“The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and re-learn”
by Laurie Kimbrel, Ed.D.
In the 26 years that I have worked in education, I’ve seen a lot of fads come and go. Most of these ideas seem promising but don’t stand up to scrutiny from teachers or the test of time. However, Design Thinking as a framework for school improvement has the power to be more than just the idea of the day.
We are all Here for the Same Reasons
We choose to become teachers because we care deeply about children and ensuring that they learn and grow. When a child has an “aha moment”, especially if he or she has previously had some difficulty, it gives us the energy to come back and do it all again on another day. As some of us move from being teachers into leadership positions, it is usually because of our desire to create the conditions necessary to bring our work to a larger scale so that those moments of growth occur with greater ease, frequency and for more children. Given that the vast majority of educational leaders come from the field of teaching and that basically, teachers and leaders have the same goal of student growth, we should wonder why there is often a disconnect between teachers and their administrators when it comes to problem solving and change.
As educators, we have the best of intentions as we attempt to solve problems and make improvements in our schools. I’ve never met a school leader who deliberately tried to make things more difficult for teachers or students. And yet, our “solutions” often do just that because we move so quickly to action based on our own personal biases without seeking to understand the situation from the perspective of those who experience it every day.
Design Thinking Shows Great Care About the Experience of Users
The Design Thinking process offers great promise to educators at all levels to improve schools in a way that will bring teachers, leaders and students together rather than creating division. Unlike typical decision-making models, if we use a Design Thinking process, we develop empathy for users prior to the implementation of solutions. In addition, Design Thinking focuses on the creation of multiple prototypes of solutions with the understanding that we will require feedback and several iterations before we find the “right” solution. Design Thinking brings a refreshing move towards deep care about the experience of others rather than a rush to a finding a solution and crossing a problem off of a list.
Discovering Points of View Previously Unknown to You
As an observer of several AK12DC school teams using the Design Thinking process over the course of this school year, I am particularly struck by the changes in problem statements from first drafts developed at the Fall Summit to the current drafts that have continued to develop throughout the winter. As teams worked through empathy interviews and observations, they discovered points of view previously unknown to them. In almost every case, teams found that the problems had multiple facets and complexities that had not been previously known or considered. Even more interesting, and yet hardly surprising, several teams found that their actual problems and eventual prototypes for solutions were quite different than the initial direction given to them by their school leaders.
The lack of alignment between the initial definitions of the problem and how others experience it seems to be the root of the divide that is often created between groups in schools. Imagine how different it could be if we as leaders provided the time and training necessary for staff and students to use the Design Thinking process as a regular part of their routine!
I have had many lessons learned while watching both public and private school teams learn and implement the Design Thinking process this year. I understand that Design Thinking is not an “add on” or “one more thing to do” but rather something that can and should be integrated into school culture. It is inevitable that we deal with problems every day; however, the process that we use to solve them is up to us. The integration of Design Thinking into a school culture allows groups to truly understand and define problems from the point of view of multiple users and eventually to solve problems in ways that create unity rather than division.
My experience with AK12DC and Design Thinking has been invaluable to my growth as a leader and as a person. I now find myself attempting to gain empathy as I think about not only professional but also personal issues. I have found such value in the process that I can’t imagine working in a school setting without it and I look forward to the day that I create and work on a Design Team myself.
by Laurie Kimbrel as an educator and parent
As educators, why do we spend so much of our time preparing our high school students for college? As parents, why do we send our students to college? Is it solely because it will prepare them for a great job some day? Is it so that they earn the most amazing grades possible so that they can get into the most competitive law or medical school? Or is there something else, something bigger and more significant?
When I picked up my own daughter after her first year at one of the most rigorous and academically demanding universities in the country, I wondered what metrics I wanted to use to measure her success. I wondered how to share with her that I care about her as a whole person, not just a scholar. Don’t get me wrong, I care about her grades, and I suppose that I’m lucky because they are excellent. But as I reflect on the reason that I sent her to the other side of the country and pay exorbitant tuition bills, it isn’t so she can spend every day in the library with a book or in a lab doing research. I want my daughter to understand that success in college and life is much bigger than classes, academics and straight A’s.
Here are the questions I really wanted to ask about her first year:
Have you learned that you are in charge of your own destiny?
