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Ideating and Prototyping the School Design Lab

Design Thinking      February, 2016     
The School Design Lab @ Educate78- Blog Series
Blog Post #3: Ideating and Prototyping the School Design Lab

In the third 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 design thinking process. If you haven’t already, check out Carolyn’s earlier insights from the Empathy and Define phases 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?

In my last blog post I attempted to make sense of the many engagements I had conducted in my initial empathy/inquiry phase of designing a school design lab for Oakland. In that post I proposed ten key principles for our work to equitably transform public education in our city through redesign.
These simply complex notions include a deep understanding and operationalizing of:
Applying the contractor’s rule of thumb-  Pick Two: time-money-quality
Understanding that school design requires thoughtful systems redesign
Keeping the “end-user” front and center
Cultivating strong leadership, because it matters…a lot
Engaging the community for this will make or understandably break this work
Being clear about what we mean when we say “design”
Keying on personalization to support the multiple pathways to quality and innovation
Using cohorts flexibly and when this configuration makes sense
Understanding that design and planning is important, but execution and implementation is critical
Building schools and systems where a high quality design process becomes a part of the organization’s DNA
So that’s the seemingly simple part – defining the principles.
But as we all know, it is always easier to be a Monday Morning Quarterback than to actually play the game. It’s true in the simple game of football (just ask Cam Newton). And it is especially true in the complexity of education, equitable systems change, movement building, school design, and teaching and learning…all of which are related to the work we are doing here in Oakland and beyond.
While it is fantastic that we have laid out these principles above, what really matters is seeing if we can actually use these to actually build a school design lab that actually supports school designer who can actually create and then actually implement high quality schools here in Oakland.
How do we do this?  We prepare to build something and test it.
Ideating: Pivoting Towards Prototyping
So how do we move from a set of principles to actuality?  This is indeed huge and complex challenge.
Design thinking’s challenge is to find the simplicity in complexity, creating solutions that are both beautiful and functional, improving the quality of experience for the “end user”, and creating solutions that serve the needs of people.
In our design process, after synthesizing inquiry into our Oakland School Design Principles, we further distilled this thinking into three key questions that drive our prototype:
How can we apply these principles to build a school design lab prototype that will:
Maximize Resources
Enables us to maximize our resources while learning about the support needs of schools/designers working at varying stages of a school design process and in different sectors of the public school community?
Develop and Provide Supports
Develops and provides thoughtful, nimble, flexible, responsive, results-oriented, implementation-focused supports to a diverse range of school designers?
Iterate on Success
Iterates on successful past practices and lessons learned from Oakland’s successful small schools and high performing locally grown charters?
To help us to take the next steps towards an actual program, we considered lots of options: a resource center, an interactive technology solution, weekly seminars, paid full time design fellowships, partnership development with community organizers, city-wide design challenges, maximizing coaches, partnering with leadership development programs, building playlists, and more.
Moving Towards a Model:  The Prototype
After months of inquiry, distillation, and ideation we have landed on a prototype that we’ll be testing and improving on over the next six months.
The Educate78 School Design Lab has three important components – the school design fellowship, the design line, and a series of jam sessions.
Each of these components is crafted to support school designers and guide the work of high quality school design here in Oakland.
The Fellowship
One of the most unique feature of our fellowship is its level of personalization.
Most school design incubators and accelerators use a cohort-based model that starts the designers at point A and moves them through a time-bound fellowship to point B at the same time. In these cohort-based models, school designers are recruited from a certain education sector (charter or district). These designers are then required to attend seminars at regular intervals (usually weekly to bi-monthly), where they receive the same content based on some form of a leadership development and school design scope and sequence along with smaller proportions of coaching to focus on the specific needs of the individual leaders.
Our Educate78 School Design Lab, however, is aligned to a new personalized learning format. As a personalized learning model, our fellowship:

  • Intentionally recruits and seeks to learn from a diversity of designers in varying contexts – including re-designs of existing schools, replication of high quality schools, and innovative new schools from both the district and charter sectors
  • Allows varying entry and exit points of the design process. For example, some designers have entered the fellowship in their first year of operation, others are starting with us at the very beginning of their design process, and all points in between
  • Uses personalized action planning, resource allocation, and coaching/consultation – based on a rigorous set of outcomes for each design phase – as the mainstay of its programmatic model
  • Requires demonstrated competency to move from one phase of design to the next
  • Provides different levels of coaching and investment based on the design phase and requires fellows to demonstrate successfully execute of key benchmarks and competencies in order to move from one phase to the next
In order for a personalized format to work, however, in additional to excellent coaching and human support, our designers need a number of important resources, such as clear outcomes, formative assessments process, tools to support their project management, and exemplars of high quality school design. These needs drive the second component of our prototype – the Design Line.
Design Line
Every great designer needs more than inspiration, motivation, and great human supports. Invariably, all designers need a good set of tools to support them in their creative process. The Design Line is our solution to create and provide our school design community with the resources and tools that they need to master an understanding of high quality public school design, apply and develop that understanding and ultimately implement and operate a high quality public school design.
Over the next six months, a team of school design coaches, consultants, and partners will be hard at work prototyping a variety of tools and playlists that we will test and use in our fellowship.
So far we have drafted some foundational framework.
School Design Lab Foundational Framework
  • Our eight domains of high quality school design that frame important through lines in all five phases of our design process. These include mission and vision; educational program; curriculum, instruction, and assessment; climate and culture; talent and human capital; systems and operations; governance and decision making; and strategy.
  • A set of key design outcomes for each phase and domain of design.
  • A self assessment that is aligned to each phase and domain of design that tracks a designer’s current knowledge/understanding/experience with a given outcome as well as his/her completion of a key product or process associated with this outcome.
  • An outcomes based action planning tool.
  • A playlist template
As our coaches work with our fellows to identify key focus areas for their school design work, they will support the creation of action plans and custom-built playlists which will, over time, populate the content within the design line. In addition, we’ll work with specific partners to develop other resources to be used by our fellows and within the open source resources we intend to provide over time.
Stay tuned to future blog posts where we’ll share some examples of these resources for your review, input, testing, and iteration.
Jam Sessions
While personalized learning is a key component of our program, we also recognize that building and supporting a deep and wide community of designers is critical to our success in helping to transform public education in Oakland. We know that meaningful and authentic community engagement in this field is not just nice – it is absolutely necessary.
As a result, the third key component of the School Design Lab prototype is what we call Jam Sessions.
Our Jam Sessions will play a key role in many aspects of our work. They will:

  • Support our fellows and other key stakeholder in their learning, shared understanding, and skill building in key topics related to high quality school design
  • Provide a mechanism to support community voice and participation in the school design process
  • Build a community of practice to support effective school design

Jam Sessions will take many forms – from school visits to learning about quality and innovative practices and design challenges around shared areas of learning/interest to seminars and intensive boot camps to bolster skills development in a design team.
We intend to make our Jam Sessions available not only to our Fellows, but to educators, families, youth, and community members from across the city. Stay tuned to our Jam Sessions home page for upcoming events that you can participate in.

On to Testing
With the prototype in place – we’re ready to mobilize testing. Over the next six months, we’ll be intensely testing the viability of this model. We hope you will continue to join us on this journey – through our blog posts, jam sessions, and more, as we rapidly learn, fail forward, collect data, tweak, twist, and move forward on this journey. We can’t wait for the adventures that lay ahead.
Hang on…because here we go!


Updates, insights into our perspective, and highlights from our work!