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Solving Educational Challenges with Design Thinking

Posted by Mary Reynolds - Elementary Principal

Jan 30, 2015 7:31:00 AM

Education is full of challenges. Change itself is challenging. One of the first differences I noticed this past year as an educator moving from a classroom teacher to a site administrator (I am an elementary school principal) is that the challenges I face in my new position are different.

These challenges are different because they are more varied than the challenges I faced as a classroom teacher. To me (and to clarify), the word different does not have a negative connotation, it simply means that the challenges I face as an administrator are distinct and separate from those I faced as a classroom teacher.  

I believe it is important to face challenges, not avoid them. I also believe it is crucial for school administrators to work together with their teachers and other administrators as a team to solve challenges. My teachers, fellow principals, and superintendent are my teammates. We are in it together! And we are in it to do what is best for our students.  

One of the most pressing challenges I currently face is supporting teachers with the transition to the Common Core Standards and Next Generation Science Standards. Shifting to all new standards in all subject areas is daunting, and can leave many teachers feeling overwhelmed.

The adoption of new standards has rendered our current report card obsolete. With the support of my superintendent, our district’s Elementary Report Card Committee is using the Design Thinking approach with teachers to develop our new standards-based report card that is aligned to Common Core Standards.


The Five Phases of Design Thinking


1. Empathy Phase

In the Empathy Phase, the team develops a deep understanding of the challenge. There are many different ways to develop a deep understanding of a challenge. Mostly I have used interviews for this.

2. Define Phase

This is where your team has the opportunity to clearly articulate the problem you want to solve.

3. Ideation Phase

Everyone involved gets the chance to brainstorm and develop potential solutions to the challenge.

4. Prototype Phase

This is where the team designs a prototype to test the solution.

5. Testing Phase

The team engages in a short cycle process to improve the chosen design or model. The last two phases, Prototype and Testing, represent action plans to me. The team has the opportunity to put the plan into action to see if it works, and then revise the plan from there.

The challenge we’re tackling through the use of Design Thinking is to develop a new report card based on the CCSS. One of the difficult tasks this challenge presents is transitioning from letter grades to standards-based grading. We will discuss these challenges in Phase I, the Empathy phase. In Phase II, the problem we want to solve is the fact that we have a grade reporting system that is not aligned to current standards.

But my favorite phase of Design Thinking is Phase III-Ideate. I like this phase because it gives the team the opportunity to throw out any ideas, regardless of how unattainable they might seem or “pie in the sky.” The ideation phase will get us to Phase IV, where we create the prototype of our new report card. From there, we will enter Phase V and test the report card, continually improving our design.

My favorite parts of my job are often the most challenging. As a leader, it is important to meet challenges with composure and common sense. Give yourself permission to take time to solve challenges. Design Thinking is a good way to approach challenges because all voices and ideas are heard in the process. It also takes teamwork. One of my favorite parts of my job is working with colleagues who bring diverse experiences to the table. If you lead with curiosity and ask questions, challenges can be conquered.

mary_reynolds_blog_5About the author: Mary Reynolds is an elementary principal in Northern California. She was a classroom teacher for ten years. She is passionate about math and science education, as well as using technology to support student learning outcomes. You can contact her on Twitter @maryjr40_mary.

Topics: Implementing the Common Core, Teaching & Learning

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