Recently, I’ve been reading the book Creative Confidence by brothers Tom and David Kelley. Both men are partners at the global design firm IDEO; the book is designed to help people like me, the non-artistic types, tap into their creativity and solve problems from the user perspective.

In Creative Confidence, there’s an excerpt that reads:

While competitors focused on the never-ending battle surrounding technical specifications (like scanning speed, resolutions, etc.), Doug found a whole new way to improve the lives of patients and their families. In our experience, approaching challenges from a human perspective can yield some of the richest opportunities for change.

While in the process of reading the book, I also visited City Neighbors Charter School in Baltimore with the Education Innovation Fellowship, and the above quote came back to mind. Our tour guide—City Neighbors founder and executive director Bobbi MacDonald—was saying something very similar. I imagined her putting her own spin on it:

While public schools had a laser-like focus on standardized testing and achievement data, I envisioned a different way to transform the lives of students and families. It was my belief that approaching challenges from authentic student and community perspectives would lead to the most substantial lifelong outcomes.

And just like that, the magic happened. All of the work that we’d been doing toward personalized learning in the Education Innovation Fellowship (design thinking, empathy talks, student-centered learning, space configuration, technology, project-based learning, student agency), things that hadn’t really clicked before, made perfect sense. I was SEEING it in this school.

What we saw at City Neighbors was a unique, thoughtfully designed space that had removed many of the physical traits of traditional schools.  Rigid desk and chairs purchased in uniformity had been replaced with well-curated and comfortable mismatching tables, chairs, and sofas. The school had a 1-to-1 laptop ratio, but students could use their own devices to complete assignments as they deemed appropriate. Students were also grouped in pods of 15 (which stayed in place for their four years at the school) to build their social, emotional, community, and academic competencies. In addition, these collaborative pods helped students organize, navigate, and sustain their thinking to fully complete assignments. But the most important aspect of each design decision was trust.

Both organizations, aware that they were designing solutions for a specific group, trusted the perspective of the end user. They were both built from a unique point of view: Solve problems from the inside out. By using empathy and observation, the “designer” approach allows the end user to (unknowingly) guide the design process. The “designer” then uses that information to create a final product or solution.

After having witnessed design thinking in practice in the education space, I’m extremely excited about the possibilities that lie ahead. My Education Innovation Fellowship colleague, Yolanda Johnson (who teaches second and third grade dual language immersion at Cleveland Elementary School), and I are working to dig deeper into how these design principles might be applied in the future. Across the summer, we will highlight key takeaways from City Neighbors and hopefully give an added boost of inspiration, insight, and confidence to creating from the student perspective.

Alex Brown, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Randle Highlands Elementary School


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