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Can Design Thinking Help Schools Find New Solutions to Old Problems?

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Principal Kamar Samuels had a problem: how to reach the most disaffected students at Bronx Writing Academy, a middle school serving mostly low-income students. The usual discipline methods weren’t working and Samuels knew that if he could figure out how to engage his toughest students, he’d have a playbook to reach them all. So, he decided to make those students his focus group, asking them what they liked about school, and really listened to the answers. That technique is part of a user-centered design approach he’s trying out in order to tackle some of the age-old problems in education, like low achievement for Latino and African-American boys, with a new lens.

“In education we do not typically engage our users -- our students -- to find what is causing them to be disengaged,” Samuels said. Instead, we often make the assumption that their disengagement means they don’t care about school or don’t have long term goals and dreams.

“What we began to learn is that they did have those dreams and long term goals, but they weren’t able to sustain themselves in the moment through a difficult situation to get to those goals,” Samuels said. “They didn’t have the regulation skills. They had other things pulling them all the time, even though they cared and wanted to do the right thing.”

These insights prompted Samuels to launch a Response To Intervention (RTI) program two years ago that has given staff and students a framework for responding to tough situations in ways that make students feel valued and help them build the communication and self-regulation skills they need. He also began soliciting input from students about how to improve the academic experience.


The kids weren’t accustomed to adults listening to them seriously. “They were not used to having questions asked of them and opening up, so that took time,” Samuels said. But, once the educators made it clear that student perspectives are valued and that their ideas were going to be prototyped and used in the school, even the most disaffected kids were enthused.

Over one summer, Samuels and his staff took “personal inventories” of one challenging group of boys, asking them to bring in items that were important to them. The adults discovered that the boys were lugging around multiple pairs of sneakers for the various after school sports they played and that they felt most engaged during gym and art classes.

“Kids were spending the shortest period of time in the things they like the most,” Samuels said. Like many schools struggling to raise test scores, Bronx Writing Academy focuses a lot of academic time on math and English Language Arts classes. The feedback from students prompted educators to think about even those core classes in a new way. They designed a few learning options for the boys to test, focusing on hands-on learning that got them moving.

“Obviously, we can’t give you gym for the entire day, but we can say here is a day when you are going to be involved with this organization (The Bronx River Society) and you’re going to be investigating the river,” Samuels said. The focus group also suggested integrating more technology into the school day, something Samuels prototyped in the Spring of 2014.

“The technology ideas caught on the most,” Samuels said. “We were simultaneously getting a lot of technology in the school.” Students would come in, check their email and find a list of activities they were responsible for completing online. At first, the school experimented with various kinds of prepackaged software, but soon learned that online lessons put together by actual teachers worked far better. Boys who’d struggled to complete assignments with their teacher looking over their shoulder were thriving with more independence.

The technological approach Bronx Writing Academy uses is nothing new; lots of schools are engaging students online, some in even more creative ways. But what is unique about the program is that it was developed with student feedback. Many of the hardest-to-solve problems in schools involve a confluence of actors, including teachers, students, parents and society. Solutions handed down from others rarely work. A few educators are hoping the design-thinking tools used in other industries can be applied in schools to help them better understand and include all stakeholders in the solution.

MS 328 staff in Washington Heights tried to engage with parents in a new way by setting up "mobile living rooms" after learning that many parents were hesitant to enter school buildings after negative experiences there.
MS 328 staff in Washington Heights tried to engage with parents in a new way by setting up "mobile living rooms" after learning that many parents were hesitant to enter school buildings after negative experiences there. (Courtesy New York iZone)

Working off the relative success of his first design-thinking challenge, Samuels began looking at tardiness and truancy issues. One way to deal with a late student is detention, another way is to ask every late student why he is late. Samuels says these mini-interviews are giving him a more holistic understanding of his students’ communities. Some are late because they stayed up too late and had a hard time getting out of bed. Others are late because of the schedule of the homeless shelter where they live. A blanket penalty like detention might work for some kids while pushing others to drop out.

“Our view is, you give responses based on the needs of students,” Samuels said. “Equity does not mean that everyone gets the same thing.”


“The biggest challenge is mindset, the mindset of your teachers and staff,” Samuels said. “If they have a traditional mindset, then they’re not going to be willing to learn from the process.” And the process of getting to know stakeholders, thinking outside the box and trying out creative solutions, even if they don’t work, is crucial to success. Learning along the way is just as important as finding a workable solution, Samuels said, but educators haven’t been trained to think like that. They are looking for answers that will make the daily task of teaching students easier.

