Want to Innovate at your School? Try a Design Sprint

With a new year comes new experiments in how teachers can apply the agile craft of design thinking to improve and innovate in their schools. For 2015–2016, we experimented with design spring and applied the model to school innovation. Of course applying new models carries some risk and, as the old saying goes, with risk comes reward. But risk can also bring Failure, and if you speak to a K12 educator, capital ‘F’ Failure is The-Very-Scary-Thing-to-Avoid.

While we might quibble with that characterization (isn’t failure but a necessary product on a path to learning?) we know teachers with limited resources and time hope to take on a design thinking project and see it lead to a positive result. Since we spent the better part of the year structuring, tweaking, and coaching schools through design sprints, here are a few lessons learned so you can run a sprint yourself and get to meaningful impact.

But first a little background:

The d.home team launched in 2014–2015 as an experiment in building a professional development cohort to support educators incorporating design thinking into their curriculum and practice as educators. To drive at a greater local impact for 2015–2016, we scaled the number of schools we work with from nine to three and we upped our engagement to regular, weekly meetings. We required a framework for structuring our work together. Ultimately, we developed a sprint structure.

While every Sprint was authentic to each school’s needs or constraints (like how much time they had or the type of on-campus personnel), we relied on this overarching structure: A school team empathizes to arrive at a design challenge, uses a human-centered approach to design solutions and works to implement the solution at their school. Here are the lessons we learned while running design sprints for a year:

Lesson 1. Teachers should take a learning posture.

Teachers become better teachers of design by acting as designers, and that means running their own design thinking projects. In other words, teachers practice experiential learning themselves so that you can teach students who will go through a similar experience.

Lesson 2. Focus on one meaningful school problem.

A design sprint should focus on a real problem within the school that touches students, staff members or the school community. Don’t like the way parent-teachers conference are run? Okay, go out and speak with some students, parents and other teachers. Check to make sure this is a meaningful problem that exists for users.

Lesson 3. Use design thinking to increase student voice.

The primary user of a school is a student. Keep in mind that as an adult, whether teacher, administrator or parent, you have a fundamentally different experience of school than a student. To that end, school-facing design projects should aim to improve the experience of students. Better yet, collaborate with students on your design sprint.

Lesson 4. Be explicit about your process and honest about the unknown.

We’ve noticed that one of the most challenging aspects of running design thinking challenges at school is the extended amount of time it requires designers to hold ambiguity. If you’re going to create something new, by that very nature, you won’t know what it is. But wading in ambiguity can be incredibly taxing, especially in a school environment when stakeholders pressure educators to have known outcomes. We’ve suggest that design leads move to establish abundant clarity about the process they’re using, and to naming what is unknown or ambiguous to co-designers and stakeholders. Being honest about the unknown is critical to establishing trust with collaborators.

Lesson 5. Constraints lead to creativity.

Constraints help you move away from ambiguity to clarity in the design process. They also help to define the space of your prototype. “Improve math scores” is a lot hard to think through than “A 15-minute math intervention.” Aim to identify and embrace constraints as tools to inform your design.

Above all else, remember that running a design sprint is a powerful way to dive deep into a topic at your school and design radical solutions. At its best, designer-teachers take part in a cycle of innovation where they continually improve their own work, their relationship to the community, their students, or some beautiful combination of the all three. Keep on and stay in touch.