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Design Thinking with the Opportunity Academies

Transforming schools is big work, but it starts at the level of individuals. Earlier this month, we facilitated a workshop at Ballou High School with more than fifty educators from the four DCPS Opportunity Academies: Ballou STAY, Luke C. Moore, Roosevelt STAY, and Washington Metropolitan. The purpose of this experience was to introduce staff and leaders to the fundamentals of design thinking. Design thinking is a creative process for innovation that begins with building empathy for a user, such as a colleague or a student, and then rapidly generating and testing many different possible ways of solving a challenge that user faces. The challenge we gave educators from the Opportunity Academies was this: design an awesome learning experience for a partner.

DCPS educators in the Ballou HS cafeteria participate in a design thinking workshop.

Participants started by interviewing one another about powerful learning experiences they had in grade school, in college, and outside of school altogether. They analyzed what they heard and wrote statements about what needs their colleagues had as learners and the surprising insights about how they learned best. Then they started doodling. Getting to know a user through interviews and discussion is engrossing and absorbing—and so is sketching fun, silly, or practical ideas for what an awesome learning experience could be.

Artists and successful designers practice and experiment with many versions of their work. Teachers do something similar every day as they build and present lessons. In design workshops, we want to highlight the challenge and the thrill of taking risks and “failing forward”—so participants sketched out many different ideas and then got feedback from their partners on which ones to pursue. They made maps of learning journeys their colleagues could take, drew personalized classrooms and learning environments, or dreamed up special glasses and headphones that would help learners concentrate. Then they grabbed piles of construction paper, pipe cleaners, and glue to build tangible prototypes of these ideas. They got more feedback. They learned more about one another. They had fun making a mess.

In a room of dozens of educators, there were a range of reactions, but many participants responded powerfully to having the time and space to dig in and investigate the core elements of what make a powerful learning experience. School faculty also talked about how they can take components of design thinking back to their work with students: they can begin by asking learners about their ideas and feelings, listen to what they have to say, and build from there.

Importantly, everyone in the Ballou cafeteria had the opportunity to apply their creativity to an open-ended learning challenge using a focused process. The tools of that three-hour workshop—empathy, prototyping, testing, creativity—are the same tools that teams at Breakthrough Schools will apply to the hard work of school design and redesign. The team at CityBridge is here to enable that work with funding and with support, and we want to invite you to come along by joining our Summer Design Studio.

We will be sharing more stories like this from our ongoing work with the current cohort of Breakthrough Schools. To receive emails about the work we are doing with schools and future program opportunities, sign up here.