Attempts to improve education in the United States are often "top-down" and ineffective. At the Business Innovation Factory (BIF), we believe the best solutions come from the people most affected — the students — and those on the front lines — the teachers. Over the last ten years, our Student Experience Lab has used human-centered research, design thinking, and storytelling to engage students, teachers, and education leaders in the co-creation and real-world testing of radical new models for learning and teaching.
Teachers Design for Education (TD4Ed; www.td4ed.com) is a free, collaborative, online platform that the Student Experience Lab co-created with teachers and support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This multimedia platform teaches educators design thinking skills and enables them to work together to generate, test, and implement solutions that can transform education — from classroom activities and pedagogical approaches to professional development and education policy. TD4Ed harnesses the creativity and problem-solving skills that teachers already use in their daily practice, and gives them a rigorous process for tackling meaningful challenges in their classrooms, schools, districts, and communities. Perhaps most importantly, this process helps teachers develop and model the skills we want our students to demonstrate: curiosity, creativity, collaboration, and confidence.
The development phase of BIF's work on TD4Ed unfolded over the course of seven months (November 2013—June 2014). With support from the Highlander Institute — our community partner in Rhode Island — BIF piloted a blended program of in-person facilitation and online curriculum with more than 50 educators in Rhode Island, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Through these pilot programs, teams of teachers used TD4Ed to address challenges and implement solutions around issues of their choosing, such as teacher retention, professional development, blended learning, and student motivation. The pilot incorporated an iterative co-design process: using feedback from the teams on the curriculum and platform to align TD4Ed with educators' needs and sensibilities.
At its core, TD4Ed is a platform for spurring teachers' agency and autonomy that positions teachers as the drivers of transformation. It gives educators practical steps to work on the challenges that matter to them, learn in groups, and improve learning experiences. In our pilot program and through the online curriculum, teachers have used TD4Ed to establish new connections among colleagues and ideas, successfully catalyze change, and reinvigorate their own teaching practices.
We are now sharing TD4Ed with a broader audience of educators. The online platform is open and free, and we have partnered with BloomBoard to make it a part of their professional development offerings for teachers. We are also facilitating in-person workshops with groups of educators around the country to introduce them to the design thinking process and the online platform.
Many designers bring their skills and tools to solve problems for educators. We have utilized our human-centered approach to create a platform that empowers teachers to design their own solutions. This not only benefits teachers' practice, but also their students, schools, communities, our education system, and the future of our country.
A teacher's effectiveness has more impact on student learning than any other factor within school systems. However, this effectiveness is being challenged as teachers are asked to adapt to changes at a dizzying rate and to implement a crush of policies and initiatives into their daily practice. As a result, many teachers struggle with disengagement from their work and their schools. All of this takes a toll on how fulfilled teachers feel in their profession: a 2012 MetLife survey of American teachers reported the lowest rates of job satisfaction in decades.
Our research in the BIF Student Experience Lab has also shown that teachers consistently struggle to maintain a sense of autonomy and agency over their classrooms and teaching efforts, coordinate teaching and learning with their peers, balance external factors of students' lives while providing a safe place for them to learn, and take control of their own cycles of feedback, self-assessment, and professional growth.
These findings led us to pose the question: If our teachers aren't engaged in their work, how can we expect students to be engaged in their learning?
At BIF, we use design thinking as an approach for seeing challenges from new perspectives, identifying opportunities, creating new ideas, and accelerating change through experimentation. What if we put design thinking in the hands of teachers to give them a human-centered and rigorous approach to problem-solving that taps into their creative competencies? Such an approach could build their capacity to leverage their expertise, develop their agency and autonomy, and spur them to lead innovation within their classrooms, schools, districts, and communities. We designed Teachers Design for Education (TD4Ed) to test this hypothesis and enable teachers to become leaders of change by giving them the tools to harness their know-how and create better learning experiences for their students. TD4Ed is a teacher-centered approach to education innovation.
With the insights from our previous ethnographic research in the Student Experience Lab providing the foundation for our designs, we consulted with an advisory group of educators, interviewed a variety of education and design innovators, and conducted an audit of current education innovation platforms and resources. Through these efforts, we found that teachers lacked several much-needed elements for growth, including hands-on training, collaborative learning, opportunities for teacher-driven innovation, and integrated platforms for professional development.
We also saw the need to create positive change from within the public education system, rather than driving innovation from the outside. Thus, focusing on how to implement new ideas within an existing system would be important. Moreover, a meaningful experience for educators would need to integrate into their already busy lives, create value through collaboration, invigorate their practice, use storytelling to highlight change, and foster sustained engagement.
