Jumping Right into Design Thinking – Part 1

Jumping in Pool

I have always been someone who likes using defined processes groups. Probably the most useful workshop that I ever attended was David Langford’s Quality Learning seminar. I have used his tools for problem solving as an individually and with groups for years. For several years now I have been wanting to learn more about design thinking because the concept seems sensible and interesting. Instead of solving problems this focuses on finding solutions by learning about the  stakeholders. So, instead of taking the time to attend a workshop I decided to jump right in and learn by doing. Thankfully, IDEO has a free online toolkit to guide me through the process and my colleagues are game for trying something new.

For several years we have struggled with our annual week long trips in the high school. For one week in September the entire high school travels to four different locations in Brazil. The groups are organized by grade level and there have been two objectives.

To gain a deeper appreciation and knowledge of Brazil – The trips provide students with real life experiences within Brazil. Trips may focus on…

  • exploring various cultural aspects of the respective community.
  • environmental issues in the community.
  • sustainable development and the economic environment in the community.
  • fun activities that are representative of the community.

To develop relationships within our community – The trips are an excellent opportunity for students and teachers to start the year off by learning about each other in a non-classroom setting. In doing so, students and teachers can build an appreciation for others and a respect for differences. Relationship building may occur in the following ways: 

  • team building activities
  • discussion groups focused on objective #1
  • group projects
  • informal dialogue throughout the trip

We have also been working, with mixed success, to link the trips to course curricula. Each year we get mixed reviews from students and teachers and we feel like we just haven’t gotten them right yet. The factor that tipped the scale is that for two years in a row we had a large number of seniors decide to not travel with their classmates. So, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to give the design thinking process a chance.

After reviewing the trips from this year and that past we have defined our challenge, set a timeline and gathered the information that we have on hand.

“Redesign the experiences to make them indispensable and unforgettable so that the mission and core values come to to life.”

We’re now in the research phase where we define exactly what we need to learn from our students and teachers and look for inspiration from various sources. With that information we’ll work in teams to develop prototypes of trips for review. There is still much work to do but we all seem to feel that there are plenty of possibilities for making the trips “indispensable and unforgettable”

I’d love to hear ideas and suggestions from design thinking experts that are out there. We’re definitely going to need support throughout the process.

This photo, “8579 S jumps into pool” By WoofBC under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, modified slightly from original


What I learned during the 20ª Maratona Pão de Açúcar Relay

On Sunday, September 16th eighty six members of the Graded community participated in the 20ª Maratona Pão de Açúcar. It was a phenomenal community event despite the temperature reaching 33 degrees Celsius. The relay format meant that teams of either 8, 4 or 2 completed a full marathon. I’m happy to report that all fourteen teams finished the race. One of our teachers, single handedly recruited teachers, students, parents, staff members and administrators to participate in the race. With so much happening at Graded this year the timing for the event was perfect. All 86 of us were able to go out successfully complete a physically challenging task and then celebrate our accomplishment.

During my portion of the race I started thinking about how this event compares to the year that we are having at school. At Graded, like all other schools, we work extremely hard every year, but for some reason this year seems to be supercharged. Our continuous improvement efforts on curriculum development and implementation, assessment practices, implementing a 1 to 1 laptop program in the high school, completing our AdvancED self study and the IB Diploma Program 5-year review, plus hosting the Global Issues Network Conference of the Americas, Innovate 2013, and all of the other normal day to day stuff is wearing us out (OK, just looking at the list is enough to make anyone hyperventilate).

Here is what I came up with.

1. Each one of us wants to do our best to support the team effort – The marathon format is interesting because you are running for yourself and for you team. This means that you want to do your best so that the team can succeed. While a few people considered pulling out before the race due to injuries, lack of training, other conflicts, in doing so, the team would have been let down. On the flip side, others trained extensively so that they would contribute to the team’s success. In true team spirit, everyone followed through to ensure that the team would be succeed. Each person took the responsibility seriously and was committed to the team.

The same holds true for our day to day work at Graded. As professionals we understand our responsibilities to the team of teachers, students, parents, and administrators. We know that it’s not just about what we do as individuals. It’s about our work with the entire community. There is pressure on us, as educators, to provide students with the best learning experiences possible. This means not only doing so in the classroom but also in the many extracurricular, athletic, and community service activities. Unlike the race, our work just isn’t one Sunday out of the year, which means that we’re striving to be on top of our games from August through June.

2. Every individual’s level of preparation varied – First, when people signed up for the race in August, everyone was at a different level of readiness.  The training approaches and the amount of time that individuals devoted to preparation varied greatly. Many of the students who are on athletic teams relied on the practices with their teams. I think that these students found that the practices and training were sufficient for the 5k race, but not enough for the 10k distance. Some individuals dedicated a significant amount of time preparing for the race, while others did very little and then gutted it out to the finish. As far as I know, group training did not happen due to our busy schedules. This meant that the overall majority of the training happened individually. Those who set goals for individual or team times had to tailor their training accordingly.

