Transforming Public Schools with Design Thinking

Some people don’t think of the public school system as a hotbed for innovation, but there are many creative and groundbreaking initiatives behind the scenes all over the country.

In New York City, it’s the iZone, a program started by the NYC Department of Education (DOE). The iZone uses design thinking to center learning around the needs of each student. How? One way is to help teachers develop new teaching models. The DOE and iZone also partner with companies in the edtech market to explore emerging technologies.

We spoke to two people who are on the front lines of innovation at the DOE: Kara Chesal, Director of Innovate NYC Schools (an iZone initiative), and Alana Laudone, Director of Special Projects for iZone. They’ve both worked with The Design Gym as community members and clients.

Chesal and Laudone share five tips for moving new ideas and thinking forward in an environment with a large, diverse group of stakeholders.

1. Focus on the Problem, Not the Solution

When you stop being so focused on how you’re going to solve a problem, you can get a better understanding of the product itself—what the user needs, the problem the product will solve, and why you need to solve it.

“If we don’t agree on what the problem is, we’re never actually going to come up with a great solution,” says Chesal.

Chesal worked on a program to incentivize app developers to respond to their request for a proposal (RFP). The idea was to rethink the way the DOE requested responses or bids.

“The typical way the NY State DOE works is a small group of people will set up these requirements and we’ll get responses or bids based on the requirements we put up,” she explains. “We realized that the process was only giving us traditional firms to work with, and folks who had a legal team and the resources to apply to that type of proposal. It also wasn’t giving us the most innovative stuff because we were over-specifying what we wanted. We were giving people a solution. With design thinking, instead of giving people a solution, you can get better at defining what your problem is and allowing people to come in and help you solve the problem.”

2. See Constraints as Opportunities

Where many people see the limitations of working for a government agency as something that stifles creativity and innovation, Chesal sees it as a challenge.

“I think constraints can be opportunities for design, or for design processes,” says Chesal. “Not every barrier is necessarily a flaw of the system. Some can help you define what the problems are more specifically.”

A few years ago, she worked on the high school directory, which is the process by which students and families select a high school. And it’s a complicated process.

“We know we’re not going to be able to change the complexity of that system, and we’re not going to be able to change the admissions methods,” she explains. Instead, they worked on making the experience easier to navigate by narrowing the options down from 800 to a set that matched each individual student.

In this case, Chesal saw a complicated system and saw the opportunity it presented, rather than feeling constrained by it.

3. Meet People Where They Are

People come to design thinking from different backgrounds. Some may already be familiar with the methods, while to others, the information might be brand new. Knowing how to reach your community at every education level goes a long way toward getting them to buy into the concepts.

“The design thinking process—the first time you do it can feel a little silly,” says Chesal. “What we’ve worked to do is make sure that even for their first time, people are doing something that’s related to their work. It’s not building a wallet or something that’s so obscure that they can’t see the relevancy for their own work. It’s not always a natural fit for people because it’s so different, but if you’re able to build empathy and meet them where they are, I think incorporating design thinking into your organization can be very successful.”

Laudone agrees. “Using this new vocabulary can be really helpful and freeing in some ways, but it can also be confusing. These might be something that teachers already do, but they call it something different or they do it in a slightly different way.”

According to Laudone, they’ve had success with layering design thinking concepts within existing frameworks, rather than introducing them as new ideas. For example, a teacher may already be informally asking students for feedback on new teaching materials, but be unaware that it falls under the technique of intercepts in design thinking. If he or she already understands the value of user comments, it may make more sense to work within that framework, with familiar terminology.

4. Design With, Not For

When you’re designing with the end users’ needs at the forefront, it’s easier to get them—and your other stakeholders—to trust the process. Since users are going to be the ones employing the solutions that are designed by the process, it’s best to get them involved from the beginning.

“When you can say that this idea is coming out of schools, and these ideas are owned by schools, proposed by schools, or moved forward by schools, that helps,” Laudone says. “That gives you not only credibility, but legitimacy. Coming from that place shows stakeholders that their ideas are valid. That’s where it starts.”

5. Build a Community Around Learning

Part of design thinking is giving your users the capacity to learn and grow on their own, within their teams, and to teach others as well. That’s how ideas, mindsets and processes travel through organizations and cause big culture shifts.

“The idea of hearing directly from someone in your same position—so that the school-based folks are hearing from other school-based folks that did this design thinking thing—that’s so much more powerful than us standing up there and saying this is how you do this,” says Laudone. ”That’s part of what user-centered design means—always knowing that the user is the expert, and they’re going to have the best perspective.”

No matter what your industry, these tips can help you move new ideas forward and foster innovation. See what The Design Gym can do for your organization, or learn more about our upcoming community events.

Andy Hagerman
[email protected]

Andy Hagerman is one of the co-founders and partners at The Design Gym, a strategy and innovation consultancy helping leaders to grow their business by fully unlocking the power of their most important advantage: their people. We work at the intersection of business strategy, experience design, and change management to engage the people that matter most to your work: your customers, your leaders, and your employees. See something that resonates with a project or challenge you're working on? Shoot him a note at [email protected].

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