Our Design Thinking Year: Faculty Sharpen Skills and Tackle Student Concerns

Educators agree that critical thinking, collaboration, and creative problem-solving are necessary skills for today’s high school students. As a new upper school administrator in charge of professional development at Charlotte Country Day School (NC), a coed day school of more than 1,600 students from JK–12, I wanted to explore how our faculty could model these skills while helping students develop them as well.
I arranged for the 70 members of the Upper School faculty to learn and engage in the design thinking process in the 2015–2016 school year, with help from Leadership + Design consultants Garrett Mason of St. Martin’s Episcopal School in Metairie, LA, and Sonja McKay of Exploris School in Raleigh, NC.
Our faculty members were challenged by design thinking — a method that works in phases and seeks to tap less conventional ways to problem-solve. In my dual role as designer and participant, I experienced how hard it can be for an already busy faculty to sustain energy for a yearlong endeavor that’s very different from most projects. Yet we all pressed on, and by the end of the school year, we created prototypes of 18 different solutions to perennial issues our students face, including stress, insufficient time for extra help, and isolation by grade level.
Our year of design thinking energized me — not only because we honed our skills to produce tangible outcomes but also because our faculty and students forged deeper relationships in the process.
Borrowing Time
It’s no easy feat to carve out time for faculty to consider how to give more time to students. Rather than try to find free time in our already packed schedule, I borrowed the six hours already set aside for faculty to do professional development during the school year and invited Garrett and Sonja to campus on those days. I also repurposed four of the roughly 10 scheduled yearly faculty meetings for us to work together as a faculty without the consultants. The result was 10 hours — equal to a continuing education credit — to learn design thinking.

Before Garrett and Sonja’s first visit to campus, I created 18 groups by dividing the faculty into groups of four to five people. I diversified these groups based on content area and years of teaching experience because design thinking is most effective when divergent ideas and perspectives collide.
In our first hour-long faculty meeting in September, we generated topics about how students experience their time in the Upper School. After consulting with me, Garrett noted, “This first step gave teachers both ownership over the work and made the point of the professional development not just learning for learning sake, but to address real challenges in the school community from the perspective of students. This is exactly the same ownership and meaning that we as teachers need to be establishing with our students from the start.”
Garrett and I winnowed the initial, extensive list to seven key topics:
  1. student wellness,
  2. achievement,
  3. collaboration,
  4. equity & inclusion,
  5. creativity,
  6. accountability, and
  7. motivation.

In a design thinking activity, teachers generate a multitude of ideas about fostering collaboration. Credit: Charlotte Country Day School

In October, the L+D consultants led a three-hour, on-campus workshop for faculty on three aspects of design thinking:
  1. building empathy,
  2. understanding and negotiating group dynamics, and
  3. crafting interview questions.
To build empathy, Garrett and Sonja led us in some quick exercises. One included the essential “Yes, and…” framework that encourages equality and buy-in from all participants. Some found it challenging to respond to ideas with “Yes, and what about if we …” rather than “Yes, but that will never …” (or a simple “No”). In time, we all came to see the value of this approach.
Garrett and Sonja also shared several L+D “Task and Maintenance” cards with reminders about how to practice care for self and others when working in teams. The card “quiet time” recommended that we “take time to reflect individually, journal, and get clear on [our] thoughts. Group work can be draining.” The card “detach” asked, “Are you hanging onto an idea or outcome? Let go of it and get excited about someone else’s idea.”
Then, we worked to develop interview questions to pose to students — a turning point for us. As a faculty, we pride ourselves on knowing the right questions to ask and how and when to ask them. We were learning to ask very few open-ended questions to draw out our students to tell their stories.  

