Five Innovations to School Design Thinking Process Yield Powerful Results

I am engaged in several year-plus design thinking efforts with schools and districts that are sincerely committed to finding and implementing user-centric solutions that create lasting value. The basic processes are those developed by the Stanford d.school and the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation, along with others.  At the Tilton School in New Hampshire (HT Kate Saunders and Peter Saliba as co-developers of these innovations) we have created or introduced at least five new elements to the design process that are proving extremely valuable. (You can see how the design process is dramatically building a culture of growth and innovation via these short progress videos.)

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 7.53.55 AMIntegration Teams:  Schools are notoriously resource-poor. School design teams struggle with separating “what”  they want to do to solve a problem with “how” they are going to get there. To get ahead of this natural tendency to focus too quickly on resources we created two “integration teams”: financial sustainability and marketing/communications.  These teams did not design on their own. Members of each of these teams were embedded from the start of the initial discovery phase with six other design teams.  Their real work kicks in once prototypes are on the table to develop cost, support, assessment and sustainability elements of those prototypes.

Simple Rules Team: Schools are also notorious for having the same conversations over and over, year after year.  The book Simple Rules offers a guide to how effective organizations guide decision making, particularly when resources are scarce.  One design team took on the task of designing draft simple rules that will help mitigate those repetitive conversations.  Some of these rules, like the use of triage in a field hospital, might guide decisions on starting and sunsetting programs, the use of time, or basic assessment protocols.

Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 11.27.37 AMHeat Mapping: When multiple teams are designing in parallel, how do those parallel lines meet in ways that will have the most collective impact on the school’s value?  We inserted a really eye-opening protocol into the design process.  Each team identified big ideas, big takeaways, and big problems from their discovery process, and mapped these onto a central theme (in this case “Student Centered Learning”).  Immediately all the teams are able to see how and where their work overlaps with the work of the other teams.  Those “hot” areas are then prioritized when it comes to generating problem statements that will drive prototyping.

Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 8.46.38 AMLogic Models: As I have previously posted, the introduction of a very simple logic model at the start of prototyping can help focus designers first on big goals and then backward design to the details, including resources. Experienced designers may not need this template, but for beginners it is a great tool.  We can evaluate prototypes on how well they address the five simple stages of this logic model.

Low Hanging Fruit, or “Early Wins”: We find that school design teams generate potential ideas for prototyping that cover a wide span from “big game changers” to “we could do that tomorrow”.  Rather than focusing the teams only on the former, we are encouraging a two step approach.  In a 2-3 hour prototyping session we ask teams to generate multiple low resolution prototypes that:

  • Won’t cost much, if anything, to implement.
  • Align to the school’s North Star vision of learning.
  • Have a built-in cohort of people eager to pilot.

A site leader or small leadership team can then green-light these early wins, giving the stakeholders tangible proof that the process works, while at the same time design teams continue to move forward on prototyping “big game changer” ideas.

Stay tuned for more evidence that this process really works, and also that “we” can improve on design processes in schools!

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