Using Design Thinking to Inform Strategic Planning

What one public school district learned from 2,535 sticky notes, over 300 participants, days of observation & 60+ interviews.

What would happen if educational leaders started thinking like designers?  This is the question we investigate in our work and in our recent book, “Design Thinking for School Leaders.” Thinking like a designer means being more aware of the world around you, taking the time to empathize with your users, creating new solutions for the future and taking action to implement those solutions.  Design thinking is a mindset that can transform the way you approach your work as a leader and have a positive impact on an entire organization. Here is the story of how we embraced design thinking at the district level when I was working as Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction for the Los Altos School District. We decided to dig deeper and closely examine the state of teaching and learning in the district – through the eyes of our users. And so we set out to understand and observe.

As a public k-8 school district we had many different users: students, teachers, parents and community. During this need finding phase, we wanted to make sure we were simultaneously gathering broad data as well as doing a deeper dive with our users and created structures to enable both.  We created opportunities for all parents, teachers, administrators and students to have a voice in the process. We also created a small design team to conduct deeper ethnographic research in our district. Every aspect of this process was geared to help us better identify opportunities for continuous improvement.

Need Finding with a Design Team

We formed a five-person team to take a design-driven approach to understanding the needs of the district.  In keeping with a “design thinking” mindset, the team’s work focused on identifying unmet human needs, which when addressed, would drive instructional improvement as a district.

With that in mind, the team set out with a beginner’s mindset to observe, question and most importantly listen.  After several days in the field and interviews with students, teacher and parents the design team uncovered two unmet human needs.  Both of these needs statements focus on meeting teacher needs as a means to improve student learning. As a district, we recognize how valuable our teachers are and also know that if we want to impact the experience of 4,500 students it begins with our teachers.

Experiential Need:  Teachers need to observe other teachers…

  • In order to make theoretical practices more concrete
  • To expand their senses of what is possible
  • Because seeing students respond positively builds confidence to implement new pedagogies

Relational Need:  Teachers need to connect with colleagues…

  • Because teaching is inherently isolating
  • In order to build a network that provides timely support
  • Because thinking things through with colleagues generates professional confidence

Need Finding: Broad Gathering of Input

For the broad gathering of input, we held eleven input gathering sessions with over three hundred participants.  We used the following prompts to generate both conversation and ideas.

  • Why does learning need to be revolutionized for all students?
  • What excites you about revolutionizing learning for all students?
  • What scares you about revolutionizing learning for all students?
  • What changes do you think need to be made to revolutionize learning for all students?
  • What are your learning hopes for your students?
  • What if schools were places where students could….
    Then we would need teachers who…

Then we would need parents who…

Then we would need leaders who…

  • An LASD graduate will be able to….

Every single response to these prompts was collected and is represented in the data visualizations.  What was interesting to note is the similarities in responses from parents, teachers and administrators.  Essentially, we all want very similar things for our students and our children. All of the data visualizations can be viewed here, but the one that excited us the most is embedded below. The image is word clouds representing all responses, but the size of the phrase/word indicates the frequency of this response.

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Portrait of an LASD Graduate

Developing the portrait of an LASD Graduate was a great first step, that allowed us to have deeper conversations. How do we develop this student?  What are we currently doing that contributes to this? What do we need to stop doing? What do we need to do differently to achieve this for students?

Now What? Ideation & Prototype

We have now completed the need finding phase of this process, although I am not sure this will ever truly end.  The experience has changed how our team approaches problems, often reframing them or trying to more clearly understand them from the students’ point of view.  

What we have learned about our own organization during this process was powerful.  While this process took much longer than a more traditional strategic planning process, the investment of time yielded more exciting opportunities for students.  What would you learn about your organization if you challenged yourself to think like a designer?


The Report Card as a Design Challenge

“Mommy, can I open my report card?” Jake asked me at least three times on our four-minute walk home from the last day of school. I was a little surprised at his eagerness as we’ve never made grades a big deal in our house, but he just finished third grade and was clearly excited to see how he had done.  He was also excited to read what his teacher had written about his progress this year. I convinced both boys to hold off on opening report cards until after dinner when we could look at them as a family. I don’t know if it was the additional anticipation or the hope that somehow the report card would be different at the end of the year, but opening the report card was a disappointing experience for us all.