With the work that we, as educators are doing this year the same holds true for preparation. We’re all at different levels of expertise in our knowledge of the curriculum, assessment practices, and the integration of technology to enhance learning and there are a variety of plans in play.  As a school, we have tried to embed as much professional development related to these areas into our work. But, just as the athletes learned, we’re learning that there is a  need for some of us to seek additional learning opportunities to take us to another level. We also struggle with finding time to get groups together for collaborative planning and learning. This is where technology can really help us through the connections that we can make with our Graded colleagues and educators from around the world. We’re all working diligently to grow as educators and we’ve set our goals with steps that we are planning to take throughout the year.

3. During the race, people took different approaches – It was fun to watch different personalities come out during the race. Some runners were vocal about cheering the teams on while others were quiet and focused. Many were quiet because they were nervous. I remember seeing one colleagues twice on the course and he was in his own world with his headphones and music on. There were others who were loud and vocal whenever a Graded runner passed by. It didn’t really matter which type of person you were, we all knew that we were in this together. We certainly did not take silence to mean that you weren’t being supportive of the other members in the group. It’s just the state of mind that the individual was in at the time.

The same holds true for our work this year. Personalities come out naturally when working together and with over a 140 faculty members, we find that each person handles things differently. We have our cheerleaders, our work horses, our shy types and the middle of the road ones. The key is making sure that we all are respectful of our differences and to find ways to let each other know that we support each others work.

4. The race was tough – It’s safe to say that just about everyone was challenged by the event. Even the fittest runners had to deal with the heat, the crowd and the desire to run a fast pace. The work was hard and there were some who weren’t sure that they would finish. All of us had to cut back on our pace and some had to walk. Even our best runner had a slower than normal time and was wiped out by the end of his leg.

This is true with our work this year as well. The work is certainly difficult for all of us. We are working to grow and change our practices which is never easy. Recently I referred to this EDS commercial where the airplane builders are building the plane while flying. We’re trying to keep up with the normal day to day things while planning ahead for the future. We all feel stretched to thin and we’re not doing our job well. Some of us even question why we are trying to do so much in a short amount of time. Just about all of us have to walk occasionally to catch our breath and even those who are at the top of their profession realize that the work is not easy.

5. The post race celebration was important – After the race we met for brunch at a nearby restaurant. Forget the fact that we were really hungry, the importance of this was that we were able to celebrate our accomplishments. The medals were proudly worn and the stories were flowing. Everyone was smiling, laughing and enjoying that post race high. It was a wonderful way to end the event.

We realize that we need to find more time to celebrate our successes through stories.  This should be done even though the race isn’t over yet. I envision us celebrating after the visiting team comes for our self-study accreditation visit in April. It may not feel like it now, but we will certainly have much to celebrate at that time. We may not be wearing medals but there will be special stories to share and laughs to be had.

Planning on becoming a school of the future?

Something very exciting happened when our leadership team met for a leadership retreat to work on our vision for Graded. For the longest time we have been focusing on our 1:1 initiative in the middle school and amazingly enough, during the entire retreat, technology never entered the conversation. We even framed our learning around five of ISTE’s Essential Conditions to Effectively Leverage Technology for Learning. The five that we chose were Skilled Personnel,  Curriculum Framework and Student Centered Learning, Ongoing Professional Development, and Assessment and Evaluation.

I think that we owe the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and their “A Guide to Becoming a School of the Future” for this accomplishment. I highly recommend it as required reading for any school that is planning for the future. I think that we spent so much time focusing on the core of a our school in the future, that it was just assumed that technology would play a major role in the teaching and learning process.

What does the guide have to offer?

The first section is entitled, “Making the Case for Schools of the Future”. Even if you don’t need convincing, I suggest that you read it and share it with those who need to be convinced.

“We can choose to adapt, accepting that we do not know this world as well as our children and look to them to help us learn. Or, we can be infexible immigrants, focusing on how good things used to be. If we are to reach our children and help them learn, we must adapt, we must face the fact that our students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.”

The second section is, “Essential Capacities for the 21st Century”. We linked this to a curriculum framework where the main categories are Analytical and  Creative Thinking  and Problem-solving; Complex Communication —Oral and Written; Leadership and Teamwork; Digital and Quantitative Literacy; Global Perspective; Adaptability, Initiative,  and Risk-Taking; Integrity and Ethical  Decision-Making. There are many frameworks out there that describe what students should know and be able to do. This is just one that provides food for thought.

I love the third section and think that it is the core of the guide because it provides schools with a variety of models and resources for change. It’s great that they start the chapter off by saying:

“The intention is not to provide a formulaic approach to the challenges of teaching and learning in our times but rather to encourage exploration, innovation, and transformation within each school in a manner that is consistent with the school’s mission and the needs of its students.”

