Start With Students: One Teacher’s Design-Thinking Journey

“Innovation” was a buzzword humming around the educational zeitgeist when I started the Education Innovation Fellowship in January. When I talk to people about the program, they often ask what that word, “innovation,” means, and I have to admit, I was wary of the fuzzy term. Luckily, the innovation I have found is something clear and tangible: an entirely new (to me) way of solving challenges in our schools—a process we call design thinking. I want to share a little bit about my ongoing journey through this process, because I think that it has value for other teachers tackling thorny problems in their own classrooms—and I’ll share some of the awesome experiences and resources I encountered along the way.

Step 1: Empathize

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The radical idea at the core of this first step is that if you want to know what will work best to solve a particular challenge for students you should ask them.

What may seem common sense to some is a first step often overlooked by many. We, as teachers, get into our planning zone and consult with all kinds of peers, experts, and stakeholders. We seek the counsel of instructional coaches or more experienced colleagues; we ask families the best ways to support their students; we scour the Internet to find interesting new resources; and while all of this is helpful, we can forget to reach out to the most important stakeholders involved in the classroom: students themselves. The first step in designing our new classroom prototypes was to conduct empathy interviews with students. The purpose was to ask them what was working and what wasn’t, and to see what ideas they had about how to make their learning more enjoyable and effective.

Ultimately, we used the data gathered from these interviews to tell stories about our students—who they are, what motivates them, and what they need in their school and classroom environment to be successful. This knowledge would form the foundation of what came next in defining the particular challenge we wanted to tackle in our classrooms. As another fellow said to me: “If you have never been outside of a box, then do you know you are in a box? Can you dream of what is outside of the box? If not, then how can students who have never seen any different say they want their class to be different?”

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Step 2: Define

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In the second step of the design-thinking process, I crafted open-ended statements asking “How might we…?” tackle specific problems, and shaped “mad libs” identifying my students’ needs.

After gathering information about what my students say about their learning experience and what they actually do in the classroom, I used that knowledge to identify what I think they need most. This became the driver of all brainstorming, and the way to hone in on one particular challenge that considered the desires and struggles expressed by the students.

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In interviews, my students discussed how they wanted a balance of independent work time and group work, but that they wanted to decide which type made the most sense for them when practicing a given skill or solving a task. They liked feeling supported by each other and by me as their teacher, and hoped to continue choosing their own partners or groups while working at their own pace. Many of my students also said that the reason people should learn math is because of its real-world application and importance for everyday skills. As a result of these insights, my innovation prototypes during the spring semester focused on ways to incorporate more student choice and voice into our current station rotation model.

Needs Assessment

Step 3: Ideate


My next task was to learn about what other educators outside my school are doing while simultaneously keeping my own students in mind.

One amazing aspect of participating in the Fellowship is that we have the opportunity to travel to see classrooms and schools around the country where other educators are doing innovative work. As a cohort, we have seen schools of all shapes and sizes in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, California, across the city of Chicago, and right here in our nation’s capital. I returned from these trips energized, inspired, and ready to hit the ground running in my own classroom. Before embarking on these trips, however, I found myself in need of a design-process attitude check.

The ideate phase of the design thinking process doesn’t believe in bad ideas. It asks you to suspend judgment of thoughts that surface, and to be open to learning from places or sources you had not previously considered. While this is all well and good in theory, it was admittedly difficult to squash the small voice in the back of my head that tells me all the reasons why an idea would never work. I was at risk of entering these innovative classrooms across the country having already decided that there was no way what I saw would work in my own classroom. To prevent that mindset from getting in the way of my own learning, I came up with a plan. I would try to enter each school we visited with an open mind, while also reflecting on my specific students. Rather than focus on the myriad reasons that what I saw in practice couldn’t work in my own context (lack of technology, money, support, or know-how, for starters), I instead chose to keep a simple journal. I would write down two or three big takeaways from each school we visited. I would document key artifacts and examples related to the many different kinds of student work we saw. As a result, I walked away from these trips with a rich bank of ideas that I could then use when brainstorming my own station remodel. I saw how innovation could mean students flying a drone around a classroom (yes that happened!) but can also involve teachers and students moving through more traditional class structures in new and interesting ways.

Urban Montessori

While visiting Urban Montessori in Oakland, CA, we had a chance to see students creating their own work plans. They were given a list of core subjects they needed to work on by the end of the week, and when they finished a given activity in one of those areas a teacher would identify the activity the student chose and sign off to indicate mastery.

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Students in a 4th grade class at La Escuelita, also in Oakland, kept personalized data trackers in their notebooks. These allowed students to set their goals for the year and keep track of their progress in reaching these goals along the way.

La Escuelita goal setting

A 5th grade class at La Escuelita had students setting not just long term goals, but also weekly ones. They decided how many minutes they anticipated needing to spend on the different programs or activities to meet these goals and planned their own class time and homework accordingly.

Summit Prep role description

At the Summit Prep campus we visited in Redwood City, CA students were supported as they worked in groups on projects. One scaffold was assigning students different roles, but also giving them question frames to encourage more dialogue and to help keep themselves on track. While a lot of the work students do for these projects is online, they still had daily activities related to the big projects that required collaborative work.

