Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Why Design Thinking is a No-Brainer in Catholic Schools

I have been thinking a lot lately about teaching and learning.  We have had lots of Professional Learning over the last several years designed to bring our teachers "up to speed" on the current ideas being talked about and implemented in classrooms around the country (and around the world).  Topics like Project Based Learning,  Design Thinking, Flex Furniture, the purpose of homework, how to maximize Google, and many others have been tackled by our staff.  however, it is Design Thinking that is most on my mind these days.  I am enamored with the approach and find that it is a logical sequence to follow for problem solving.  Our location, being only 13 miles from Stanford University, means that Design Thinking is becoming more and more main stream in schools and businesses,  Yet for some reason, I can't get our faculty to embrace this approach whole-heartedly.  Why?  Is it a case of initiative burn-out? Do we need more training?  Should we engage in a book club read (Creative Confidence is my favorite "intro" book but there are many others as well that Stanford's dSchool recommend and you can find listed here).  I could theorize for days on why it hasn't taken hold the way I imagined.  However, that is a colossal waste of time since I have no quick ways to test my theories.  So instead, I thought I would reflect on why I believe Design Thinking is so important in schools, especially in a school like ours.  This to me seems like a far more productive use of my time.  And before I really get into this, I have to thank @BarbGLuis for the conversation that sparked this post. So here goes...

I work in a Catholic School.  Our community is rooted in Catholic teachings. Catholic teachings are reflective of what are referred to as Gospel values, but you can insert some more secular adjectives such as compassion, respect, honesty, forgiveness, equality, servant leadership, simplicity.  There are others, but for the purposes of this blog, that list is enough.  Design Thinking is rooted in the notion of empathy.  In other words, the process of problem solving requires you to understand the end user before creating a solution.  And there is the connection that I see so clearly but can't seem to communicate in a succinct way to my colleagues.

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The process of learning is all about problem solving.  Students are asked to study/learn/interpret information and use that information to create something new, demonstrate their understanding/mastery by creating something original.  This graphic reflects the stages involved in Design Thinking.  In my mind (and feel free to tell me that I am wrong), empathy is what makes this process unique.  It makes the learning process human, and it makes it personal.  At it's very basic iteration, perhaps students are asked to empathize with the teacher: "How might you show me that you have mastered this material?" Getting more specific in various subjects, perhaps students are asked to empathize with the author of a novel: "What might the author have wanted to say and to whom when they wrote this book during the American Civil War?" or with a different civilization: "How might the French have overcome class tensions without all the stages of the French Revolution?" Perhaps they are asked to design an experiment that reflects the role of acids and bases: "How might we create a neutral solution using just these three liquids?"  The list can go on but I hope that you get the idea.  Intersect this idea of developing empathy with that of Catholic teaching demanding that we all engage in social justice. Pope Francis is the greatest role model of this idea in a long time.  His famous "smell like the sheep" homily from Holy Thursday 2013 in which he reminded priests that they must be shepherds who know their people is a direct call to empathy for all of us, not just priests.

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If we in Catholic schools truly embrace the notion that we must all work for a better world, that we must embrace the needs of the poor and find ways to lift them up, if we believe that fighting for social justice in every corner of the world is part of what each of us is called to do, then how can we ignore such an obvious template for accomplishing this in the classroom?  So much of what we teach intersects with an aspect of social teaching.  Everything that we are teaching our students is another tool that they can use when they are interacting with the world at large to help bring about a more just world.  Whether that is something as basic as literacy so they can tutor those who can't read or write, or complex math knowledge so that they can work with local leaders to design a better traffic pattern to keep children safe in their neighborhood, or an understanding of our political system so that they can advocate for equality where they see inequality, or any of a myriad other applications, our students need to be exposed to and become adept at problem solving through design thinking.  This process will enable them to take their learning beyond the classroom in ways we might not even be able to imagine.  Giving them the tools that Design Thinking incorporates as a way to approach challenges in their life: there are always multiple possible solutions, a solution that works for one group may not work for another with the same problem, the fact that solutions need to be tested and tweaked, the fact that the best solutions are those that are designed not only with the end in mind, but that allow for feedback along the way.  All of these pieces are important lessons for our students to learn.

In my opinion, we are not doing our jobs correctly if we simply ask students to regurgitate
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information.  We are not doing our jobs if we are not allowing students to test the material that we introduce them to and see what different ways they can apply the material.  We are not doing our jobs if we fail to help students see the bigger picture by finding connections to the world around them, the world beyond themselves and the text book.  Knowledge is most powerful when it is embraced and used for good.  If we do not engage in Design Thinking with our students, they are not being allowed to experience those true "a-ha" moments when they find a way to re-imagine the information for themselves.

So back to why I feel that Design Thinking has to be incorporated into Catholic Schools (well, really all schools): we want to educate humans, not robots.  That is the bottom line for me.  Our students have to complete 3-4 years of theology in addition to the other core subjects their public school peers pursue.  And the social teachings of the Church, rooted in the Gospel values, are infused throughout the curriculum.   Thus, the notion of empathy is already implied across all levels of our curriculum.  So why not make it "official" and adopt the principles of Design Thinking as well.  I think it will make our teachers jobs much more rewarding because students will begin to approach learning by looking for the real-world connections, they will begin thinking about the material in a much deeper way up front since they will be expecting a project or discussion or assignment that will ask them individually or in groups to answer the next "How might we..." question.  What a rich and dynamic learning environment that would be!

