

Critical Problems and Design Solutions

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Design thinking makes clear the systematic process that allows innovators to learn and apply techniques to solve critical problems in a creative way. In Module 2, students read the true story of William Kamkwamba in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Young Readers Edition) and how he used design thinking to confront the devastating effects of famine in his country, Malawi. In response to this seemingly insurmountable problem, William spent countless hours in the local library, reading science textbooks and searching for a possible solution. Through careful research, and after many rounds of trial and error, William used available materials and scraps from the local junkyard to construct a windmill that brought electricity to his community, allowing kids to study into the evening, adults to recharge their mobile phones, and water pumps to irrigate the fields and produce more abundant harvests. Propelled by unshakable perseverance, a keen awareness of his community's needs, and compassion for those suffering around him, William models how innovative thinkers can leverage design thinking to address critical problems in their own communities. Inspired by this concept, students work towards a performance task in which they research and present another innovative solution designed to address a critical issue. For this Solution Symposium, students interact with their audience to explain how design thinking and habits of character led to the development of a successful solution.

In Unit 1, students read the first nine chapters of the anchor text, building background on William Kamkwamba and the problems William's community faced in rural Malawi, in a village with limited resources and access to education. Through two Language Dives using key sentences in the anchor text and a close read of a supplemental text, students practice identifying the central idea, citing textual evidence, analyzing how individual sentences contribute to the development of a text's central ideas, and determining the meaning of words and phrases in a text.

In Unit 2, students finish reading the text, and demonstrate their continued reading-skill development in the Mid-Unit 2 Assessment, which uses an excerpt from the text to assess students' abilities to interpret the figurative and connotative meanings of unfamiliar words, analyze information portrayed in various media formats, and explain how a small portion of a text contributes to the central idea. By clearly delineating the many problems William faced, students see how each was addressed through science, research, and habits of character, like perseverance. With the support of explicit mini lessons on research skills, students then begin independent research on an innovator who, like William, designed a product to solve a critical problem. These research skills are assessed in the End of Unit 2 Assessment.

Through writing a collaborative informational essay about William in the first half of Unit 3, students deepen their understanding of the design thinking process and explore how William Kamkwamba used this process to solve a problem. The unit builds towards the performance task, a Solution Symposium, at which students present and share interactive displays of their research on an innovative solution to a critical problem. The Solution Symposium engages audience members in a conversation in which the student shares his or her answers to the following questions: (1) how was design thinking used to solve this problem and (2) how were habits of character used to solve this problem? Following the symposium, as the End of Unit 3 Assessment, students will collaborate to discuss how habits of character help people like those featured in their research solve critical problems.

Notes from the Designer

The anchor text, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, offers impactful and engaging examples of critical problems and their design solutions. William's perseverance, compassion, and willingness to try (and fail) highlight the role of character in solving critical community problems. However, in emphasizing the impact of the famine faced by William and his Malawian community, this text features occasional passages that may be difficult for students to read, as they detail the suffering felt by William and others in his village. Other elements of the text may also require heightened attention and sensitivity; for instance, told through the eyes of William as he grows up in an impoverished village, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind presents a somewhat singular picture of Africa as poor, rather than as the diverse, heterogeneous continent that it is. The design of this module supports students as they process challenging passages, sensitive content, and/or textual information in need of additional context. Across lessons, notes emphasize specific passages that may require special attention and offer suggestions to help students interpret and process the text's content with strength, empathy, and a questioning spirit. Instructional decisions throughout the module also equip students with the literacy skills necessary to interpret the writers' choices, situate content with a larger problem-solution text structure, and responsibly challenge content with which they may disagree.

Guiding Questions and Big Ideas

How can design thinking help solve a critical problem?

  • Design thinking is a scientific and systematic practice of inquiry that allows for creativity and innovation.
  • Design thinking requires scientists to identify and research problems, build prototypes, test and evaluate solutions, and redesign as needed.

What habits of character can help solve a critical problem to contribute to a better community?

  • Effective learners demonstrate perseverance when they research, build prototypes, reflect, and revise.
  • Ethical people contribute to a better world by applying their learning to help one's school, community, and the environment.

Content Connections

This module is designed to address English Language Arts standards and to be taught during the literacy block. But the module intentionally incorporates science content that may align to additional teaching during other parts of the day. These intentional connections are described below.

Next Generation Science Standards

Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science Performance Expectation

  • ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems
    • MS-ETS1-1: The more precisely a design task's criteria and constraints can be defined, the more likely it is that the designed solution will be successful.
  • ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions
    • MS-ETS1-4, MS-ETS1-3: A solution needs to be tested, and then modified on the basis of the test results, in order to improve it.
  • ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution
    • MS-ETS1-4: The iterative process of testing the most promising solutions and modifying what is proposed on the basis of the test results leads to greater refinement and ultimately to an optimal solution.