It was the box standard LAUSD report card that assigned students a numerical value on a 4 point scale.  Both boys had a fantastic year, their report cards were full of 3s and 4s. We read off the categories and celebrated success, but were unable to answer the simplest of questions.  Owen, who is very talented athletically, asked why he only received a 3 in PE. No clue. Then we moved on to teacher comments which consisted of a few pre-written comments that teachers click on. That was it.  After 180 days of learning that was all the information we received. Sadly, as a parent, I was disappointed but not surprised. I was surprised that my boys wanted more. They wanted comments from their teachers on what they excelled at and what they might need to work on.  Now I totally get that our teachers (whom we love) were following LAUSD protocols and did everything they were told to do, but I wonder if their practices might change if they saw what it was like for a student to open the report card. What an opportunity for a redesign!

Having been a part of “Report Card Redesign Projects” at the district level, I know what a long bureaucratic process it can become. Don’t get me wrong it is important that we tackle these problems at the systems level, but I don’t think it should stop innovation at the school or teacher level.  What if we empowered teachers or school leaders to redesign their own report card? What if schools started with a question—How might we design a report card that provides meaningful and actionable information in a parent-student friendly manner?— and then empowered those closest to students to do something about it.  Yes, we may still be required to have the official standard report card, but there is nothing to say that schools or teachers can’t attach their own documentation. Here are two examples I have personally seen in action that make a difference for students and learning.

  • School: Design 39 in Poway has questioned everything, so it’s no surprise that they are also rethinking how to report student progress.  They are choosing to report student progress via “Growth Guides” instead of formal report cards. Growth Guides weren’t anything fancy, in fact when I visited Design 39 their first iteration of a growth guide was an elaborate shared google doc between student, teachers, and parents but they communicate actionable feedback about learning in a timely way.

  • Teacher: When I worked as a principal, I had a rockstar team of first grade teachers who never felt that the “district report card” was enough so they created their own. As a team, they worked together to create a template of the types of learning feedback they wanted to share in narrative form. They wrote about students’ strengths, areas of growth and areas for improvement - including opportunities for summer learning and reinforcement.  

What does your current report card communicate to parents and students about the last 180 days of learning?  What is their experience opening the report card? Does this experience match your core beliefs about learning?  If not, don’t wait—redesign it! Like others you may still have to complete the required, official documents but there is nothing to say you can’t add your own. The more clearly we can share authentic feedback with students, the more engaged they become in their own learning process.

Let's #ShadowaStudent and #ShadowaTeacher


It’s time once again to #ShadowaStudent (runs February 19- March 2).  Shadow a Student was started by School Retool, a professional development fellowship supported by IDEO that helps school leaders redesign their school culture.  This is the 3rd consecutive year of this campaign, where over 5,000 educators have now cleared their calendars for the day and spent it immersed in the school lives of their students.  The goal is to use the information gained from the day to improve the learning experiences for students.

The first time I intentionally shadowed a student was on the first day of a new school year.  I thought it would be interesting to view the “back-to-school” excitement through the students’ eyes.  As a student I had participated in plenty of first days and yet, I was in no way prepared for the reality or the boredom of what I experienced.  I was shadowing an eighth grade student in a traditional middle school setting with a seven period day.  The welcome back excitement from the students arriving at school, carried into the first period class where there was a quick “get to know you activity” followed by rules, syllabus and expectations.  It was very teacher centric, with little engagement or participation from the students.  The class went by fairly quickly but then I realized I would likely be repeating this same class structure six more times in different content areas.  Ugh—my heart sank and by period four I was bored beyond belief.  I found it hard to muster enthusiasm in any of the classes.  What a perfect opportunity for a redesigned experience and one that, unless you look at it through the eyes of the student may not be apparent.

Shadowing a student is a very powerful experience, so powerful that it made me also think about the potential impact of shadowing a teacher.  What would it look like for school leaders, principals or assistant principals, to shadow a teacher for a day?  What might we learn?  Teachers can be critical of school leaders that we have forgotten what it is like to be in a classroom, maybe this would be a way to reconnect with the teaching experience.  Who’s in?  I’d love to hear about your experience whether you #ShadowaStudent or #ShadowaTeaccher!

Make sure to #shareyourlearning!

Can Kindness & Empathy Be Reduced to a Checklist?


This week has been a tough week, with another school shooting making headlines I have felt heavier than usual wondering if we are making time for what really matters in school. It’s not just the increase in school shootings (that is another topic in itself) that have me feeling weighed down,  this week alone I have seen two examples that have left me wondering about the ways in which we are trying, no doubt with the best of intentions, to teach students about empathy and kindness in schools.

Here are two recent examples that caught my attention and really caused me to question our collective approaches:

Great Kindness Challenge: My two elementary aged boys participated in a weeklong kindness challenge at school.  For one week, they had conversations about kindness, there was a Kindness assembly and kids were asked to participate in a Kindness Challenge outlining in a checklist format activities they could do to be kind to others.  Our world needs more kindness, but even my first and third grader could see the inauthenticity of this week. If you visit the Kindness Challenge website, they advertise the week as follows:  One week. One Checklist. Infinite Happiness.  Can kindness really be reduced down to one week with a checklist? Does focusing on kindness for one week send the message that it’s not important the rest of the school year?