So how might we as Catholic educators fully embrace and implement Design Thinking across grade levels and across our curriculum?  That is my question, and that is my challenge.  I would love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Finding Leaders (or Unicorns?)

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Note: this blog was originally published in April of 2016. I have updated it in February of 2017 as part of the #EduBloggersClub challenge.

This week's #EduBloggersClub challenge is to write about #Challenges. Now, for the past week I have been living with challenges as my school has been in the final countdown to our accreditation visit. But I have chosen NOT to focus on the plethora of topics that could provide.  Instead, I have opted to update and re-post an older blog that I wrote about a challenge I consider critical to our field: the Leadership Challenge...


How many times a week do people say to you  in a conversation "I'm so glad I don't have your job!"?  I have heard this a lot.  I honestly don't know if I am hearing it more than in the past, but I am certainly noticing it more.  So I started asking people: "Why do you say that?" and typically the answer I get is something along the lines of "I don't want to deal with all the stuff you do."  Hmmm.  What is this "stuff" of which they speak that is so different from what they do in their classroom?  I filed that question away and from time to time I would pull it out and think about it, without ever really coming to a conclusion or taking it too seriously.  I mean, after all, we all know people in jobs that we can say "I'm glad I don't have your job!" (For example, I would never want to be a high-rise construction worker.)  And there are lots of things that teachers have to deal with in the classroom every day that are frustrating--the 4th straight day Amy didn't do her homework, the 2nd fight you had to break up that week, the angry parent emails fielded daily...you get the picture.  This is really no different from what happens in a leader's office, but for some reason many people think they are separate worlds.  Perhaps an individual classroom seems more contained.  More "fixable" than problems and concerns that are brought to "the Principal's office." When I think back to my time in the classroom, I often viewed my class as my little kingdom where I was in charge.  As long as my students and parents understood my expectations, all was good.  As an administrator however, there is more at stake.  It isn't just my US History class.  Now my decisions impact the entire school. It is much more challenging to keep all of the students and parents satisfied. So perhaps this is one of the key issues for those who say: "I'm glad I don't have your job!"

And then I attended back-to-back conferences that made me realize this isn't just a question that I am asking.  And it has become important to find an answer to this question rather than simply speculate about what might be holding others back from pursuing leadership.  What changed and gave me a greater sense of urgency around this question?  First, I sat in a session at the Annual CUE Conference that was led by Amy Fadeji.  In that session, she commented that no one wants our jobs (meaning school leaders).  That was my first "a ha!" that my experiences weren't isolated.  A week and a half later, I was at the annual NCEA conference where there were a number of sessions over the three days focused on identifying and nurturing the next generation of leaders for our schools.  I went to most of those sessions and they were all packed.  Wow!  This is definitely a shared problem, not just a question in passing.  That was when it really hit me: if we don't make our jobs accessible, there won't be great people stepping up to take over as the current guard retires. Call me selfish, but while I am a ways away from retirement, I work with others who are much closer to retirement.  I want to be sure there are amazing people ready to step up and share the leadership role with me for years to come.

The process of cultivating a new generation of leadership is not a simple one and it does not have a "one size fits all" solution.   What may work for me and my community won't necessarily work for your community. I could spend time obsessing over factors like the growing teacher shortage, the pay, the lack of practical formation and ongoing professional development, lamenting that I will neve rbe able to mentor anyone into leadership.  But I don't find that a worthy endeavor as the factors are out of my control.  So I choose to focus on what I CAN do:

  • share the #eduwins that happen in my office with the faculty
  • be a positive presence on campus rather than moping about, complaining about how busy I am-ummm, have you seen how busy your rock star teachers are these days?? 
  • invite members of the staff to take on small leadership tasks and then celebrate their successes
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  • make sure people know I am having fun and truly enjoy what I am doing (because 99% of the time I really DO!)
  • share my thinking with others who are curious--the more transparent I can be with my thought process, the more people who are being mentored and they don't even know it (sneaky!!)
If you believe everything you read, then great educational leaders, like great teachers (or pretty much any other "great"--manager, athlete, mom...) are about as rare as unicorns.  I happen to not believe that line of thinking.  

Now, if people don't see you enjoying what you are doing, they will turn and run because no one wants to imagine themselves a defeated curmudgeon!





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I challenge you to spend some time thinking about why you chose to be an educator in the first place, and then make sure you not only get to do "that" every day, but also model doing "that" regularly.  If others see you doing what you love, it will be easier to cultivate the next generation of leaders.  We know we are always being watched--by our students, faculty, parents--so make sure they are watching the good stuff!  How many of us see people who seem happy in their jobs and say: "I want to do 'that' because they always have so much fun!"?   We need to be those people that are having so much fun that others will want to be like us.

If we are leaders, then we must truly lead in every aspect of our job.  That means looking not just to the future of our site from the perspective of curriculum, facilities, and staffing.  We also need to look to the future of our office.  It is our job to ensure that it continues to be occupied by someone who is dynamic, forward-thinking, a risk taker, and above all is in love with the job.  

I certainly don't have answers to every issue that crops up, but this one I think is pretty clear: if I can model for others the great things that I get to do like visiting classrooms, hanging out with kids, sharing the story of the school, visioning,  then others will want to join in the fun.  And then only unicorns will remain the rarity.

How do you cultivate leadership at your school site?