It’s not high school anymore. You can choose to go to class – or not. No one is going to call home or even ask you about it. It’s all up to you and the consequences of this decision are also all yours. No one will get you out of bed and no one will have your breakfast waiting for you. Have you figured out how to make it where you need to be on your own? You can also choose to join a club, participate in community service or help others. These decisions are no longer for a college application. Have you learned to participate or to help others for the pure joy of doing so? For how it feeds your soul rather than for an external reward?
Have you experienced colossal failure and bounced back?
Failure is part of life. We all experience it and we all deal with it differently. As parents we spend time trying to protect our children from failure, but as adults we are faced with big and small failures regularly. I hope my daughter chooses boldly, goes out on a limb and experiences bold and difficult failure. In fact, I hope she experiences frustration and uncertainty. It is only through experience that we learn to hold our head high, move on, and to try again. In fact, I hope she learns to continue to make bold decisions, with awareness that failure may be the outcome but that it is only through these failures that world changing breakthroughs happen.
Have you made unexpected friends?
College is a time to meet new people with backgrounds so very different from our own. I want to ask my daughter, have you given someone different from you a chance to learn who you are? Have you reached out to someone you would have never known in high school? Have you learned that diversity adds depth to friendship? Have you made sure that someone who is alone knows that you are there for them? Do you have a wide variety of friends but are you working to develop a few life-long friends who will be with you though the ups and downs of your life, career and family?
Have you discovered your passion or ruled out what is not?
Just paging through the university course catalog gives me goose bumps. There is so much variety and so much depth and I wouldn’t even know how to start to choose classes. I wonder if my daughter has taken a class that ignites her passion in something that she never even considered. I wonder if she took a class that she thought she would love and found it dull and boring. I want to tell her that success is finding what you love and pursuing it. I want her to know that a career pursuing what someone else thinks is a good idea is a waste of a life.
Have you learned that your family members are your roots but that we want nothing more than for you to discover you have wings?
During her first year at college, my daughter experienced what its like to be 3,000 miles away from home while she was sick, alone during spring break and hungry because the cafeteria food was almost inedible. It would have been easier if she were home. I would have fed her, taken her to her own doctor and kept her company. In fact, I want her to know that she can always get those things at home but I’m so proud that now she knows how to work though it on her own as well. I want her to know that success is having a solid set of values and an understanding of who you are but that those things are only useful if you use they to grow, learn and become the person you are meant to be. I want her to learn to fly on her own, to be her own person, to make the lives of others better through her actions.
I’m sad for the parents, educators or anyone else who thinks college is only about the grades earned. I’m sad for the undue stress it causes our children and the sometimes-tragic consequences that ensue. College is about learning to be responsible, self-motivated, passionate, and caring. College should ignite a love of learning, a love of oneself, and a love of others. As a parent, I’m most proud of the healthy, happy, passionate person that I can see my daughter becoming. I’ll happily send her back across the country for three more years.
The desire to make a difference in the lives of children with unique needs was what originally brought me to the field of education. I loved being in the classroom and the seeing the light in a child’s eyes when he or she understood an idea for the first time. It was through teaching special education that my work became my passion. As a special education teacher I had the opportunity to create my school’s first program for students with behavior and emotional needs. Prior to that time, identified students had been sent to other sites. We created a program staffed by a multi-disciplinary team that met the needs of a wide range of student in regular education classrooms by consulting and collaborating with regular education teachers and offering many student support services to boost their ability to function in a typical high school environment.
I loved my work and I was a teacher who vowed never to leave the classroom until the fateful day when the superintendent called me at home and asked me to consider a leadership position. My first experience as an administrator came when I served as the interim Director of Special Education during a medical leave of the regular director. It was there that I learned through leadership, we impact the lives of many students by working together to create supportive programs and structures. Serving as a Director of Special Education also taught me the importance of teaming with parents so that they are essential partners in our work rather than outside observers.
Over the years, I was offered and took a variety of roles with in education including Dean, Assistant Principal, Associate Superintendent and finally Superintendent. In each of these positions, the districts were small and I was able to work very closely with our special education leadership and teaching staff to ensure that our programs reflected the growing body of research regarding best practice for serving students with special needs. In my most recent district, we commissioned a study of our entire program and worked to change our services to a more inclusive delivery model. We also added wellness centers that benefitted all students but were also to be an intervention for special education students when appropriate.
Given my background and passion for special education, I was elected and served as the chair for the Marin County (California) Special Education cooperative from 2011-2015. This was the governing body for our shared special education programs within the county. In this role, I worked very closely with the Director to develop policies, fiscal allocation plans, programs and procedures to efficiently and effectively operated programs for a variety of K-12 students.