Earth and Space Science Performance Expectation

  • MS-ESS3: Earth and Human Activity
  • ESS3.A: Natural Resources
    • Humans depend on Earth's land, ocean, atmosphere, and biosphere for many different resources. Minerals, fresh water, and biosphere resources are limited, and many are not renewable or replaceable over human lifetimes. These resources are distributed unevenly around the planet as a result of past geologic processes. (MS-ESS3-1)

Physical Sciences Performance Expectation

  • MS-PS3: Energy
  • PS3.A: Definitions of Energy
    • Motion energy is properly called kinetic energy; it is proportional to the mass of the moving object and grows with the square of its speed. (MS-PS3-1)
    • A system of objects may also contain stored (potential) energy, depending on their relative positions. (MS-PS3-2)
  • PS3.C: Relationship Between Energy and Forces
    • When two objects interact, each one exerts a force on the other that can cause energy to be transferred to or from the object. (MS-PS3-2)

Technology and Multimedia

  • Online word processing tool: Complete note-catchers. Students complete their note-catchers and compose their essays online.
  • Speech-to-text/text-to-speech tool: Compose essays. Increase writing fluency by allowing students to fill in note-catchers and compose essays using this function.
    • Many newer devices already have this capability; there are also free apps for this purpose.
  • Online parent communication tool: Create student learning portfolios. Video/audio record students presenting their Solution Symposium presentations to share their work with other students and families.
  • TED Talks: Explore innovative designers. Students choose a topic for their research from a curated list of TED Talks. Students become familiar with the TED institution and the benefit of this resource.
  • Moving Windmills Project: Build background on William Kamkwamba's accomplishments. Students can explore images to better visualize William's village and windmill. They also learn about William's continued success since first appearing on TED.
  • Student-friendly design websites: Understand design thinking in everyday life. Students can watch videos, play games, and take on projects all on the topic of design thinking. 

Refer to each Unit Overview for more details, including information about what to prepare in advance.

Optional: Community, Experts, Fieldwork, Service, and Extensions


  • Invite members of the community (parents, administrators, other students, etc.) in to view the students' performance tasks. Students could also record their presentations for the Solution Symposium using a video recording app, such as Seesaw, to then share with an outside audience at a different time.
  • Set up a TEDx Conference at the school. Information about hosting a TEDx event can be found on the TED website.


  • If a local TED or TEDx conference is being held nearby, invite experts to meet with and talk to students.
  • Read the description on The Laboratory website. Build excitement about and relevance around students' work by showing them how the skills they are applying in this module extend into college and beyond.
  • Emphasize for students the iterative nature of the design thinking process by inviting guests into the classroom to discuss how they learned from their failures and built on this experience to improve their own skills or products.


  • Search for a local TEDx conference and arrange to attend with students.
  • Share a documentary such as Dream Big, that celebrates the human ingenuity responsible for engineering feats such as the Great Wall of China and SpaceX's Hyperloop.


  • Set up a design challenge to address a critical problem in the school or local community. Guide students through the design thinking process to come up with a solution. Explore examples from EL Education's Better World Day initiative to gain inspiration.


  • Several podcasts have individual episodes or entire libraries of episodes all focused on the power of effective design. Invite students to listen to the TED Radio Hour podcast episode entitled "The Power of Design." For students interested in a deeper dive of this topic, suggest the podcast 99 Percent Invisible, every episode of which explores the subtle ways in which design and architecture shape our world.


Each unit file includes supporting materials for teachers and students, including homework materials and guidance for supporting English language learners throughout the unit.


Each unit in the 6-8 Language Arts Curriculum has two standards-based assessments built in, one mid-unit assessment and one end of unit assessment. The module concludes with a performance task at the end of Unit 3 to synthesize students' understanding of what they accomplished through supported, standards-based writing.

Performance Task

Solution Symposium

The performance task is a student-hosted Solution Symposium during which students present the problem and design-solution that they researched in Unit 2 and about which they wrote a problem-solution essay in Unit 3. To prepare for the Solution Symposium, students create flip-down visual representations of their essay content and post these visuals for the Solution Symposium event.

Texts and Resources to Buy

Texts and resources that need to be procured. Please download the Required Trade Books and Resources Procurement List for procurement guidance.

Text or Resource Quantity ISBNs
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Young Readers Edition)
by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
one per student
ISBN: 9780147510426


Each module is approximately 6-8 weeks of instruction, broken into 3 units. The Module-at-a-Glance charts, available on the grade level landing pages, provide a big picture view of the module, breaking down the module into a week-by-week outline. It shows how the module unfolds, the focus of each week of instruction, and where the six assessments and the performance task occur.

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