Another challenge is the cyclical nature of the design-thinking process. Schools are not start-ups and finding time to iterate can be a challenge. “The cyclical nature of it and the fact that we don’t always have an immediate answer and that we have to slow ourselves down to make sure we really understand the problem, that’s the biggest challenge,” Samuels said.

He suggests that for schools attempting to use this kind of user-centered design, it helps to get professionals to help design questions that unravel issues below the surface. It’s easy for educators to get bogged down in the details of their work and someone outside the profession can help everyone take a step back and keep the possibilities open.

Samuels suggests starting small and being honest about the big challenges in a school. He also says it works best to pick a small group of people who are comfortable with something new and who will offer up crazy ideas. When teachers are included in this work, they buy in, loving the voice it gives them. Over time, that attitude permeates throughout the school.

Samuels learned this lesson through experience, initially trying to push through reforms from the top down in his first couple years as principal, but gradually realizing nothing works without teacher support. He sees the design thinking protocols as a way to transfer the change-making attitude over to teachers, beyond himself.

“It was hard to get people to buy in and they did because things worked," Samuels said, "but it still remains to a certain extent tied to my personality.” He knows long-lasting changes can’t be tied to one person if they are to be successful and is interested in developing ownership. “I think this will help me to do that because [teachers] can have a voice in the direction of things,” he said.


Bronx Writing Academy is one of hundreds of schools that have participated in various New York City iZone programs. The special office at the New York City Department of Education is trying to build innovation capacity at school sites in three ways: connecting like-minded educators to share ideas, influencing the design of education technology products that fit educator needs and supporting schools using design thinking to shift the culture of problem solving at school sites.

“When educators can be innovators, that means they can approach problems in new ways,” said Cynthia Warner, senior director for strategy and operations at the NYC DOE Office of Innovation. “They design and iterate, test out solutions in new ways and evaluate how successful those solutions were.”

The "backpack inventory" Samuels used is a typical early strategy. It gives the interviewer insight into what the user carries around each day and why each item matters to him. The protocol generates empathy for the user, along with insight. “It’s a technique that helps you sit in the problem a little longer,” Warner said. “Being able to unpack a problem is really helpful.”

The iZone uses several other design thinking protocols adapted to the educator's context from Stanford and Design Gym materials. Some of the techniques are:

Shadow a stakeholder to understand their needs in the flow of the problem they are having. Again, this builds empathy, but also another pair of eyes may see dimensions to a problem that a simple interview doesn’t unearth.

Intercepts: this protocol involves quickly interviewing people with the problem in mind. For example, an interviewer might ask “can you tell me a little more about x issue.” Several middle schools used this model to discuss parent engagement with the school. Teachers went to places where parents were, away from the school building, to ask about their lives and the obstacles to participation. Getting off school grounds made parents more comfortable and they opened up.

Insight Mad Libs: Using a silly game like the fill-in-the-blank Mad Libs can bring out some of the subliminal thoughts people have and generate candid insights.

Creating an Issues Map: Sometimes it helps to cluster everything about a problem before creating a research map. Put the issue at the center and draw lots of notes stemming from it.

Create or build a low-resolution prototype: sometimes a physical resolution of a tool or solution can help crystalize thinking and move the process forward.

While these tools are common in the business world and somewhat simple to execute, they aren’t always easy to implement in educational contexts. For those unfamiliar with these processes, it’s hard to build the intuition of what tool best suits a particular problem.

“How do we relate a specific tool to a larger process and know how to deploy it,” Warner asked. “And how do we build a common language so these tools don’t feel foreign, but feel like something we can understand and use.” That’s the challenge the iZone is trying to tackle through repetition, guided workshops and in-school support.

For his part, Samuels says he’s building buy-in when an intervention developed out of user-centered design works. For example, the technology program and emphasis on learner choice is paying off in his sixth graders. “They work with more independence and are able to ask questions that make you feel as though they have a higher expectation of us,” Samuels said. They are becoming advocates for their own learning.


Samuels hopes that user-centered design will soon trickle down into classrooms, where teachers will use it to tailor their instruction. He’s modeling listening and learning from his students, parents and teachers at the school level in hopes that his staff does the same with their students. “Eventually they will have to do it; this is what the career demands,” Samuels said. It will take time and won’t be easy, but Samuels is encouraged by the small steps his staff takes everyday.

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