One can spend hours in this section exploring the ideas and the links to resources from a wide variety of school and teachers. The Stories of Excellence guide has examples of classroom units where technology is used (unfortunately, It looks like they have blocked it to non-members).  This is one resource that is teaching and learning with technology focused.

The authors identified the following unifying themes:

  • The schools are academically demanding
  • Project-based learning, as an integral part of the school’s program, is woven throughout all grade levels and disciplines
  • Classrooms extend beyond the school walls, actively engaging students in the world around them
  • Digital technologies and a global perspective infuse all aspects of the curriculum
  • Vibrant arts programs help promote creativity, self-expression, self-discipline, and fexibility
  • The adults are actively engaged with one another and with the students in a process of continuous learning
  • A culture of engagement and support invites participation, innovation, and a “growth mindset” on the part of teachers and students
  • Transformational leadership challenges the status quo, draws out the issues, navigates through confict, and mobilizes people and resources to do the adaptive work necessary to create and sustain effective change.

Finally, the appendix has additional resources to use in your planning.

If you haven’t studied this guide, you’re missing out. It’s a must in my book.

Task Force 2012: our plan for using collaborative tools

While our middle school has a 1:1 program in grades 6 and 7 our high school is planning to roll out a 1:1 program in August 2012. We have created a 27 member task force comprised of teachers, students, parents and administrators whose job it is to get out in front of the learning and to make recommendations for the 2011 school year.  The task force leadership group decided to structure the group, which has a December – June lifespan, around these ideas and goals.

“We will strive to keep the learning purposeful and the task force focused on creating recommendations (action plans) for the 2011 school year.”  


  • Develop recommendations/action steps for the high school for the 2011-12 school year. Recommendations will be based on the International Society for Technology in Education’s Essential Conditions.
  • Share information on 21st century education with the Graded community.

The group meets monthly for 4 hour chunks of time so we realize the importance of communicating and collaborating virtually. There are three tools that we are relying on heavily for communication and collaboration.

1. Ning – The 2012 Task Force Ning is our hub for communication. While there are 27 members of the task force, there are 56 members on the Ning. We have opened it up to our entire community. We started by posting notes from our initial meetings in the discussion forum and are encouraging video uploads, ongoing discussions and blog posts. We use it as a portal for discussions and an archive of our process. Recently, we asked our high school leadership team to review the Ning so that the members could gain a sense of what the task force is doing. While we’re never satisfied with the level of participation, the amount of information that has been generated after 3 months is fantastic.

2. Diigo – We have created a group called Graded 21st Century that members can use to share web resources. Members can also share highlights and notes with the rest of the group. We are finding that the long tale property  holds true with a very small number of members contributing multiple sources. It will be interesting to see how participation improves over time.

3. Google Docs – We use Google Education tools to collaborate and present information. These tools are available 24/7 for members to use and we have a rich archive of information.

So, what have we learned in rolling out these tools?

1. Building the Ning doesn’t mean that people will automatically start using the tool. We found that we had to provide support to help the teachers, students and parents to get started. Sending the information out via e-mail only worked for some of the participants.

2. Using the tools during the face to face meetings is a must. Aside from the obvious reasons, this allows the participants to discuss the tools and they can get help, if necessary.

3. We’re working with an outside consultant and she is able to track our progress and participate in the discussions. On a recent Skype call with her I asked her to guess which direction the group took in a recent meeting and she had already seen the work and was able to comment. It’s so efficient and effective to have her linked in with our work.

4. Making a monthly post an assigned task has had mixed results. Some were more comfortable with expounding on their ideas that related to specific online resources and others just shared resources on the Ning. We’re hoping that with feedback and discussion that posting will become a habit and that the quality of the posts will improve.

5. We’re constantly looking for ways to increase the chatter on the Ning. We are optimistic that we’ll develop a culture of online collaboration but it seems to be something that we can’t give up on.

We’re very excited about the work that this group is doing and it will be exciting to see how this online culture evolves. What suggestions do you have for us?

ISTE’s Essential Conditions: Maybe the Guide that You Need

ISTE’s – National Educational Technology Standards for Administrators packet includes Essential Conditions: Necessary conditions to effectively leverage technology for learning. This type of document can serve as a guide for school leaders who want to move their school(s) forward.

  • Shared Vision
  • Empowered Leaders
  • Implementation Planning
  • Consistent and Adequate Funding
  • Equitable Access
  • Skilled Personnel
  • Ongoing Professional Learning
  • Technical Support
  • Curriculum Framework
  • Student-Centered Learning
  • Assessment and Evaluation
  • Engaged Communities
  • Support Policies
  • Supportive External Context

Have your team break down each item and define what it means. Then look at where your school currently stands, where you need to go and how you’re going to get there.

Why not use this to develop your school’s action plan and/or technology plan. We’re always looking for simplifying the complex.