With these insights and design principles in mind, we began developing and testing the TD4Ed model. Over the course of seven months, we created a design thinking curriculum with a group of teachers, developed a digital platform, and then piloted TD4Ed with three cohorts of educators in the Rhode Island, Chicago, and Philadelphia public school systems. The pilot programs enabled an iterative build of the platform and curriculum, with each consecutive pilot location having a more robust online experience. In each pilot, teams of three to five teachers chose a challenge and tackled it through the six-week TD4Ed curriculum. The main themes of challenges that teachers wanted to address included personalizing professional development, building school culture, increasing student achievement and motivation, and collaborating in the community.
The TD4Ed curriculum itself is divided into six phases that build upon each other. Interactive, hands-on activities, examples, and tips guide teams through steps to Define their chosen design challenge, Explore what it means to key users and stakeholders, Reflect on what they are learning, Imagine new possibilities, Play with and test their ideas, and ultimately Transform teaching and learning experiences with their newly created solution.
The Value & Impact
The TD4Ed pilot phase delivered an experience that fulfilled the needs teachers articulate for professional development experiences:
1. Teachers embrace a "blended" model of engagement. Through the use of a robust online platform and in-person collaboration, TD4Ed hits a sweet spot for teachers by providing time for individual or team-based work as well as opportunities to connect with others.
2. Cross-collaboration fosters cross-pollination. By bringing educators together across grades, positions, schools, districts, and geographic locations, TD4Ed enabled the sharing of new ideas across educational communities.
3. Teachers want to work together to address and design solutions for problems within our education system, and thrive when given the space for creative problem-solving. TD4Ed's rigorous yet flexible design thinking approach provides a supportive structure for this process. Through the TD4Ed pilot, teachers generated solutions that were accepted by their students, colleagues, administrators, and even policymakers.
Each of the twelve pilot teams completed the program with a plan to implement their ideas in the 2014-2015 academic year, and teachers reported shifting their own practice immediately. Through TD4Ed, teams improved their school culture and student motivation by creating ways to incorporate student voice, developed programs to improve teacher retention, and implemented collaborative lesson planning. The TD4Ed teams have realized their potential for driving change and exercising agency, and are already making a difference in their:
Classrooms: Teams have continued to use design thinking to tackle other challenges they face, and some have taught their own students this process. Many of the teachers who completed TD4Ed commented that it reinvigorated their teaching and was the best professional development they had ever experienced.
Schools: One Rhode Island team helped their colleagues use technology more effectively in their classrooms and implemented personalized and customizable support for teachers. Through their efforts, their principal recognized the value of design thinking and shares at education conferences how TD4Ed changed the school's approach to professional development. A team from Chicago rethought their elementary school's use of data in order to get a better view of the "whole child" both inside and outside of school. They gathered and analyzed qualitative data, and acted on it to address important issues that affected students' academic work.
Districts: One team of Rhode Island teachers, frustrated by the professional development in their district and by a lack of opportunities to share ideas and learn from their colleagues, designed an underground learning community. This teacher-driven professional development and collaboration initiative convenes teachers outside of school and enables them to work together. Their district is now looking to fund their endeavor in the 2015-16 academic year to provide professional development for all of their elementary school teachers. The Gates Foundation recently profiled this team's TD4Ed work in their Momentum newsletter.
Communities: One of the Philadelphia teams developed an interdisciplinary service learning program for their middle school that focused on homelessness in their city. Students presented their learnings in a school assembly and participated in outreach activities across Philadelphia.
In June 2014, we launched TD4Ed as a free online platform. In addition to teaching educators the design thinking process, the platform also captures users' progress through the curriculum, and lets them share their work and learn from each other. We have continued to iterate on TD4Ed, testing it with more educators to learn how to offer them greater value.
To increase the impact of TD4Ed and make it available to even more educators, we have pursued strategic partnerships with other organizations. This has enabled us to meet teachers "where they are" by delivering TD4Ed in teacher-specific online spaces (such as BloomBoard's personalized professional development platform), to recognize educators' work and solutions with a TD4Ed micro-credential through Achievery's online badging system, and to offer individual design thinking resources to users. Other partnerships have led us to explore how the TD4Ed platform can be used to engage teachers around shared challenges more broadly. In partnership with the nonprofit organization 100Kin10, we are launching a free version of TD4Ed for educators collaborating to tackle issues specific to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education. This effort was recently recognized by the White House.
Finally, we have continued to offer blended TD4Ed workshops and intensive "design jams" to add value through in-person training and collaboration. We have also worked to deliver blended professional development offerings around TD4Ed to schools, districts, and youth development programs through direct training and train-the-trainer models, and are involving alums of the TD4Ed program in these events to enhance participants' experiences and learning.
In just over one year, we have seen the power that design thinking can have in the hands of teachers. Through the transformative solutions teachers have developed, they have showed us that change can happen within education, that teachers themselves can drive progress, and that students benefit from the practice and mindsets of teachers who take on design thinking as a way of approaching challenges. As TD4Ed continues to be used by more and more educators, we are excited to see the collective impact of their efforts on our education system.