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Defining School Design

Design Thinking      December, 2015     
In the second post in a multi-part blog mini-series, Carolyn Gramstorff, Director of Educate78’s emerging School Design Lab, continues to share her journey to launch the Lab through the lens of the school design thinking process.  Click here to read Carolyn’s earlier insights from the Empathy phase of her design work. 
Please join us in an interactive design process shaped by your insights and ideas! After all, this School Design Lab belongs to Oakland’s public schools across all 78 square miles of our city. Who better to inform and shape it than you?

Defining Towards Design

While I am somewhat new to the design thinking process, it feels remarkably like kin-folk to Harvard Project Zero’s Teaching for Understanding (TfU, a curriculum design framework my colleagues and I used at North Oakland Community Charter School).
Within the TfU framework, we always started by “mucking about”. We’d seriously and intentionally play, explore, and build connections with a juicy topic. Similarly, in design thinking, we launch with empathy and inquiry.
Former students “mucking about”.
In TfU, “mucking about” is followed by sense and meaning making to understand about an idea, concept, or topic.  In the world of design thinking, there is a parallel second phase of “defining”.  According to the Stanford dSchool’s  Introduction to Design Thinking Process Guide, the Define mode is “an endeavor to synthesize your scattered findings into powerful insights.”
Scattered findings?  Indeed!  After months of powerful engagement with the school design community both here in Oakland and across the country, synthesis was the perfect next step in my journey to build Educate78’s School Design Lab.
Early mapping of the School Design Lab concept

As a result, here are my Top 10 powerful insights about the work of school design here in Oakland:

