“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.
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.
by Laurie Kimbrel, Ed.D.
According to the California School Board Association, the purpose of a locally elected board of trustees is to ensure that school districts are responsive to the values, beliefs and priorities of their communities. School boards are empowered to carry out several important oversight and direction setting functions but in order to be truly effective; a board must have a unity of purpose.
Unity of purpose of the governance team (which includes both the board members and superintendent) include a common focus, agreement on priority goals, and shared values about students, the district and public education that transcend individual differences and fulfill a greater purpose. A unity of purpose exists when the commitment to achieving these goals becomes the guiding principle of the board members and superintendent.
Achieving unity of purpose requires a deliberate, thoughtful process. After all, board members are elected as individuals, but govern as a group. Any action or direction to the superintendent requires a vote of the majority of the board and so an individual with an idea not shared by the group will not get very far.
Oftentimes, unity of purpose is expressed as a mission statement. For example, the mission statement at Tamalpais Union High School District where I served for seven years as a superintendent was developed by the board in collaboration with the community and served as an ongoing reminder of the purpose of the district.
“The Tamalpais Union High School District is dedicated to the development of creative, passionate, and self-motivated learners. Upon graduation, students will be prepared for engaged citizenship and able to contribute individually and collaboratively in order to address the challenges of a dynamic and diverse world. To these ends, all students will demonstrate mastery of core competencies and will be offered meaningful learning experiences to enable them to access and critically analyze information, pose substantive questions, and communicate effectively.”
Although this statement is rather long, it is student focused and can be distilled to two essential components:
- All students will learn at high levels
- All students will graduate ready for life in the twenty first century
This mission was annually reviewed by the board and included in the unity of purpose section in the governance handbook. In fact, the board updated the entire handbook, which also included protocols and norms, annually and each member of the governance team signed a cover page indicating their agreement to adhere to the agreements within.
Having an articulated unity of purpose is of great benefit when difficult decisions need to be made. An agreement about the purpose of a governance team and school district transcends political leanings and personal biases. The role of the superintendent is to continuously ask the question, “will this action or decision move us closer to or farther from our stated purpose?” Although the superintendent is a member of the governance team, he or she does not vote and so, in these moments, is appropriate to provide an expert opinion and then to remind board members of their own purpose.
Overall, it is important to remember that school districts are not governed by a single board member but rather, by a board as a whole. The governance team, including the superintendent, assumes collective responsibility for building unity and creating a positive organizational culture in order to govern effectively. As leaders, the governance team sets the tone for organizational culture and a board without unity of purpose, often leads to dysfunction within the larger culture.