Tag Archive for design-thinking

Redesign the Junior and Senior Years of High School


In many independent schools, most students are ready for college-level work by the time they reach junior year. Why, then, do we make them conform to the same time and curriculum structures as our younger students?

Students who study away during junior year know this well. Popular study away programs develop curricula connected to their place in the world, set students to real-world challenges, have more flexibility in their daily schedules, and ask students to present their work to experts in the field. When they return to school for senior year, students often find a conventional schedule confining and learning goals abstract (at best).

Two such students have visited me several times this year, to the point that I have invited them onto one of our strategic planning committees. Their requests: place-based education, interdisciplinary learning, and real world projects. They would like studies to connect to the city of Seattle, draw upon multiple academic disciplines, and to work toward meaningful outcomes.

Junior and senior year are ideal times to develop and test new models of curriculum and instruction. Students take many elective courses during this time, having completed most graduation requirements. Many design a course of study that allows them to more deeply investigate the subjects that interest them most. Junior and senior curricula already have quite a lot of flexibility.

As students prepare for the next step in their educations, they could follow a weekly schedule that supported independence and flexibility. Each class could meet just twice per week, reserving substantial time for individual and collaborative work on open-ended projects, including travel into the city.

Such a schedule would also create space for innovative programs in education. Internships, independent research, senior projects, service learning, and online learning are all promising new forms of study, but they cannot ultimately be effective if constrained by the fragmented time chunks of a conventional high school schedule.

A program centered on student designed learning experiences deserves equally innovative school architecture. Such a school would include spaces to work independently, meet with a mentor, collaborate with a small team of students, build and leave long-term projects, prototype and iterate, and identify resources and partners. This part of campus would support hybrid thinking, housing both disciplinary experts and specialists in community engagement.

Could such a program also benefit students and younger grades? Of course! This center would be available for innovative learning in all grades. The center would field test a model for active learning that could subsequently be adapted for all grades.

Photo by nicolastathers

The Importance of Team Preparation

While at the Santa Fe Leadership Center institute, I noticed the the theme of team preparation through personal sharing repeatedly receive emphasis. Invest time and energy into the personal histories and goals of team members, and the team will perform at a higher level and accomplish more.

Tomi Nagai-Roethe shared the Drexler/Sibbet team performance model with us. The model provides a detailed framework for understanding team functions and dysfunctions. Built around the metaphor of a bouncing ball, the model emphasizes the importance of personalized team preparation to the later performance level of the team. Early phases of teamwork include individuals sharing who they are and why there are on the team. This precedes articulation of the work to be done or the methods to be used. The floor represents organizational support. With strong support, the ball bounces faster and higher. The vertical axis represents different behavioral dimensions — intuition, feeling, thinking, and sensing. Exploring personal histories and purposes require intuition and feeling skills. The more work a team does to explore the background and motivation of each team member and their reasons for being on the team, the more momentum the team builds to accomplish great work.

Carla Silver put this theory into action through a wallet building exercise. The ultimate objective of the activity was to build the perfect wallet, but before we were even given our task, we were told to show and explain each of our wallets. This individual sharing of the wallets we had chosen for ourselves gave each person the opportunity to speak, make their preferences known, and show their chosen wallets before group work began. As a result, the group was more trusting and collaborative throughout the entire process.

Debbie Freed explored systems causes for conflict and crises in schools. Similarly to the other speakers, she explained how issues framed around personality conflicts are really about the assumptions that people bring to their jobs as a result of their personal and institutional histories.

IDEO had us practice design thinking to design a better recess for kids. They emphasized personal history through “user-centered design,” asking interview subjects open-ended questions and conducting observations to identify user needs and brainstorm possible solutions.

The idea of personal experience in teamwork seems readily applicable in our work in schools.