Saint Anne tracker

A teacher at Saint Anne School in Los Angeles had students check off their own progress when working through online programs using a wall tracker.

Incubator School PLP

Here a ninth grade student at the Incubator School in Los Angeles shows off their personalized learning plan, or PLP. The PLP organizes assignments created by the teacher into an online platform for students to complete.

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Students at a Rocketship in Santa Clara, CA had their own data trackers for the week, but also visual reminders of what their goals were for each of the online programs students used.

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Classrooms across grade levels at CICS West Belden in Chicago used menus to allow students options when choosing their classwork. On the left above, an early childhood teacher presented students a menu of options they can choose from each day. Students must complete all of the activities by the end of the week to earn free time on Fridays (and submit the work using an app called Seesaw), but they have control over when they complete the activities in a given week.

West Belden multiple modes

Above is the agenda projected for the day in an upper elementary reading classroom where students are given an objective—making inferences in this case—and presented with multiple ways to meet that objective. They can watch videos, read articles, or create presentations, and each mode has its own submission to prove mastery.


Students at Two Rivers PCS here in D.C. also had visual systems to track their student centers. A Kindergarten teacher allowed students to pick their activity during group work by moving their magnetized name, and students in an upper grades classroom were given their station rotation assignments on a PowerPoint slide projected on the board each day.

Synthesis of learning

Now that I had learned from some of the big thinkers in redesigning schools, it was my job to come back and synthesize. How could I use the best of what I saw and tweak it to try it out in my own classroom?  I began brainstorming the different elements of station work that I wanted students to experience—from what the actual center activities would be, to who students could partner with, and how they would plan out their work and reflect on their learning. Taking a few of these ideas, I created my “minimally viable product” or prototype that I wanted to try out as we wrapped up the school year.

Step 4: Prototype

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What can I try out on Monday to see how it goes?

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My essential idea after many rounds of brainstorming was that students would self-select their station work after analyzing their individual data and creating their own personalized weekly learning plan. This idea—students making their station plans—was based on classrooms I had seen in California and Chicago, along with what I knew to be happening in early childhood programs across D.C. Tools of the Mind is a curriculum used by many DC Public Schools that helps students learn self-regulation through structured play. The early childhood students make make a plan and then pick a station e.g.: “I am going to learn about splashing at the water station.” A teacher then attaches a clothespin to an activity wheel or some other sort of indicator to place a student at this activity. The scheduling wheel balances the size of groups, because if the water station is already full, the student has to pick a different station. This, in the context of all of the personalized learning I had seen at work, was a light bulb kind of moment for me. Who do we as teachers allow to have agency? If four year olds can be given the freedom to structure their own learning, why not fourth graders? At what point does the urgency to learn critical skills crowd out the agency and autonomy we are willing to give students, and what is the balance? These questions were driving me as I put out my first prototype.

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Because we were nearing the end of the school year, I asked students to analyze their most recent i-Ready diagnostic assessments to see the content areas they should focus on. They then underlined the specific skills within that content band (under “Next Steps for Instruction” below) to target for the week. The idea was that they would build these critical skills that the data said they still needed to be ready for the fifth grade.Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 12.44.59 PMStudents placed the skills they targeted into their weekly planner. They then reflected on which activities would help them to learn that particular skill. As we rolled out the plans, students were given a choice of activities: ST Math, working with a peer tutor, playing content-based games, practicing their fluency facts, or meeting with me as their teacher. Students had already been participating in these activities throughout the year during station time, so they were familiar with procedures and expectations already.

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Step 5: Test

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In this stage of the process, students test the prototype in action while I learn from them and make changes.

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Students used their i-Ready data to identify areas of strength as well as areas where they needed practice. They self-identified as experts on a given topic, and signed up to have other students come to them for tutoring support.

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Groups of students practiced their fluency by timing their knowledge of facts, playing games, or using our online programs.

Station 4

Then it’s time to iterate, iterate, iterate!

Here I look back to the empathize step, and the cycle of work continues.

As you can imagine, implementing this new way of doing stations generated a whole other set of questions that will lead to further tweaking and learning. I’m doing more brainstorming around the different ways students can document their learning at the stations, how I can ensure high mathematical accuracy and quality of work while students are working independently or in small groups, and the best way for students to reflect on how the stations are going for them, to name a few.  Importantly, this tweaking will involve more interviewing and observing students to find out what works best for them. I’m excited to continue this learning during the summer and fall as I prepare to roll out this work with a new group of students. Most of all, I’m excited to see how using the design thinking process has changed the way I view my classroom and my students, and how we go about solving problems together.

Kaila Ramsey is a 4th grade math and science teacher at H.D. Cooke Elementary School.

16 Kaila Ramsey


Notes from the Road: California 2016

Last Sunday, CityBridge’s fourth cohort of Education Innovation Fellows jumped on a plane and headed out west for a whirlwind week of innovative schools and design thinking in California. Every year, this trip has been life-changing for our fellows: diving deep into design thinking and seeing new ideas in practice is, as we’ve learned, a powerful combination.

