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The Promise of Design Thinking for Teachers & Leaders: Thoughts from a Veteran Educator

Shared By Laurie Kimbrel   /     Mar 13, 2016  /     Blog, Laurie Kimbrel, laurie kimbrel atlanta, Laurie Kimbrel Superintendent  /     Comments Off on The Promise of Design Thinking for Teachers & Leaders: Thoughts from a Veteran Educator

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!

Lessons Learned
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.

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  • About Laurie Kimbrel

    The current project manager for the Atlanta K-12 Design Challenge, Laurie Kimbrel is an educator with many years’ experience. Before undertaking this position in 2015, Kimbrel served as Superintendent of the Tamalpais Union High School District in Larkspur, California, where she oversaw 4,200 students, 435 staff members, and managed a $63 million budget. Among other achievements under Laurie Kimbrel’s tenure, the district implemented a leadership model that formed Professional Learning Communities designed to augment teacher effectiveness through shared assessment data.

    Kimbrel holds a bachelor of science in music and business from Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. She also received a master of science in special education from Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, and completed her education with leadership-based doctoral studies at Loyola University in Chicago.

    Dedicated to her community, Laurie Kimbrel is a hospice volunteer and works with nonprofits aimed at ensuring every child has access to great teachers and schools. She is also passionate about education reform and champions efforts to bring about effective hiring practices in schools.

  • Education & Publications


    Loyola University Chicago - Doctorate, Curriculum & Instruction

    National Louis University, Certificate of Advanced Study, Educational Leadership

    Dominican University, Master of Science, Special Education

    Millikin University, Bachelor of Science, Music and Business

    It's a Man's World: How to Achieve Success as a Woman in High School District, AASA Women in Leadership Conference, 2013

    How to Run a Clean Construction Program, California School Board Convention, 2012

    A Transition Success Story: California School Boards Association Conference, 2009

    Program Growth and High Achievement: College Board National Conference, 2008

    Building Leadership Capacity through Effective Staffing Planning, Illinois Association of Personnel Administrators Conference, 2008

    Improving Student Achievement: Illinois NCLB Conference, 2007

    Conducting Effective Workplace Investigations: Lake County Personnel Administrators Conference, 2007

    The Impact of Proactive Classroom Management, Doctoral Dissertation, Loyola University, 2002

  • Community Service

    Laurie Kimbrel volunteers for a number of community organizations including Bristol Hospice as a patient volunteer, Destiny's Daughter's of Promise as a student mentor and Students First as an advocate for effective educational practices.
  • Contact Laurie Kimbrel