My group, focusing on student wellness, wanted to ask students, “What stresses you out at school?”
To dig beneath the surface, we shifted our question to: “Can you tell a story about a time when you felt stressed at school?” We added the follow-up: “Can you talk about a time when you felt especially comfortable at school?”
We realized that if we stuck with our initial question, we would have learned what we already knew: tests, papers, grades.
We tested our first round of questions with a few brave students who joined us in the workshop, then used their feedback to revise our questions. By mid-January, each faculty member had conducted and recorded two student interviews, and we had nearly 150 pages of transcripts of qualitative data. As we sifted through this, we drew connections and insights about the underlying issues.
In our January faculty meeting, we worked in groups to articulate specific “How Might We” questions based on our interviews with students.
  • A group focused on student collaboration asked: “How might we create more opportunities for students in different grades to interact?”
  • A group concentrating on student wellness asked: “How might we integrate mindfulness activities such as yoga, meditation, and tai chi into our regular daily schedule?”
Imagine and Prototype
In February, Garrett and Sonja led a second three-hour workshop on the prototyping phase of design thinking. Using Play-Doh, sharpies, popsicle sticks, duct tape, colored papers, buttons, and action figures, teams imagined possible solutions to students’ concerns. Any initial hesitancy about the unconventional activity soon gave way to buzzing productivity. 

Teachers map out ideas on student wellness issues. Credit: Charlotte Country Day School

Garrett reflected, “It was incredibly fun to see the teachers dive in to this phase of design thinking. Teachers aren’t often given the freedom and time to imagine and make, to take a nugget of an idea and create something that shows how it could actually impact the community in powerful ways. The crafting materials are there as physical resources, but they really serve to recreate that place where learning was synonymous with fun and play, where their creativity was allowed to run unencumbered by the constraints of the adult world.”
Not all faculty members plunged their hands into the colorful Play-Doh, but everyone in the room remembered what it felt like to be a learner surrounded by other learners. At this point, I saw firsthand how design thinking was helping us empathize with our students and practice the skills we were seeking to impart.

Teachers participate in a group session as part of a yearlong design thinking faculty development initiative at Charlotte Country Day School.
Build and Deliver
Between the February workshop and the end of the year, faculty design teams developed and tested their solutions by following up with students. Teams refined prototypes and delivered their final versions during the last faculty meeting in June. Each team presented their “How Might We” question, their data, and their big idea for change.
Here are a few of their solutions:
A team working on a question about equity identified the widespread need for protected times in the weekly schedule for teachers and students to meet for extra help. They partnered with the administration to repurpose a 30-minute flex time once a week and another 30 minutes during lunch on Assembly days for Tutorial, a one-on-one or small-group help session with a specific teacher to work on tricky new material or review before a big test.
The student collaboration team identified a need for students in different grade levels to conduct service projects on a regular basis. What developed was a student government-led house system in which the entire 500-plus Upper School student body was split into four large groups at the start of the 2016–2017 school year. Student government then organized several activities, including a division-wide dodgeball game, a service project, and a pancake-eating contest. All boosted student interaction and collaboration outside the classroom.
Several designs are in hand to enhance student wellness, including a late-start schedule, a short- day schedule, and a schedule with a rotating number of weekly wellness classes. A new committee of 14 faculty members, stemming from the student wellness team, is researching and designing a four-day interdisciplinary Project Week that could be implemented by 2018.
Paying It Forward
Today, we’re teaching our students design thinking skills. My colleague and I challenged our seniors in AP Literature class to design a more collaborative way to teach and learn a single poem after they critiqued our approach for being too teacher-centered. We arranged our students in small groups and set aside a full week of class time for them to develop a 10-minute poetry lesson that would invite their peers to engage with one another and with poetry.
Outside the classroom, we’re putting students into design teams to think through questions about space, curriculum, and schedule for a new math and science building going up on campus next year. Seniors will also learn and use design thinking as part of a new Entrepreneurship class kicking off this fall.
Jessica Flaxman

Jessica Flaxman is dean of faculty and employees and interim upper school English department chair at Rye Country Day School in Rye, New York.