DT in the Latin Classroom

Now that I’ve working more with design thinking and have learned how powerful of a mindset it can be for creativity and innovation, I’ve been trying to infuse it into my Latin classrooms. It’s not always easy to move through the entire design thinking process in a Latin course, but I believe it can be done—and done well—in at least a few ways. In particular, since language programs are the perfect content areas for “discovery”, I’m using a design thinking approach to do this kind of work with my students (on which I’ve written in more detail here) by building empathy for a society of people who lived in a very different world than ours.

I’ve been exploring using a “gamified” structure in my 7th-grade Latin IA course in the past two years, in which we have a number of thematic “modules” containing both grammatical and cultural content. In each module, we cover the grammar and vocabulary necessary for the course, then do a project around the cultural theme. Our first module focused on ancient geography to give our students a context for their study of the language, and students were asked to build interactive maps to help build an understanding of how geography affected how people lived within the Roman world.

First, we did some research about cities and travel in the ancient world, relying heavily on Stanford’s excellent ORBIS tool (Google Maps for the ancient world). Students worked in pairs to select a city, discover some historical significance about it, learn how far it was from Rome in days, distance, and cost, and figure out how one would have traveled from Rome to that city.

After each group submitted their research into a Google Form, we used it to build one collaborative map for the class in Google’s My Maps (formerly Maps Engine) containing all their data. Because Google can’t locate every ancient city, students had to note the modern country in which the ancient city can be found, before adjusting their location pin. Students then used ORBIS to draw the travel route between Rome and their chosen city. Our Period 9 map looks like:

In complement to our design mindset, we’re in the process of building a “Yes, and…” culture in our classroom that governs how we interact with each other. That’s to say, whenever we’re sharing ideas, we’re very careful to “Yes, and…” each of our classmates’ thoughts, rather than being the “Yeah, but…” type (thanks to +Eric Saibel  for directing me to Dave Morris’ brilliant “The Way of Improvisation” TED Talk that shows how valuable saying “yes” can be!).

With that in mind, I then asked our students a few questions through Canvas (our LMS) about travel in the ancient world, using our “Discovery” goals as the driver for the questions. In other words, I encouraged them to consider how travel affected people first and foremost by imagining that they were the ones taking these trips.

  • How do you think travel affected communication in the ancient world? What was it like to travel?
  • How different is our world today, thanks to the speed with which we can communicate?
  • In general, what are the benefits of travel? Does it shape our thinking about people and ideas, and if so, how?
Students used what they learned through making their maps not only to post a response but also to respond to their classmates’ ideas with our “Yes, and…” approach. I was amazed at the quality of the posts that they shared, and I was quite surprised that 37 students generated over 100 total posts in a single day. Just a few of the responses to their peers’ posts:
  • “I agree with this a lot, I like the way you mentioned how business can expand!”
  • “I fully agree, the communication has improved a lot and long distance communications aren’t very difficult. In the ancient world, communicating would take a lot of effort, money, and time.”
  • “I think you make very good points in why traveling was a necessity in ancient times and the benefits to travel.”
  • “I totally agree with how you mentioned that you can know about world events almost instantly, while hundreds of years ago, you wouldn’t know for months, or maybe more than a year.”
To close the project, we followed up the online discussion with an in-class activity comparing ancient to modern travel. I divided the class into an “Ancient” group and a “Modern” group, and students then had to think about positive and negative things about travel according to their assigned perspective, based on some of the ideas they saw in the Canvas discussion. They wrote ideas on Post-It notes, with one idea per note, and then stick them onto a white board that was organized in “+” and “-” squares for each idea (cf. the picture below). Finally, students had a chance to examine each other’s ideas (as well as previous classes’ ideas when possible), before crafting an argument explaining the positives and negatives for each group, again focusing on how geography affected people living in the ancient world.
Thoughts on Travel in the Ancient and Modern Worlds
Frankly, I expected most, if not all, of the discussion to favor modern travel for convenience and speed; but I was surprised when a number of students said that ancient travel would have been more fun and exciting, since we would have had the opportunity to explore more different types of geography and people. It would have taken at least 5 years for an average person to save enough money to travel from Rome to Londinium (ancient London) over the course of a month (at best!), to be sure; but imagine what we could have seen on the trip! Without any prompting on my part, some were saying that we should focus on the journey rather than the destination whenever possible, which helped us to discuss why travel is so valuable in the first place.
So, we didn’t prototype anything, but I still think we found a successful way to bring some design thinking into the study of a dead language by discovering how geography determined to a large extent how people interacted with each other. In subsequent projects I’ll continue to explore how we can continue to build a designer’s mindset through studying Latin.