Design Thinking, Big Dreams, Many Bets Lead Innovation at Lovett School

Home/Education Innovation Journey of Learning, Governance and leadership, Innovation in Education, Uncategorized/Design Thinking, Big Dreams, Many Bets Lead Innovation at Lovett School

Design Thinking, Big Dreams, Many Bets Lead Innovation at Lovett School

Two indicators that a school visit was overwhelming in terms of important lessons to share: 1) in going back over the camera roll I realized I was so busy I forgot to take but a couple of photos; I really apologize, since the Lovett School campus is gorgeous; 2) I almost got tired just reading over my notes! This post is about a school that has been intentionally and steadily embracing a substantially new learning model across all grade levels so read on for great ideas of process, structure, classroom design, and many grade level examples. There are some great links embedded in this post that would help any school envision new programs in action.

Lovett is a PreK-12 with about 1,600 students in North Atlanta.  I have known and talked about education innovation with Head Billy Peebles, Upper School Principal Bill Dunkel, and chief innovator/imaginer Laura Deisley for a number of years.  In our warm up meeting in the morning, Billy put it simply: “Smart kids have trouble being ambiguous”.  Lovett has been building a structural capability around Laura’s ideas and energy (both tanks full there!), which includes major efforts to extend Lovett beyond its walls through external PD and partnerships, and bringing expertise in to the faculty. Laura has started sitting in the principals’ meetings, which puts learning innovation at the heart of program discussions instead of at a subliminal level.  Billy and his team have made a conscious commitment to “making a lot of small bets, and then giving the faculty as many opportunities to explore as they can think of.  We may increase the size of our bets, but we won’t make ‘organization-threatening’ bets. We can take this approach because we have made those small bets in the past; because we have built a structure of innovation to do it; and because we have been building innovation capacity over time.”

One of their signature transformations is in the Upper School American Studies program that has evolved since 2000 into a truly interdisciplinary course, and formation of the American Studies Institute, which holds a summer conference every two years at Lovett.  An American Studies supervisor works across divisions to facilitate faculty collaboration.  They have reduced the number of major thematic units for the year from a dozen to 6-7 to allow students and teachers to go deeper into both historical and narrative context, and to experiment with ways to make those connections more meaningful. “The typical history class is pretty sorted according to time.  Our program is messier.  We try to look at where narratives blur and show history from different viewpoints.  We push the students into areas of ambiguity, not the areas of clarity.”  They have partnered with the Urban School in San Francisco to research and discuss the 2012 elections, Skyping classes together, discussing media inputs, and contrasting student viewpoints from relatively more conservative southeast and relatively more liberal west coast viewpoints.

My meeting with a group of Upper School faculty expanded on many of these themes as we explored how and why they are shifting the learning experience. I will quote and paraphrase the discussion; as you read ask yourself how many of these conversations are taking place at your school:

  • “If by the end of the year I am irrelevant, I have done my job.”
  • “Students tell me that they have never thought of themselves before as teachers, and now they do.”
  • “We are developing a culture of figuring out what are the essential experiences in the classrooms.  We asked ourselves ‘what are the three things to emphasize and what are three things to let go?’”
  • “Bill (our principal) told us to dream big.”
  • “I am increasingly reaching out to find things I don’t know.
  • “Teachers have to adapt to push students, not the other way around.  I have to push myself in ways that I am not comfortable.”
  • “We don’t know what education will be in 10 years but that does not mean we aren’t imaging it.”
  • “Failure is scary but awesome.”
  •  “I am thinking about trans-disciplinary learning, how my subject connects to other subjects.”
  • “I like my subject but it is less about that than learning for learning sake, and today the value of learning has to include the framework of how subject fits into the entire world.”
  • “Teams of teachers are meeting much more frequently; we are not maximized on this yet, but we have allocated much more time to developing as a group as opposed to just as individuals.”
  • “I am bringing more complexity into the classroom.  I want students to think at multiple and deeper levels. We are trying to get past easy answers; I want students to go to a place that is deeply personal.”

The Middle School adopted the use of collaborative learning partners several years ago, which provide a venue for vetting ideas through colleagues and building new and more adaptive curriculum:

  • In 8th grade, science students select a topic for a yearlong project that looks at some major issue from a global perspective.  They learn a design thinking process as they develop, design, research, write, reach out to external experts, and develop a specific call to action.  Topics have included PTSD in vets, cloning, artificial intelligence, and biological warfare.  Students have check-in points with the teachers, but the work is largely independent.  At year-end, the students give presentations to other classes, outside experts and mentors, and receive feedback from their audience, which gets worked in to the project assessment. The 8th grade civics classes are doing the same sort of projects except on issues of more social focus.
  • Middle School math and science faculty set a goal of increasing engagement of students in the learning process. Several went out to the Nuevo School in California and have brought back a design thinking approach, which they are teaching to their colleagues as a tool to re-think how and what they are all teaching. They are reducing reliance on textbooks and have decreased units to allow an increased focus on larger projects.  Grades are less dependent on tests and more on how students think, develop and understand context, and collaborate to solve more ambiguous problems.
  • The foreign language chair said that all research shows that language learning is not linear, so they have moved from teaching grammar and vocabulary to a focus on reading, conversation, and storytelling.  Students have created living museums and hosted a “museum opening” by inviting in external authentic speakers.  They are focusing on empathy, posing and solving problems through the viewpoint of others as they look at the role of communication through those differing views.
  • A math teacher said they have moved over the last three years from a predominantly “drill and kill” program to knowing when and why math skills are used.  All of the curriculum is focused around applications and includes a density of authentic projects.  The students took on the problem of paper use at school, the efficiency of product packaging in the cafeteria, and are planning a cost-benefit analysis of the installation of energy-producing Green bikes in the fitness center.
  • The 7th grade Global Studies class incorporated design thinking in the fall and the students are seeking self-directed, low-cost, human-centered design solutions to meet complex global problems.  The essential driving question: “What innovative, low-cost design solution or policy could be created to address critical global problems and transform the lives of those who need it the most?” (Lovett provided me with an entire packet of additional guiding questions, skills benchmarks, units, and assessment guidelines, as well a a resource bibliography for how they developed it. I am sure they would be happy to share with others.) At the end of the year they will do a mini-TEDX pitch to potential “investors”. See the following link for much more about this program:

From the Middle School faculty about why they are changing what and how they teach:

  • “In the past we waited for a vision from the Head of School.  Then we waited for an implementation strategy from the principal.  Then we realized we had permission to discover it ourselves and we went outside our walls and comfort zones.”
  • “Everyone is asking, ‘Why am I doing what I am doing? Why this worksheet?’ This stepping back and questioning is a key first step.”
  •  “The future is highly unpredictable.  We need to give the students a toolbox they will need for that uncertain future and the ability to contribute in significant ways.”
  • “The content they are learning is so much less important than the life skills they can acquire.  We need to create opportunities for them to grow to be a good person.”

My last stop of the day was in the new Story Studio room in the Upper School.  A group of faculty and students got together and designed a new learning space.  One teacher volunteered to have his room converted from a traditional classroom into a laboratory for how physical space influences learning and teaching styles.  The design group selected pastel colors of idea paint for the walls, movable, flexible furniture, a corner with soft furniture and a small bank of spotlights for interview and video capability.  Teacher: “We took down all of the posters and pictures that I had on my walls that defined this as my space and now we are putting up student-generated content of how they see their learning taking place.  It is an evolving archive of where we are in our collective learning.”  For a great review of the Story Studio experience, packed with ideas for how to change a classroom dynamic, go to

Lovett ranks high on my list of the schools I have visited that are moving the needle on real innovation.  They have made intentional commitments, and while the pace may be slower than some would like, that is the reality of innovation when the wolf is not at the door.  They are creating a structure for change, have aligned resources for PD, looked outside their walls for models, and are making those multiple small bets that are growing in size.  Billy and his team don’t force innovation, but they are sure not just waiting for it to happen, either.

Here are two additional really rich links that expand on some of what I have reported on.  These are concrete programs, in place right now, and I know that Lovett is eager to share with other schools that are re-inventing their futures:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the Author:


  1. Erin Dixon November 12, 2012 at 1:26 am - Reply


    Thank you so much for spending a day with us at Lovett. We always appreciate the opportunity to not only highlight what we feel is great about what we are doing but to get feedback and to hear about the wonderful things happening at other schools!

    I wanted to provide some clarification around the first quote under the middle school section of your post regarding the development of our vision. I think it is important to note that we as a middle school (administrators and faculty) started to brainstorm what we thought to be the most important skills/core values for our students several years ago. As time went on, we realized that as an entire school, not just the middle school, we needed a K-12 vision of what we value in a student who graduates from Lovett. What are those skills we as a school value most and aspire to help students achieve? Once the K-12 Vision for Learning was established last year, with input from a range of Lovett community members including teachers, principals, administrators, and board members, our middle school enthusiastically moved forward in support of that vision. We were particularly proud to see the Vision for Learning align so closely with what our faculty and administrative team developed and still continue to work towards!

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment and to clarify a process that ultimately was neither top down nor bottom up. Instead, in my opinion, it reflected a true collaborative effort!

    Erin Dixon
    Middle School Dean of Faculty and Instruction

    • glichtman November 12, 2012 at 11:07 am - Reply

      Thanks for that clarification, Erin; it fits is perfectly with what I have seen at other schools. Once a school community articulates those core values they are trying to instill in students, it makes it easier to see how curriculum and resources align to meet those goals. A key step that Lovett achieved a while back. Thanks!

Leave A Comment