Just Don’t Say No Rule:  This week while traveling for work, I had the news on in the hotel room something I rarely do at home and heard the story about the “Just Don’t Say No Rule” at Kainesville School in Utah.  Again with the best of intentions, school leaders decided to implement a rule that 6th-grade girls aren’t allowed to say, “No” if they are asked to go to the dance or once at the dance they aren’t allowed to say, “No” if a boy asks them to dance. Thankfully the school has ended this rule.  The rule was meant to be inclusive, yet it was teaching students that being kind to others means putting yourself in potentially uncomfortable situations.   This is an especially problematic example, given where we are as a society with sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement.  But, what does it say about our own understanding or lack thereof on how to teach kindness to our students?

Both of these examples have left me wondering about the culture of kindness in schools.  How do we build an authentically kind culture?  There are many programs in place at school - programs like Character Counts & Project Cornerstone - but are they effective? How do we know? How do schools, parents and the community come together to create a culture of kindness?  More questions, than answers.  

How are you building an authentically kind culture at your school?  I’d love to learn from you and hear some real examples that don’t reduce empathy or kindness down to a checklist.

Putting the Human in "Human-Centered Design"

Getting Started with Empathy Interviews

Getting Started with Empathy Interviews

I was initially drawn to design thinking or “human-centered design” as it is sometimes called because the starting point was so much different than almost every other problem-solving process I had experienced.  This one actually starts with people!  It doesn’t start with a pre-cooked idea,  a top-down directive or an already tried solution.  It starts by spending time with people to really understand needs from their perspective.  This simple difference is what excited me, but it is also what scares some people from truly embracing design thinking. We all know, engaging with humans can be messy.

There are a number of ways to dig into the needs of your end user, but one of the simplest ways is to talk to people. I am constantly amazed at how much I learn from others through conversation and how much others are willing to share if I create the right conditions for the conversation.   Most people love to talk, especially if you touch on a topic of interest.  And since design thinking is all about solving problems, most people find being a part of a solution (especially to a problem they too experience) interesting.

If you are contemplating using design thinking, I would encourage you to start talking to people and practicing what we call “empathy interviews.”  It might be scary at first, but I promise it will get easier.  And as Tiny Fey said in Bossypants, “ You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide overthinking it.  You have to go down the chute.”  Below are a few steps to help you stop overthinking it and get you started with your first empathy interview.

  • What are you curious about?  Think about the problem you are trying to solve.  What makes it an interesting problem?  Perhaps there are already solutions out there, but the problem still exists.  Why?
  • Whose problem is this?  Who will benefit when you solve this problem?  This will help you identify your end user and get you thinking about who you need to talk to.

  • Who will you interview? Brainstorm a possible list of people that might have interesting insights on your topic.  Don’t forget to include “extreme users” — those who might have experienced your problem in a drastic way or those who may have never experienced your problem. Some of our most interesting insights have come from extreme users

  • Pick a Design Partner. Conducting empathy interviews is always more fun with a friend.  Select someone who is invested in helping to solve your problem and willing to help.  This way one of you can do the interviewing and the other can capture notes.  Try to capture exact phrases and don’t forget to watch the body language.

  • Schedule Your Interviews.  Allow for a minimum of 30 minutes for an interview, sometimes it takes the first 15 minutes just to establish rapport and get the conversation flowing.  

  • Plan Your Questions. When planning your questions and interview prompts, keep in mind these types of interviews are meant to draw out stories and evoke emotions.  These are not hiring interviews where you must ask everyone the same set of questions.  Plan a general outline and let the interview go where there is energy.
  1. Encourage Stories. Stories reveal how people think about the world.
  2. Avoid usually, always and rarely. Ask about specific instances, such as “tell me about the last time you___________.

  3. Ask why. Even when you think you know the answer, try asking people why they do or say the things they do; sometimes the answers will surprise you.

  • Interview. Enjoy the interview.  The more comfortable you are, the more comfortable your interviewee will be in sharing their experiences. Don’t be scared of silence, some of the deeper responses come after a moment of thought and reflection.

  • Synthesize & Reflect.  After you have completed your interviews, take some time to reflect and digest all that you learned.  How will this new information impact your next steps?

To make this even easier, try downloading the Empathy Interview Template.  It has everything you need to conduct a successful interview.  I can’t wait to hear what problem you are solving, who you are talking to and what you learn!