Implementing Design Thinking in Partnership with a University
In 2015, our school wanted to breathe new life into our traditional curriculum. With a change in leadership came new expertise, first in project-based learning (PBL) and second in design thinking, methods which gave birth to a new curriculum and core philosophy. They also inspired a longer-term vision to be a pioneer in design thinking education for Jewish day schools.
Design thinking is a five-step process that starts with the need to solve a problem, anything from creating the next rocket to reach far-off galaxies, to figuring out a way to improve a family routine at home. Design thinking is so well-suited for our school because of the added ingredient of empathy; the design thinking process starts by thinking from the perspective of the “user,” so the entire experience is framed through the thoughts and emotions of another. Jewish values should ultimately guide us to use a process like design thinking to gain a deeper understanding of the world around us and challenge us to try to make a difference.
Shifting the pedagogic practices of a faculty of dedicated, veteran teachers required expert guidance. Realizing the need for a sustained relationship with a professional development practitioner who could help our teachers grow and develop in these new areas, we turned to the source of design thinking in schools: the Stanford University d.school’s K12 Lab Network. Ariel Raz and Devon Young, two Stanford team members, were excited to partner with us in thinking about how to bring the design thinking mindset to a Jewish day school. The collaboration we envisioned consisted of one full-day workshop led by Devon and Ariel at our school in August of 2017, followed by once-a-month virtual coaching, and a second in-person workshop in May 2018.
The August full-day workshop allowed us to specify goals and define terms. It enabled us to feel invigorated and passionate about the work ahead. Soon, however, the realities of working within the scheduling and time constraints of a day school set in. The momentum that we gained in August took a bit of a downturn during the fall chaggim, as events on the school calendar made it difficult to find time for meaningful, regular check-ins with the d.school team.
We shifted our model from direct virtual coaching of faculty to a “train-the-trainer” model. Devon and Ariel coached Lauren Quient, our academic director, and she brought what she learned to the teachers during their regular faculty meetings. With the time pressures lifted, we discovered that, despite our efforts, we had not yet succeeded in incorporating design thinking in the classroom setting.
We also realized that though we had been thinking of PBL and design thinking as two sides of the same coin, we needed to separate the concepts. While project-based learning is a pedagogy with connected elements that cannot stand on their own, design thinking is a process and a mindset. As a mindset, design thinking permeates everything that we do. Any time we ask our students to work together, to take on a problem, to try something again after a failed attempt, to create something new, we are asking them to think like a designer. Since uncovering this, we have shifted our language and pedagogy away from PBL to design thinking.
With the right professional development in place and the educational methodology that best suited our vision, we then took to the work of creating a unique “ADAT mindset” that would support all of this good work at Adat Ari El Day School. We needed to uncover where the core of our school intersected with the stages of design thinking, how design thinking reflected our Jewish values, and how our mission reflected this new direction while honoring our past and being visionary about the future.
With the support of our d.school partners, we developed the following resources to support this endeavor:
We created a project planner that put empathy at the forefront of every design challenge by asking the question, “For whom are we designing?” By clearly articulating our user, our projects focused on that user’s need.
Especially with our youngest students, maintaining a “bias of doing,” meaning when students experiment immediately with solutions rather than thinking hypothetically about whether or not something will work, is crucial when creating opportunities for them to learn how to be empathetic and think from the perspective of another. For example, we allow our students to prototype ideas from their perspective, then provide opportunities to gather feedback from the user—someone who might engage with their prototype. Modifying their ideas to fit their user, rather than beginning with their user in mind, allowed for thoughtful consideration of someone else’s perspective in a developmentally appropriate way.
Previously, many of the methods we used to build empathy employed observation and interview. These methods are useful for older students but require skills beyond what is developmentally appropriate for most elementary-age students. Instead, we focus on creating “empathy experiences” that allow our students to walk in someone else’s shoes.
We also learned that having various design thinking methods in the form of easily accessible graphic organizers that could be used across curricula was helpful in building transferable skills from grade to grade, class to class, English to Hebrew. While wonderful resources exist, we found we needed to modify them to match our specific goals and values.
There were many lessons to be learned from an educational philosophy shift and all that it entails. One of the most basic is that classroom management, clear expectations and norms are vital. Taking the time to explain goals, terms, how to clean up, how to treat each other and how to use time efficiently is necessary at every stage of every project. We created graphic organizers to support these aspects and also developed a playbook for our flexible learning spaces that could teach our students which spatial configuration best supports a particular project goal.
Furthermore, we sought to evaluate our own work and to measure the learning goals of our classrooms. To do so, we had to look no further than our mission statement: Has this project helped our students to know themselves, serve others and act to improve the world? If a project has fulfilled all three of these goals, then we look at it like a home run. If a project has filled one of the goals of our mission, dayeinu! We see positive evidence of the success of our collaboration.
We hope that the lessons learned can create replicable models for other day schools. Our collaboration with the Stanford d.school gave us the tools and support we needed to customize and adapt the design thinking approach for our school. Coincidentally, the design thinking process enabled a constructive evolution of our curriculum, with empathy always at the forefront of our design. By viewing students as agents and designers in their own learning, we know that we can enrich their education and truly imbue it with a mix of tradition and innovation. The partnership with Stanford was beneficial in ways far beyond those originally anticipated.