#1: Apply the contractor’s rule of thumb.
Ash Solar, the Executive Director of GO Public Schools, shared a word of wisdom, “Pick two:  you can have it fast, good, or cheap.”  In other words, when engaging in a project as complex as school design, we must be mindful of the incredible investment of time, talent, and resources and trade-offs that come between the three.
To go beyond “good”, we need to give this work the time and resources it needs to get there.  In the absence of tons of talent and fiscal resources, we need to give this work the gift of time.  If we have a sense of urgency around the time, we need to invest some serious resources to ensure a high quality outcome.  We can’t have all three – so we need to be smart and strategic with the resources we do have.
#2: School Design Requires Thoughtful System Redesign.
Oakland has a rich history of school design work dating back to the Small Autonomous Schools Movement.  This period arguably launched some of the district and city’s most successful schools: Urban Promise Academy, Met West, Think College Now, Life Academy, Manzanita Seed, and Ascend K-8.  Yet there is also a list of schools from this movement that fall short of this mark, and still others that no longer exist.
While complex and multifaceted, one reason often referenced is the lack or regression of systemic transformation needed to sustain the innovation generated by these new schools.
If we want high quality, innovative schools, we need to ensure that the ecosystem is aligned with appropriate supports.  As we work to transform schools designed for a factory-model era, we must retool both the operations and mindset of the systems in which these schools exist.
#3: Keep the End-User Front and Center.
The brilliance of the design thinking framework is the concept of user-centered design.  This mandates we focus our attention on the needs, wants, and limitations of the “end user” at every stage of the design process.  For school design teams, that means unwavering focus on students, families, and communities.  In designing the Lab, this means attention on the design team.  Like designing a school, with all the rich diversity that exists within our communities in Oakland, this is a mighty challenge, as there is no single school designer archetype.
Each design team comes with a different set of resources, skills, experiences, and needs.  Each design team will be designing for a unique community of learners, in a diversity of areas in our city – each with a unique history, set of assets, and varying needs.  To best support our design community in this complex work, the Educate78 School Design Lab will need to take on the challenge of being designer-centered. It will need to be personalized, nimble, scrappy, resourceful, equitable, data-driven, and reflective in its approach to organizing and supporting the work of a design team.
#4: Leadership Matters… A Lot!
In education, “aces in the right places” is a critical component to student achievement. Leadership matters in order to see a school design through to successful, high quality implementation. Without a great leader – and I would argue, a great team of leaders — the work is doomed. Why?  This work is harder than brain surgery. This work requires skills, experience, knowledge, and….perhaps, most importantly, a gritty mindset, vision, resilience, and ability to connect with people. We must focus on cultivating, finding, investing in, and sustaining a robust pipeline of educators, leaders, and community members who have the will, skills, and mindset to do this work.
#5: Community Engagement = Make It or Break It.
Oakland is a unique place to be engaged in this work.  As a city, we have a deep history and enduring legacy of powerful community-based efforts.  Some of the best and most successful schools in our city were designed in deep and authentic collaboration with parents, students, and teachers.  What these schools have embedded into their DNA is that real community engagement is not only a good thing to have – it is critical to successful school redesign.
Engagement goes far beyond gathering signatures on a petition, or holding a meeting to say that something is happening.  Real, authentic engagement and relationship building starts by focusing on building deep, authentic, caring relationships with the people who are or will become a school’s community.  Like any important relationship, this means taking the time to learn and grow to deeply care about one another.  This means meeting and eating together, being introduced to the elders and neighbors of a community, listening to the stories, playing with the kids, and understanding the world through the lived experience of those in the community.
Once this relationship is growing, it then means authentically involving community members in all phases of the design process – starting from exploring great schools that help the group to imagine what’s possible, coming to consensus around what a great school is or could be, designing based on the visions and rooted in the hopes of the community, engaging students and parents as critical friends who shape and improve prototypes, and empowering parents and other community members to play key roles in the launch and leadership of the school.  True engagement means checking in with the community, and using their feedback as a key indicator of success and/or work that needs to be done in moving a school forward.  Without strong community engagement processes, we stand to make a huge design error – we may have built a school, but will it succeed if it is not built for and by the community it intends to serve?
#6: There’s a Spectrum of Design Work – Let’s Be Clear What We’re Working On.
Oakland lacks a solid definition for “school design”.  Definitions range from program improvement  (such as integrating technology, revamping school climate through restorative justice practices, adding a maker space, implementing a new NGSS curriculum) to whole school design focused on all or multiple aspects of a school –climate, curriculum, governance, and talent.
As we build the School Design Lab, here’s our definition: significant, whole school design.  We are not about tinkering in one area. We mean constructing equitable schools characterized by a clear and powerful vision and operating principles and tightly aligned systems and practices that enable powerful outputs in the form of student achievement and experience.
We’re about all the design on this end of the spectrum: teams designing completely new schools, existing high quality schools moving toward replication or significant expansion, and existing schools endeavoring to significantly or completely transform.
#7: Personalization is Critical.
School designers are risk takers, creative, entrepreneurial, visionary, inspirational, bold, and courageous – yet no two designers are alike.  Successful schools have been created by smart, dedicated folks from an array of backgrounds – from teachers and parents to activists and entrepreneurs.  Here in Oakland, there is a rich array of pathways for working to design a school:  design teams are working through the district’s Call for Quality Schools, creating school plans to quality for Measure N Linked Learning funding, and leveraging the Next Generation Learning Challenge.  Some of our city’s most successful and respected charter schools are working to replicate or expand.  And visionary teams seek to join Oakland’s successful history of community-based single site charters.
We need a diverse range of quality, student-centered schools here in Oakland.  As such, we need our support systems for school designers to be nimble, flexible, responsive, and relational.  Each design team will need a playbook and coaching built to match the specific strengths and needs of its players.
#8: Use Cohorts Strategically.
My first vision for the School Design Lab was a cohort meeting weekly to bi-monthly.  Before running with this idea, I included the exploration of the power of cohorts in my inquiry process.  As I’ve engaged with a variety of experienced school leaders and designers with cohort-based incubators, here’s what I’ve found.
Universally, what the leaders of cohort models love are the relationships formed. Many leaders talked about the engagement with peers who pushed their thinking as a key outcome from these experiences.
A key frustration of the cohort-based programs, however, was that working as a group often constrained their time and did not focus on what they needed most to advance their work.  This parallels the critiques we hear from our students who are express a need for greater personalization around content and pacing, but still value and need connection and community from their peers to push their work and thinking forward.
In the building the Lab, we are working to be mindful of the circumstances and needs of our school designers.  We bear in mind that often our designers are leading a design process on a part time basis.  Some will be able to focus more work time on the design and build of a school.  And so we need to keep in mind that while we need to nurture the design community, we also can’t treat them the same and expect to get exceptional results from all of them.  Experienced educators know this.
We know that cohorts are powerful.  Relationships are key and shared values and understandings around equity and quality are critical.  As such, our school design lab’s model must find ways to strategically harness this power and to find the right balance between the power of the cohort and the need for personalization.  This will be a tricky and dynamic process – stay tuned to see what we learn.
#9: Execution, Execution, Execution.
We live in a world where design is valued.  And it should be –exceptionally designed technologies are marked by both beautiful form and state of the art functionality.  In the world of school design, we need to care about thoughtful design.  We need to create thoughtful, thorough, rigorous plans that help us think through various students, scenarios, and situations and ensure that we are equipped to handle them.  Don’t get me wrong – design and planning is critical.  But it’s not enough.
In the world of school design, we must focus on high quality execution and pragmatic implementation.  We  need to be prepared to support our design team, to be responsive, iterative, and nimble when reality deviates from the plan.  To do this, we need to continue to support our school designers as they transition into school leaders and operators as their plans and designs are translated into lived experiences for students, families and educators.  This is long term work – and we need to ensure that we have resources in place to see this work through to implementation and beyond.
#10: High Quality Design Never Ends.
Call me a change junkie (I admit it – I am), but I believe that our very best schools actually never finish designing.  We might spend 2-3 years before opening a school, and then another several getting it up off of the ground only to think – we did it! But that’s just the beginning.  And while some things should move out of “start up mode” and begin to institutionalize, we believe that the best, most successful, high quality schools really never leave the design-thinking process.  A school must constantly take stock of its strengths and growing edges.  It should engage its stakeholders in examining its mission and vision, and adjust to reflect its ongoing growth, maturity, and understanding of self.  It should set even more rigorous and stretchy goals for itself and challenge its community to continuously reach, improve, and build on its past successes.  It is our job, as school designers, to build this idea of continuous improvement and innovation into our schools’ DNA.
There you have it!  10 design principles we’ll hold up while creating a world class school design system for our Oakland school design community.  What resonates with you?  What’s missing?  Which of these feels most important to you?  Let us know what you think.  We need your collective wisdom to get this work right!
Keep an eye out for our next blog post where we’ll share how we’re attempting to put these principles into practice through our School Design Prototype.  Stay in touch, and stay tuned!


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