In the 26 years that I have worked in education, I’ve seen a lot of fads come and go. Most of these ideas seem promising but don’t stand up to scrutiny from teachers or the test of time. However, Design Thinking as a framework for school improvement has the power to be more than just the idea of the day.
We are all Here for the Same Reasons
We choose to become teachers because we care deeply about children and ensuring that they learn and grow. When a child has an “aha moment”, especially if he or she has previously had some difficulty, it gives us the energy to come back and do it all again on another day. As some of us move from being teachers into leadership positions, it is usually because of our desire to create the conditions necessary to bring our work to a larger scale so that those moments of growth occur with greater ease, frequency and for more children. Given that the vast majority of educational leaders come from the field of teaching and that basically, teachers and leaders have the same goal of student growth, we should wonder why there is often a disconnect between teachers and their administrators when it comes to problem solving and change.
As educators, we have the best of intentions as we attempt to solve problems and make improvements in our schools. I’ve never met a school leader who deliberately tried to make things more difficult for teachers or students. And yet, our “solutions” often do just that because we move so quickly to action based on our own personal biases without seeking to understand the situation from the perspective of those who experience it every day.
Design Thinking Shows Great Care About the Experience of Users
The Design Thinking process offers great promise to educators at all levels to improve schools in a way that will bring teachers, leaders and students together rather than creating division. Unlike typical decision-making models, if we use a Design Thinking process, we develop empathy for users prior to the implementation of solutions. In addition, Design Thinking focuses on the creation of multiple prototypes of solutions with the understanding that we will require feedback and several iterations before we find the “right” solution. Design Thinking brings a refreshing move towards deep care about the experience of others rather than a rush to a finding a solution and crossing a problem off of a list.
As an observer of several AK12DC school teams using the Design Thinking process over the course of this school year, I am particularly struck by the changes in problem statements from first drafts developed at the Fall Summit to the current drafts that have continued to develop throughout the winter. As teams worked through empathy interviews and observations, they discovered points of view previously unknown to them. In almost every case, teams found that the problems had multiple facets and complexities that had not been previously known or considered. Even more interesting, and yet hardly surprising, several teams found that their actual problems and eventual prototypes for solutions were quite different than the initial direction given to them by their school leaders.
The lack of alignment between the initial definitions of the problem and how others experience it seems to be the root of the divide that is often created between groups in schools. Imagine how different it could be if we as leaders provided the time and training necessary for staff and students to use the Design Thinking process as a regular part of their routine!
My Lessons Learned
I have had many lessons learned while watching both public and private school teams learn and implement the Design Thinking process this year. I understand that Design Thinking is not an “add on” or “one more thing to do” but rather something that can and should be integrated into school culture. It is inevitable that we deal with problems every day; however, the process that we use to solve them is up to us. The integration of Design Thinking into a school culture allows groups to truly understand and define problems from the point of view of multiple users and eventually to solve problems in ways that create unity rather than division.
My experience with AK12DC and Design Thinking has been invaluable to my growth as a leader and as a person. I now find myself attempting to gain empathy as I think about not only professional but also personal issues. I have found such value in the process that I can’t imagine working in a school setting without it and I look forward to the day that I create and work on a Design Team myself.