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Iterating and Ideating: Teachers Think Like Designers

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Teacher Karen Fierst tries out design thinking.

What do a designer and teacher have in common? Turns out there are a lot of similarities.

"Teachers design everyday. They structure all kinds of solutions," says Sandy Speicher from seminal design firm Ideo. "At any given moment, they’re designing a response to a student and how they bring out content in different ways so kids can understand it if they’re struggling. All of these are design decisions."

It's just a much a matter of how they perceive themselves. When Speicher explains her idea to teachers, she says "there’s this 'Aha,' this shift to realizing that they do the have power of changing the situation in front of them."

With the help of on-the-ground teachers, Speicher and her design colleagues at Ideo have come up with a toolkit, and an entire website called Design Thinking for Educators devoted to explaining how to use it, to help educators build the design process into their day.

The toolkit is meant to create a set of processes and methods used by professional designers that's been rewritten in the context of education and the school environment. Speicher hopes teachers who use the toolkit will eventually default to this way of design thinking for any situation that comes up -- in or out of the class.


Here's what that looks like (excerpted from Design Thinking For Educators.)

  • DISCOVERY. I have a challenge. How do I approach it? Creating meaningful solutions for people begins with a deep understanding for their needs.
  • INTERPRETATION. I learned something. How do I interpret it? It involves storytelling, sorting and condensing thoughts, until a compelling point of view and clear direction for ideation emerge.
  • IDEATION. I see an opportunity. What do I create? With careful preparation and a set of rules to follow, a brainstorm session can yield hundreds of fresh ideas.
  • EXPERIMENTATION. Building prototypes means making ideas tangible, learning while building them, and sharing them with other people.
  • EVOLUTION. This involves planning next steps, communicating the idea to people who can help realize it, and documenting the process.

Who has time to build design thinking into the day, not to mention rewire the way they think about their jobs? For those who already feel overwhelmed by the long list of to-dos, Speicher says investing time on the front end behooves teachers in different ways.

"This is about making what you already do more enjoyable and more effective," she says. "It's not the only answer, it’s an invitation by which you can approach things that come to you."

Speicher says the teachers she's worked with say the design process has made them feel refreshed, happy, and engaged as teachers. "Teachers are hungry for resources that inspire them," she says.

Karen Fierst, a K-5 learning specialist at Riverdale Country School, an independent school in the Bronx in New York, helped Ideo finesse the details of the toolkit and says she's used it a few times at her school already. She and her colleagues have applied design thinking to the process of updating the school's ethics and culture code. They've also used it to plan strategies in welcoming the new head of lower school.

"It's been really useful in guiding us," Fierst says. "It moves things along in a way that’s really productive. On one hand, it’s a long process you're committing to, but it promises an outcome with a timeline."

Teachers really do want to do well, they really want to be serving stuents, create great stuff. Often they want to do it in collbaoraiton with others. But structure gets in the way.

Watch how another incorporated design thinking into the physical design of his classroom -- based on his students' input.

Michael from Design Thinking for Educators on Vimeo.

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