Stay tuned for a full download—but until then, here are some snapshots from the road. Join in the fellows’ experiences in real time by following @CityBridgeFdn and #EIF16 on Twitter.

On Monday, Fellows brainstormed big ideas and questions they have about 8 Great Leaps in education:


They formed teams bases on common themes and challenges they’re passionate about.

They then headed to Stanford and honed their design thinking skills with a workshop at the


Here are a few folks building “student empathy totems” to remind them of how they can put themselves in the shoes of one of their learners:


Then they shared their totems in a gallery walk discussion:


On Tuesday, the team started the day at Urban Montessori Charter School, where fellows learned the key elements of the Montessori model and how the school expands upon that core model with design thinking. They also heard from the school staff about the challenges of crafting an intentionally diverse public school:


After Urban Montessori, the fellows headed across Oakland to La Escuelita, an Oakland Unified elementary school:


There, they learned about how the teachers have driven the design and implementation of a blended learning model and a maker space. Students in the maker space were building circuits:


Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland was their next stop, where teachers gathered in that school’s maker space, the Creativity Lab:


Fellows (and CityBridge staff!) got to experience the basics of making by investigating real-world products, taking them apart, and explaining the complexity of the component parts. In this meta-moment, teachers dissect a pencil sharper:


The team’s last stop was the Facebook headquarters, the world’s largest open-plan office, where Shauntel Poulson (Reach Capital) introduced fellows to the ed-tech market. They closed the day with a highly interactive Nearpod demo from Guido Kovalskys, Nearpod CEO, and a demo of the Summit Basecamp Personalized Learning Platform from the Basecamp team and the Facebook engineers who work full time on the project.

Today, the fellows will head down to Los Angeles for more school visits, design thinking, and discussions about how to do school better. Stay tuned!

Mapping Personalized Learning for Fellows

A prototype version of the Education Innovation Fellowship skill map made from Post-Its

A prototype version of the Education Innovation Fellowship skill map.

As we’re recruiting teachers for the 2016 cohort of Education Innovation Fellows, we are also working to apply what we have learned from the first three years of the Fellowship to make next year even better. One important lesson is that personalized learning is not just for K-12 students—it is also a powerful tool for enhancing adult learning. So we’re building out a framework to better personalize the Fellowship experience itself. We’re drawing a new map.

The first of the four pillars in our vision of personalization is competency-based learning. This means that a learner gets the right content at the right time, based on her current skills and knowledge. She gets credit for what she knows, and gets the precise support she needs to learn what she has not yet mastered. For Fellows, this means meeting them where they are. Some might already have deep experience with blended learning, while some might be new to the field. Others might have read widely on education innovation, while others might be looking for the best sources. One fellow might have been building project-based learning experiences for years; another might be ready to begin redesigning a curriculum with a project-based focus.

The point is that everyone has gaps in their knowledge, and everyone has a different starting point. In order to chart a course through all of the learning we pack into the Fellowship, a skill map is a powerful tool. A skill map plots the relationships between discrete units of knowledge. For example, middle-school math students must learn how to multiply decimals before they can use pi to calculate the circumference of a circle; the former skill is a prerequisite for the first. Similarly, Fellows must be able to explain the steps of the design thinking process before applying that process to pilot projects in their own classrooms.

An upshot of mapping skills like this is that Fellows can then move at their own pace: if you’ve already mastered a foundational skill, you can move ahead to a higher-level skill. That ability reinforces two other personalized learning pillars: student autonomy (Fellows can better define the pace, path, and substance of what they learn), and purposeful and relevant study.

We’ll have more to share in the coming weeks about how this framework will work. In the meantime, the origin point on this map is the Fellowship application.

—Andrew Plemmons Pratt, Program Manager, Education Innovation Fellowship

Design Thinking: Starting with Empathy

With our multi-day California trip behind us, I have about 40 pages of notes and dozens of computer files that attempt to collect all of the information we received. There is so much we observed that will influence my future work—from selecting programs to use in the classroom to computer implementation.

The biggest long-term effect of this trip, however, boils down to empathy. It’s honestly not what I thought I’d walk away with going in. I thought the trip would show me several models of blended learning and I would simply take one and run with it, implementing it into my school as quickly as possible.

But that leaves humans entirely out of the equation. If these school visits and anecdotes (both good and bad) have left me with anything, it’s a deep appreciation for the need of humans to be in the equation when approaching technology.

The process we will be using to implement blended learning and individualized learning in our schools is called design thinking, and we were trained on it at Stanford’s d.School. The process does some really awesome things to bring about change, and it all starts with empathy towards someone else’s problem. Common sense, right?

It seems so, but think about how many changes have been made in your workplace without you being consulted. As a teacher, I’ve seen curriculum, logistics, and systems for interacting with parents radically changed without thoroughly consulting all stakeholders.

Of all the things I’m excited about—and there are many—I am so thankful to have a strong mindset around empathy and others’ needs. This means that, despite the mistakes that I’ll inevitably make, all of my actions can be rooted in the stated wants and needs of teachers, students, and families. Now that’s exciting!

Blair Mishleau, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
KIPP DC Heights Academy