As schools face mounting problems, some district leaders are using design thinking to crowd-source solutions and fail upward
Before COVID-19 put schools in lockdown, teachers at Gwinnett County School District in Georgia were reimagining their class field trips.
In a school with roughly 50 percent of students on free and reduced-price lunch, there wasn’t much budget for field trips. What if, instead of planning expensive day-long excursions, they could whisk students away for short jaunts around town to engage in hands-on learning activities, a la The Magic School Bus?
When they asked for a dedicated bus to implement their idea, however, district leader Babak Mostaghimi answered with a challenge: Prove your idea first, and we’ll see what we can do.
They formed a team of eight teachers from two different schools — one to pilot the new format and one to serve as a control group — and ran a series of experiments with fourth graders to gauge the impact of field trips on student performance. Although the pandemic cut the pilot testing short, initial data was promising. Moreover, the teachers found that by limiting field trips to 90 minutes and staying within a five-mile radius, they could afford to rent a bus instead of buying one.
“The final solution they came up with wasn’t the one they thought they needed, but it fulfilled the task they wanted fulfilled,” says Mostaghimi, executive director of innovation and program improvement. “It was a cool moment of failing forward and a classic example of ‘think big, start small.’ ”
Testing teachers' ideas
This is what innovation looks like when design thinking is embedded into the fabric of the district at every level — at least, that’s the goal at Gwinnett County, which began partnering with The Teachers Guild in 2017 to create a mechanism for developing and testing teachers’ ideas. A nonprofit initiative that aims to harness teacher creativity, The Teachers Guild helped the district develop its Creative Leadership Institute, where educators at all levels can learn the design thinking process by using it to solve a real problem they face in their practice.
“We fundamentally believe people should be problem solvers,” Mostaghimi says. “Often people closest to the problem are the ones who have the most innovative or intuitive solution. People have great ideas if they’re given a great structure to think about them and test things out.”
Design thinking is a creative approach to problem solving that begins with using empathy to identify and test solutions before implementing them at scale. As author and English teacher Jessica Lahey wrote in The Atlantic, it’s become something of a buzzword in schools as educators seize upon its potential to revolutionize everything from learning spaces to curricula.
But experts caution against dismissing design thinking as just another fad.
“From my perch at MIT, design thinking isn’t a buzzword or a rinky-dink set of activities somebody made up to keep kids busy,” assistant professor Justin Reich declared in a column for Education Week. “Design thinking is a systematic methodology for solving ill-structured problems through iterative prototyping and testing. Design thinking is how we do research and innovation across the institute, every day.”
Developing failure-friendly leaders
The more design thinking spreads from teacher to teacher and district to district, the fuzzier its meaning becomes. Is it a mindset? A curriculum? A framework?
According to Neil Stevenson of the global design and innovation company IDEO, design thinking isn’t just one thing. It’s a “bundle of mindsets and philosophies all wrapped up in one term,” which can be confusing for educators just getting started.
That’s why Gwinnett County is training its administrators as well as teachers in design thinking. You can’t develop a culture of innovation without first building fluency among leaders.
“The first goal with administrators is to teach them enough about the process so they have confidence in the results,” Mostaghimi says. “You have to leave space for small ‘fail forward’ moments because they’re built into the design process for getting to a good solution. If they don’t have that background, they often feel failure is a bad thing.”
What other people might call failures, Mostaghimi describes as “cool moments.” His learn-by-failing attitude sets the tone for the district, encouraging teachers to experiment wildly and celebrate their flops. Developing a pro-failure mindset isn’t as hard as you might think, he adds. By running a rapid-cycle design process on a real problem they’re struggling with, administrators quickly discover what design thinking feels like.
“Our design work with administrators is focused on helping them build an environment that supports problem solving among teachers and lets them leverage all the minds in the room,” he says. “They can allow their teachers to think really far outside of normal parameters. The goal is to stay out of the way of teachers, trust them more and make sure we lean on their expertise.”
Training for design thinking might be a top-down effort in Gwinnett County schools, but the real work happens at the grassroots level. Once teachers complete their training at the Creative Leadership Institute, it’s up to them to take it from there, says Micah Porter, a chemistry teacher at Collins Hill High School.
Members of her cohort spent a year focusing on transforming classroom spaces within their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program to encourage collaborative learning and design thinking. They visited other schools and browsed different classroom arrangements. They asked students to weigh in on color choices and test out alternatives to the standard desk, from standing desks to wobble stools to high-top table chairs. At the end of the year, they participated in a gallery walk where teachers showcased their designs for the rest of the district.
Over the past four years, teachers have used design thinking to wrestle with a spectrum of problems, such as how to improve students’ transition from eighth to ninth grade, how to support new educators in developing a strong teaching practice and how to encourage students to take ownership of their learning.
“It is a time-consuming process, but I think the reason to do it is our teachers really have a lot of great ideas, but we never give them the time to collaborate and really refine those ideas, do testing to see what works, and bring their ideas to fruition,” says Collins Hill principal Kerensa Wing. “They do it on a day-to-day basis with their lesson plans, but having a larger impact on their school or cluster brings a lot of satisfaction and gratification. If it’s something great they’re doing, it could have an impact on the whole district. It’s an opportunity for individuals to grow and to really expand themselves in ways they haven’t thought about before.”
Building teams of teacher-innovators isn’t the only goal of the program, however. Guiding teachers through the design-thinking process also helps them break it down and make it more manageable for students — who are, after all, the end game.
“We adults need to model the same behaviors, learning and ways of doing that we want our kids to do,” Mostaghimi says. “It feels kind of disingenuous when we teach a set of skills to kids but don’t practice that ourselves.”
Turning students into problem solvers
When theater students at Collins Hill High School chose a Harry Potter-themed play for their one-act competition, they needed help creating the magical effects. They turned to their peers in the school’s cross-curricular STEM program. Using design-thinking principles and equipment from their new fabrication lab, they 3D printed light-up wands and developed robotics that could move furniture around the stage, creating the illusion of magic.
“The process as a whole is great exposure for our kids,” Porter says. “It’s similar to the scientific method in that it’s problem-solving tool, but it has a human-centered component to it.”
In a class on student leadership, teens use design thinking to tackle issues such as how to get their classmates more involved in athletic events and other after-school activities. In science classes they develop local solutions to global problems, including shoes that can charge your phone while you walk and a composting system to reduce waste in their school cafeteria.
Having a state-of-the-art fab lab and dedicated spaces for creative collaboration helps facilitate the process, but it’s the empathy piece, Porter says, that sets design thinking apart. By putting themselves in other people’s shoes, students learn to examine every problem from multiple angles to find solutions that may not be obvious at first glance.
“It pushes kids to think outside of box. So often we get focused on one solution and we try to run with it even when it doesn’t work. Design thinking promotes a huge quantity of ideas, including crazy, wild, out-of-the-box ideas. We see much better problem-solving come out of design thinking.”
No matter who engages in design thinking — whether it’s students working on a class project, teachers adjusting their practice to enhance learning, or leaders streamlining district procedures — the entire process hinges on a willingness to fail, Mostaghimi says.
“You can use the design process to prove an idea, but don’t be afraid to prove your idea wrong.”
Design thinking in five steps
If you're ready to give design thinking a try, here are the steps to lead your team through the process.
Work to understand the problem from the perspective those who will use your solution.
Use your insights to define the core problem you will attempt to solve.
Venture outside the box and brainstorm innovative solutions.
Identify the best possible solution, and develop an inexpensive, scaled-down version.
Rigorously test your prototype, and use the data you collect to refine and reiterate your solution.
Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.