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Empathy and School Design

Design Thinking      December, 2015     

Design Thinking: Past and Present

Prior to joining the Educate 78 Team in August, Carolyn was the Executive Director at North Oakland Community Charter School.

Its been about five months since I left my former life of 14 years as an Oakland public school leader and jumped into my exciting new role as the Director of Educate78’s School Design Lab.  There are many things that I find different in my new role — I no longer get hugs and high fives from children as a daily acknowledgement of the importance of my work, I haven’t cleaned up vomit from a floor, and I get to ride my bike to work much more often than in the past.
What is similar to my past and present work, however, is the importance of entering a new context and project by engaging in a deep and rigorous listening and learning process prior to jumping in and taking action.
This important “entry step” has been a critical part of my work at every stage of my career.  As both an AmeriCorps Member and novice teacher, I was trained to begin my work by first getting to know the people, place, and history of the communities where I was beginning my work.  Likewise, as a school leader I was always very intentional that the beginning of each year prioritized a process that helped our teams to develop relationships, deepen our appreciation of the strengths and assets in our community, and to sharpen our understanding of our collective history and the context we were engaging in together.
In my most recent entry into the school design community, I’ve come to learn that this stage of the design thinking process is called the “empathize mode”.  According to my new friends at Stanford’s dSchool, in this phase it is the responsibility of the designer(s) to observe, engage, and watch and listen.
This phase of taking the time to listen, learn, build relationships, and understand the context and connections of the people and place where you’ll be working, is a critical skill and mindset of anyone who wants to design or redesign anything.
View users and their behavior in the context of their lives. As much as possible do observations in relevant contexts in addition to interviews. Some of the most powerful realizations come from noticing a disconnect between what someone says and what he does. Others come from a work-around someone has created which may be very surprising to you as the designer, but she may not even think to mention in conversation.
Sometimes we call this technique ‘interviewing’ but it should really feel more like a conversation. Prepare some questions you’d like to ask, but expect to let the conversation deviate from them. Keep the conversation only loosely bounded. Elicit stories from the people you talk to, and always ask “Why?” to uncover deeper meaning. Engagement can come through both short ‘intercept’ encounters and longer scheduled conversations.
Certainly you can, and should, combine observation and engagement.  Ask someone to show you how they complete a task. Have them physically go through the steps, and talk you through why they are doing what they do. Ask them to vocalize what’s going through their mind as they perform a task or interact with an object. Have a conversation in the context of someone’s home or workplace – so many stories are embodied in artifacts. Use the environment to prompt deeper questions.
Learn more about these concepts.
The design thinking processes also stress that empathizing is critical not only at the outset of the process, but throughout.  I am certainly reminded of that everyday, as I feel I have only begun to scratch the surface when it comes to understanding the complexities of designing and implementing high quality schools here in Oakland.


Over the past several months, I started with empathizing as I set out on the exciting path to build Educate78’s School Design Lab.  Our audacious vision is for the lab to support school design teams in creating high quality, innovative new schools.
In launching this work, I am thoroughly relishing my first round of empathizing.  In a relatively short amount of time, I had the opportunity to: watch and listen, engage, and observe from an incredible cast of courageous educators and innovators taking on the task of transforming our schools.

 Watch and Listen

Since August, I have watched and listened to over 40 Oakland public school leaders and teachers from many of the diverse public schools here in Oakland – from district managed neighborhood schools to charters schools at varying stages of their own organizational development.  These school teams are engaged in different stages and forms of transformational design work in their existing, freshly hatched, or soon to be launched schools.  And man is there some inspiring stuff taking place.

  • Ashley Martin and her team at Hoover Elementary School are doing some great empathizing of their own through a listening campaign with parents that she will build on this Fall as her community engages in OUSD’s Call for Quality Schools focused on the West Oakland region and continues to bring high quality STEM practices to her school community.
  • Principal Nima Tahai and his team, including Abdul-Haqq Khalifah, from Garfield Elementary School are focusing on using technology and a blended learning approach to support effective literacy instruction as a centerpiece of their school redesign efforts as they prepare to answer the Call for Quality Schools focused on better serving their newcomer population.
  • An amazing team at Lighthouse Community Charter School is spending this readying for the launch of their first “replication” school – Lodestar, which is on track to open in the Fall of 2016.  This inspiring design team, led by Yanira Canizales, recently gained approval of their charter petition to OUSD and is methodically knocking down the myriad of tasks involved in the ramp up of a new school – from writing inspiring job descriptions to recruit talent to building and selecting curriculum that will fit into their personalized, project-based educational model.

Yanira Canizales, Paul Koh, and Jenna Stauffer led their team and community in support of Lodestar’s charter petition at OUSD’s public hearing.

  • There are also some very promising schools emerging from the school design pipeline and launching for the first time this fall including Youth Uprising’s Castlemont Community Transformation Schools and Jeff Duncan-Andrade and Vidrale Franklin’s Roses in Concrete Community School. As these schools get up and running they are tackling the challenges of early implementation and aggressively transforming an inspiring plan into quality implementation and outcomes focused on our most vulnerable students and communities.


I’ve been fortunate to spend a lot of time engaging with the exciting and rapidly proliferating community of school designers and leaders – both here in Oakland throughout the country – who are working through the complex tasks of simultaneously envisioning, designing, supporting, and building the schools that will propel us into the future.  There are some great school design lab models out there that we can benefit and learn from, here’s just a few that I spoke to:

  • Denver Public Schools’ Imaginarium serves as the engine of innovation to help to transform public schools. The Imaginarium makes significant investments in this work with design teams moving through transformational redesign processes starting with small “tests”, moving to small implementation, and then scaling over a period of 2-3 years in order to incubate and launch schools that are “joyful, rigorous, and personalized”.
  • Innovate Public Schools, located in San Jose, supports aspiring school developers through a multi-year program that focuses on supporting effective and aware leaders, building aligned schools, rigorous instructional designs, caring school cultures, and authentic parent and community engagement.
  • 4.0 Schools supports communities of entrepreneurs, educators, and families to create new education startup companies and schools. They use a unique incubation process, built of design thinking principles, that support extensive testing of innovative educational innovations prior to launching a full blown school model.
What’s incredibly exciting is that many of these folks now operating these school design labs often point to Oakland’s Small Schools Movement as a significant progenitor and proof point in this work and movement.  I was to lucky sit down with some very significant players who led and shaped this work, in addition to learning from the research and case studies that emerged.  This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.  There is still so much more to learn from these innovators, both from the wild successes and the challenges that they inevitably encountered.  Continued engagement with this group – leaders, organizers, and parents from this game changing movement – is absolutely critical.


Like a lot of kids, I learn best from seeing things in “real life”.  And in my empathizing process, I had the opportunity to observe in a variety of newly designed and launched schools where they have endeavored to bake excellence, innovation, and transformation into the school’s DNA in order to better prepare students for the exciting prospects and challenges they will face and the leaders and movers of the 21st century…and beyond.  I am finding some great schools that are developing as exciting models for our next generation of school designers to visit and learn from. One of the supports we hope to provide in the lab is compiling a great list of school exemplars and helping teams to visit and experience these types of school communities first hand.  While there are many, here’s just a few that I visited or am eager to see from the standpoint of effectiveness, innovation, and serving a diverse student population:

In my next post in this series, we will continue our journey through the School Design Lab with a discussion on the DEFINE step for clearly identifying the problems we want to solve.

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