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Lessons from School Leaders – an IDEO reflection

by on October 11, 2017

In my past life as a teacher, I spent countless hours finding the right balance between correcting students and letting students correct themselves. Little did I know that in my current career manifestation at IDEO, I would be searching for that balance once again.

IDEO is best known for using design to tackle big, meaty complex challenges, from designing a new school system for Peru’s middle class to creating a digital platform to scale coaching for first generation college students.

For our collaboration with MISBO, it was a little bit different. The challenge was big and meaty – reimagining business models for independent schools – but instead of coming up with innovative solutions for independent schools, we designed a 3-month learning experience to empower a cohort of leaders from 12 schools around the world to lead the charge themselves.

In this case, our job was to be teachers and facilitators of design thinking. Our primary goal was to help the cohort develop design and innovation muscles from within the context of their day-to-day to show that change is possible and that you can fight fires and start fires at the same time.

“How do we stay relevant if we don’t do this?” – Carrollwood Day School

“It’s hard for the leaders of today to be the leaders of tomorrow.” – Jackson Academy

The thing about being an expert in a sector like education is that it comes with deep and intimate knowledge of all of the reasons why a new idea will never work. For the cohort of schools, those constraints included demanding boards and demanding parents, rising tuition and rising competition, rapidly evolving technology and rapidly evolving student needs. Luckily, as the saying goes, creativity loves constraints.

As a process for problem solving, design thinking helps reframe constraints as human-centered needs and opportunities, for example, moving from “parents are demanding” to “how might we channel the energy of parents to build community?” Without ignoring the realities of the given context, design thinking allows for moments of divergent and convergent thinking, providing space to dream, and separate space to make decisions.

Perhaps most importantly in this case, design thinking brings a bias to action and a practice around experimentation, creating proof points that help move things forward without burning the whole house down.

“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to define ‘the problem’ rather than thinking about solutions.” – Bancroft School

“I’m tired of talking about it, I want to find some solutions.” – Indian Creek School

Teaching these mindsets and methods required us to create space for school leaders to be active learners. That meant that we, as teachers, had to let go of a certain amount of control to allow for a truly student-led learning experience. Rather than running experiments we had designed, we had each school design and run their own experiments, with the IDEO team serving as guides. Our goal was not to design groundbreaking solutions ourselves, but rather to empower the schools to design their own.

Members of the cohort brought a range of experience with design thinking, from those who run their own state of the art design thinking programs, to pragmatic skeptics, to bright-eyed beginners. Like teaching a mixed-level class, we designed a series of workshops and activities to challenge those on the more experienced end and scaffold those who were still learning.

Learning a new skill sometimes means not getting quite as far as fast, which can feel frustrating for teacher and students alike, but after hearing the school leaders share their own journeys, I realized what a focus on building capacity does do. Building capacity and creative confidence creates disproportionate impact by equipping leaders and influencers across a given sector with rare time and space to exercise their design muscles, moving the entire sector forward, and ultimately farther, from within.

“When we model innovation and change as a school, the students learn from it.”  – Cary Academy

“It’s not convenient, it’s aspirational.” – Nueva School

In true teacher fashion, I learned many lessons from my students:

  • I learned that moments of struggle help to internalize methods and mindsets like “Learn from Failure” and “Be Optimistic.”
  • I learned that when your goal is to teach someone to fish, sometimes it’s enough to be in the boat with them.
  • I learned that design requires rigorous and structured learning experiences just as much as any other subject or field of expertise.
  • I learned that being a teacher and facilitator of experiential learning is hard, but boy, is it worth it.

A few last words of advice:

  • To those teaching design thinking, find moments to relinquish control and model the comfort with ambiguity that is key to the process.
  • To those learning design thinking, perfect is the enemy of good. And when in doubt, test it out.

Always learning,

Becky Lee
IDEO
San Francisco

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