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Brainstorm Blues? Use a Pilot Template

What do these songs have in common: “What’d I Say?” by Ray Charles, “Delirious” by Prince, and “Give Me One Reason” by Tracy Chapman? These songs have different artists, different moods, and different instruments—but all have a shared underlying template. What they all have in common is a simple song structure called 12-bar blues. Rather than create a new structure for each of these songs, the artists used a tried-and-true template with a simple pattern of chords that repeats throughout the whole song. They didn’t have to create something from scratch to create something great. Similarly, educators running pilots to try new ideas in their schools and ventures can use existing patterns for their tests. 

Sometimes, it makes sense to brainstorm a radically new way of testing an idea. But over the past two years in Design Fellowship, we saw that brainstorming pilot ideas from scratch was not always the best use of precious design time. Instead, teams were inspired and could jump-start their work just by learning about the basic pilot ideas used by previous teams. So with dozens of pilots to draw from, we built a new tool used in our Design Fellowship, a set of “pilot templates.”

A pilot template, like the 12-bar blues, is a simple pattern that multiple teams have used before. For instance, over the past two years, multiple teams have identified the need to build new social-emotional learning (SEL) programming into the school day, and they have run pilots to understand the impact of their new approach. When a team in the current cohort identifies a similar need, CityBridge coaches suggest they consider this basic structure:

  • Pilot type:
    • Example: “Incorporate SEL structures into the schedule (change the use of time, cede power to students)”
  • What it looks like:
    • Example: Designate time in the schedule for SEL, wellbeing, or relationship-building. Could include SEL “moment” during class time, advisory sessions with small groups, or large-group community meetings, among other structures.
  • Evidence and measures (these are the learning questions that a pilot should help to answer):
    • Feasibility: Are staff and students able to participate? Do they use the time as intended? 
    • Attitudes: How do adults feel about the time? How do students feel about it? Do students feel seen? Is there joy? Healing? 
    • Outcomes: Are students able to feel more whole and connected? Do they develop attachments with adults? Do they develop specific skills or mindsets?
  • Examples from past teams:
    • Hendley Elementary School trained 4th- and 5th-grade students to lead community circles and gradually released more control of the meetings to student leaders.
    • Bard Early College High School piloted classroom routines (SEL check-ins) to deepen relationships between faculty and students and forge a strong sense of belonging for everyone.
    • Truesdell Education Campus implemented a bilingual community circle in order to create a more inclusive space for English Language Learners and bilingual students and faculty.

The template assumes that a team has already done the empathy research and problem definition work to accurately and equitably describe the challenge. The template also leaves out all of the details and specifics of how to run the pilot. But a template is versatile, just as the 12-bar blues can be the foundation of a danceable Prince tune or a slow Tracy Chapman groove. We currently have about eight types of pilot templates covering SEL, professional development for teachers, and student leadership development. We will add more as we learn alongside Fellowship teams each semester.

The learning questions offered in the template, while generic, can help generate useful insights across many situations. Each of the examples from past schools describes a substantially different approach to incorporating a new SEL structure with its own unique group of students and families. Templates have several advantages over brainstorming pilot ideas in a vacuum:

  • Inspiration: Teams can simply take ideas from the template without following exactly what it suggests.
  • Bias to action: Teams can move quickly to try something, reflect, learn, and improve.
  • Rigor: Teams can use the learning questions as a guide for the different levels of evidence to gather.
  • Cumulative transformation: Teams can build on the work and learning of others.

Brainstorming new ideas from scratch can be fun and exciting—and sometimes it’s the right approach. But when teams are building their equity design muscles, pilot templates are a promising tool. As promising as the 12-bar blues? We’re not sure yet, but we’re still piloting.Pilot templates are one of many tools available in the beta version of our Incubation Toolkit. Learn more about tools and methods for building equity-centered pilots, and share your feedback, with this early version of the Incubation Toolkit. Check out the tools and email Andrew Pratt, apratt@citybridge.org, with your ideas and input.

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