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One School’s Leap Into Design Thinking, Part I

design thinking, IDEOWe often start brainstorms with the phrase, “How Might We” (HMW, for short). We use these three words because they help frame a problem in an open-ended, optimistic, and collaborative way. “How” assumes there are solutions out there. “Might” says some of the ideas may work, others won’t—either way, it’s OK. And “We” says we’re going to solve the problem together by building on each other’s ideas. – Tim Brown,

Successful schools turn out students who are creative problem solvers; students who think critically, and without fear of failure, about improving our world through asking questions, showing empathy, and collaboration.   To achieve this goal, educators must develop a culture in which students are given the opportunity to discover problems for themselves, the time to think and tinker, the access to each other and the world outside of school, and, perhaps most importantly, the trust that they are capable of accomplishing great meaningful things without the constant intervention of adults and systems of compliance.  More often than not, this sort of culture runs up against the traditions of how schools work.  The time has come for schools to embrace a shift of culture and to change the way school works for the benefit of student learning and student initiative.

This past summer I came across the idea of Design Thinking (DT) and how it can be used in schools.  Through my exposure to the Design Thinking mindset, which I can attribute mainly to the wonderful educators who take part in the #dtk12chat Twitter chat each week (Wed 9-10pm EST), I have come to learn that by using certain DT processes a school can begin to make the kind of culture shift I mention above.  With this in mind, I have made the infusion of DT attitudes into both classrooms and faculty meetings one of my goals for this year.  Inspired by a visit to Mount Vernon Presbyterian, an Atlanta independent school committed to a DT way of life, I began looking for opportunities to inject the power of HMW into our environment.  When it came time to assess the effectiveness of our new daily schedule, I knew I had found a starting point.


This year is the first year using a new daily schedule that had been overhauled through a nearly two year process.  As with any new schedule, there have been some bumps along the way, but the overall feeling after one semester is that it is working well.  Thinking like good designers, we have seen the need for some tweaks to this new schedule, so that we may deliver our program even more effectively.  Though we do not desire a complete blowup and redesign, I decided to approach this from the beginning of a design process.

Step 1: Discovery – This phase will take place in two waves, so that we may work on refining our challenge and collecting data from the two main sets of users of our schedule: teachers and students.  At our January teacher in-service, we gathered as a middle school faculty to collect data from thinking

  • We employed a Chalk Talk protocol adapted from the National School Reform Faculty, whose model of Critical Friends’ Groups we have used for our own PLC groups for two years.  This was intentionally done so that the teachers would be familiar and comfortable with the process.  Through this protocol we allowed unlimited viewpoints on what they would keep and what they would change in the schedule and asked teachers to write on sticky notes and post in the appropriate areas.  There are very real limitations on what is possible within our schedule, i.e. facilities, staffing, finances, etc., but it was important for us to disregard those at this stage of the process.
  • Next, we asked the teachers to Affinity Map (see the NSRF link above for explanation) their responses, keeping in mind the differences between schedule changes that have a direct effect on student learning and delivering the program and those that have more to do with teacher convenience.  These categories were certainly not a judgement of responses, just a way to honestly assess the issues raised.
  • After all the data was collected and categorized, I processed the data to prepare it for our next step.

design thinkingThe second wave of the Discovery step will take place in a couple of weeks during a non-cycle day with our students.  We will guide them through a similar process, so that we may have an equally important data set with which to work.  During our faculty session, we took a few minutes at the end to discuss strategies for successful data collection with middle school students.  It was important to have this session with teachers first and to have those discussions because we will need teachers to facilitate the student sessions.

Step 2: Interpretation – This phase will likely take place next month.  My intention is to ask our Academic Council to create an Empathy Map based on the data collected through step 1 and through observations and conversations with users.  I hope the result of this process is a set of specific HMW questions about the parts of the schedule that can/should be tweaked.

Step 3: Ideation – The plan would be to take the HMW questions back to the entire faculty and facilitate a brainstorming session that leads to possible solutions and/or schedule prototypes.  The protocols we will use for this step have yet to be determined.  We will also think about how we can include students into this phase of the process as well.


While it is a bit early to have too many reflections on this process, I can say that it has and will serve many purposes.  Whether this process is effective in leading us to creative ways to tweak our schedule or not, what it does is model the kinds of activities we would like to see in our classrooms and meetings.  By asking our teachers to reflect, discover problems, and collaborate to devise creative solutions, we are building a culture of trust in which risk-taking initiative is valued.  By helping teachers to find ways to engage their students in similar projects and activities, we are spreading that culture throughout our school.  My hope is that the Design Thinking mindset catches on throughout the administration, faculty, and student body.  With that mindset, we can look forward to innovation and initiative like we have never seen in our community of learners.

**Clearly, we have only just begun this process and there may be many changes along the way.  Please follow along with the series of posts as we move from step to step and don’t hesitate to leave feedback, suggestions, or questions.  I would love to also be able to model to our faculty the power of a PLN to help with projects such as this one.**

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