07/05/2012 03:53 pm ET | Updated Sep 04, 2012

The Case for Design Thinking in Education

To teachers, schools and districts often appear quick to change. When I first began teaching in Baltimore City, the district was using four or five different curriculum models in the hopes of finding what was most effective. Would it be the data-driven teacher-proof Direct Instruction with a side of enriching Core Knowledge, the whole language approach, or the somewhere-in-between Open Court? While undergoing the shock of transitioning from student-teaching at a whole language Quaker school in Pennsylvania to a Direct Instruction school in South Baltimore, I was told by a teacher who was trying to reassure me that I shouldn't worry; we would surely return to something called Roots and Wings within the next couple of years.

The problem seems evident in the language. We 'adopt' programs. We 'purchase' materials. We 'integrate' technology. We even 'train' teachers. For all of the changing programs they referenced, how many teachers actually changed their practice? Would their classrooms have looked any different from a helicopter hovering overhead? Just last week, it was announced that the United Kingdom will scrap General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in favor of a return to an O-Level style exam.Recently I attended a design thinking training hosted by theSpringside Chestnut Hill Academy (SCH) in Philadelphia. Participants were diverse, from the local public schools to a school in Tanzania that targets dropouts. We were trained to use a human-centered model of identifying a problem and solving it through building empathy, thinking creatively and prototyping. Within the first five minutes, we were told to put down our coffee (gasp!) and stand up.

We were put into groups to work through the design thinking process in order to create a new working space for our users, generally teachers or administrators. My team consisted of a teacher from NYU Abu Dhabi, the Parkway School for Peace and Justice in Philadelphia, a teacher from SCH who was recently the Pennsylvania Biology Teacher of the Year and their head of libraries.

Throughout the process our bright and creative group managed to cruise along. We built empathy for our user, generated a thoughtful point-of-view statement, ideated without boundaries (a holodeck in the classroom, a retractable campfire to build community) and organized our ideas into surprising and innovative clusters to look for themes. But when we got to prototyping, that's when it all fell apart.

To be fair we were warned and told that when given thirty minutes to prototype, most people spend 10 minutes discussing the problem and jockeying for roles, 10 to 15 minutes going over options and planning verbally, and are left with only five minutes to prototype. Failure is almost guaranteed while prototyping solutions and success typically comes after multiple failures.

Real change requires the all-in and human-centered mentality of building a prototype. In our training, we found that many groups still created models rather than prototypes to experience. We're comfortable with models. We can show our ideas easily and the risks are low. Models are adopted based on evidence, certainly, but what happens in implementation? Why do they succeed with many users but fail with others? Few people will tell you that your idea is half-baked but something altogether different happens when we get active -- whether we are building a tower or an experience.

We become uncomfortable. We have to be candid with our colleagues. We experience failure and we don't particularly like it at first. With practice, however, the process becomes joyful and with every iteration comes the opportunity to ask questions and reconnect with our users. We put more into our effort to define and meet their needs, and to experience the kind of change that makes a difference.