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Reform Processes that Consider the Local, Rural Context

By Thomas A. Butler, Ph.D., Executive Director, Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8, Altoona, PA

Editor’s Note: This Perspectives article is part of a series. Please also read the related research article Getting Better Together: Innovations for Rural Learners and Communities

Design Thinking and Improvement Science: Iterative Processes that Solve Problems Considering the Local Context

Over the course of the last 17 years, there has been a lot of talk in the education reform world about what works and how to implement proven reform strategies.  Oftentimes, these strategies have come with a cookie cutter implementation process and without much consideration to a rural context. All schools must follow a step by step process regardless of the local context. But there might be other ways to find solutions to local education problems.

Design thinking and improvement science are two examples that use an iterative process—a process that allows schools to solve problems highly considerate of local context.

According to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, there are 6 core principles of improvement science:

1. Make the work problem-specific and user-centered.

It starts with a single question: “What specifically is the problem we are trying to solve?” It enlivens a co-development orientation: engage key participants early and often.

2. Variation in performance is the core problem to address.

The critical issue is not what works, but rather what works, for whom and under what set of conditions. Aim to advance efficacy reliably at scale.

3. See the system that produces the current outcomes.

It is hard to improve what you do not fully understand. Go and see how local conditions shape work processes. Make your hypotheses for change public and clear.

4. We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure.

Embed measures of key outcomes and processes to track if change is an improvement. We intervene in complex organizations. Anticipate unintended consequences and measure these too.

5. Anchor practice improvement in disciplined inquiry.

Engage rapid cycles of Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) to learn fast, fail fast, and improve quickly. That failures may occur is not the problem; that we fail to learn from them is.

6. Accelerate improvements through networked communities.

Bottom line: improvement science is a systemic approach that allows schools to incorporate local context in finding solutions to educational challenges.

An important facet of any innovative undertaking is simply doing something. We should remember the old saying that a camel is a horse made by a committee when an innovation becomes talked to death. We should move beyond the mindset that the only good innovative idea is the earth-shattering Silicon Valley type of change the world innovation. This mindset prevents schools from pursuing grassroots innovation. ESAs can serve as the catalyst to promote and stimulate innovation in schools. In this blog, I provide an example of how I have attempted to use design thinking principles to stimulate innovation with a group of teachers from school districts in our service area.

IU8 Example

In 2015, I made a request to the 35 district superintendents in our service area.  I asked them to nominate one of their “rock star” teachers to participate in a professional learning experience that I was leading. I informed them that I would meet with the teachers once a month over the course of three months. During this time together the goal would be to reimagine school. As part of their work as a group, the teachers would complete an innovative project focused on reimagining school. Seventeen teachers were nominated and participated in what we called the “Rock Star Teacher Program.” The quote that starts this blog post was told to me by a teacher after the last day of our first cohort.

I was very cognizant of the time and effort that school districts went through to send teachers to the training.  Therefore, I made sure the process I used to answer the question of how to reimagine school was one in which grassroots ideas were encouraged.  The program was based on the design thinking process championed by IDEO. You can find the workbook that I used as a basis for the program at I used the workbook as a guide, not as a lockstep, word for word process. Here is my interpretation of the design thinking process spelled out in the workbook that I used to stretch the teachers thinking beyond NCLB and all of the compliance issues in education today that cloud creative thinking.

Design Thinking Process

There are 5 parts to the process: discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation, and evolution.  Each part of the process is grounded in a question that guides the work.

Discovery: “I have a challenge, how do I approach it?”

In our process, our challenge was centered on reimagining school and followed two steps.

Step 1: We formed random groups so teachers could problem solve together in small groups.  We started the first day talking about the future of our society and how learning is wrapped closely to this topic. We showed the TED talk with Sir Ken Robinson titled Changing the Education Paradigm. We discussed how schools can more closely reflect the ideal that Robinson articulates in the context of the changes in our current society.  We then asked the teachers to create their own design problem.

Step 2: Once they had their own problem, they were required to do research on their problem in the real world. This included observations, interviews, questionnaires, and focus groups.  This was a key part of the design thinking process…getting out into the real world to observe what is actually going on. We had teachers shadow students, interview politicians and do various activities to really understand the context of their specific problem. By doing this, the teachers understood they were not going to create something that was just an intellectual exercise, rather it had practical usefulness.

Interpretation: “I learned something, how do I interpret it?”

In some ways this was the most fun part of the process for me. By working in groups, teachers shared their learnings and conceptualized what they learned in the context of reimagining schools. This part of the process led to a much more focused design challenge, based on real-world observations and experiences.

Ideation: “I see an opportunity, what do I create?”

Working in groups, teachers used the information learned from the first two parts of the process and started to brainstorm ideas of what they could do in their classrooms or school setting to solve their design challenge. Ideas had to be doable in the cohort’s timeframe of three months. This time limitation encouraged creativity by focusing the participants on small, doable projects—the best kind to encourage grassroots change in my opinion.

Experimentation: “I have an idea, how do I build it?”

Teachers then took the idea they created and applied it to the real world. I encouraged teachers to approach this section with a pilot program mentality. They used an idea with the understanding that parts of their idea will likely need to be changed. This was the iterative process in action. Failure is accepted as progress toward the desired innovation. This lessened the attitude of teachers who oftentimes are afraid to make mistakes and seek to be perfect all of the time. As I adopted it, the design thinking process encouraged rapid iteration of ideas as participants learned what worked, what failed, and based changes on what was being learned.

Evolution: “I tried something new, how do I evolve it?”

Once a participant iterated a design challenge solution as a pilot program in the experimentation phase, the teachers came back together and shared what they learned. They first met in their smaller groups to get feedback from those colleagues that were most familiar with their project.  We then had all teachers share their ideas and what they learned with the entire group to help them get a fresh perspective on their pilot program. This feedback was important because it came from people who also had gone through a similar experience creating and modifying their own ideas.

Improvement science and design thinking are two processes that ESAs can use to help schools become innovative. Join me in encouraging senior leadership at ESAs to actually conduct a group activity using the improvement science or design thinking method with an iterative process to solve an important educational challenge. It is imperative that the leadership of an ESA is engaged in meaningful “hands-on” work with schools.  By keeping our finger on the pulse of what is actually occurring in the schools, we can make better programming decisions across the ESA ecosystem.

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