Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

A Day of Design Thinking: Teachers and Network Leaders Collaborate to Improve Professional Learning

April 23, 2015

A Day of Design Thinking
Teachers and Network Leaders Collaborate to Improve Professional Learning

When Hadi Partovi of  spoke at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation about the “hour of code”—his successful effort to introduce more schools and students to computer science—it was the simplicity of his approach that resonated with Patricia West.

So when the high school social studies teacher teamed up with four other participants at the Leading Professional Learning event for a daylong “design thinking” experience, they took Partovi’s model as inspiration for their professional learning prototype.

Calling it the "Hour of Power," West, Charity Britton, Shelia Banks, Jennifer Smith and KaiLonnie Dunsmore envisioned a structure in which teachers spend one hour a week in "continuing collaborative" professional development that is informed by a needs assessment but is also responsive to teachers' “choice and passion.” Paid teacher leaders would plan and facilitate the sessions, which would address topics that are relevant to teachers' classroom challenges. 

“I find that teachers want to contribute to their schools, but it's difficult when they are not recognized for the work and when they teach on tight schedules,” says Banks, a school support specialist in the Jefferson Parish Public School System in Louisiana. “Also, teachers need consistent time and space to meet regarding the needs of the school.”

Design Thinking

The two-day professional learning event brought together both teachers and representatives from grantee organizations that are part of the Foundation’s Teacher Practice Network (TPN) initiative. Facilitated by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd, TPN is intended to speed up the work of teacher networks in supporting teachers as they implement college-readiness standards. The gathering was a unique opportunity for teachers to view associations and other education organizations as partners in their work and for the network organizations to hear from teachers.

“I am taking back the renewed appreciation and importance of teacher input into the planning stage of professional development,” says Smith, an instructional technology specialist with the Chattahoochee-Flint Regional Educational Service Agency in central Georgia. “Just as we expect students to take control and responsibility for their own learning, we need to allow teachers the opportunity to do that for themselves.”

The Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, based in Half Moon Bay, California, led the participants through a series of improvisational activities intended to get them to put their own agendas aside and build on each other’s ideas.

In the activity “Yes, And,” for example, the participants worked with a partner to practice acknowledging what the other person said and then adding their own ideas to that thought. Their task was then to create a professional learning prototype that could be easily communicated and could inspire future work in their districts and organizations.

“Design thinking reminded me of thinking like an engineer,” Banks says. “The process helped us to be creative and think outside of the norm.”

With cardboard, construction paper, pipe cleaners, markers, modeling clay and other materials, the teams also worked to represent their ideas for professional learning with a three-dimensional model. With facilitator Megan Simmons frequently reminding them, “You can’t be wrong,” the participants worked as a team, usually on the floor, to construct their models, give them a title and present them to others in the room. 

The teams also had to write a quotation from a fictional teacher about the prototype they designed. “I’m finally receiving the targeted, meaningful professional development that fits the needs of my students,” the Hour of Power user said. “I feel like I have teacher super powers!”

Finding Inspiration

The Hour of Power team drew from their own hopes and experiences to create their prototype. For Britton, a 5th grade teacher in the Conejo Valley Unified School District, outside Los Angeles, it was important to create a system that was relevant to teachers’ grade level, subject area and interests. This is what her principal did after hearing teachers grumble about attending weekly professional development sessions that didn’t meet their needs. 

“It got to the point that we were picking PD just to get the hours,” Britton says. Now professional learning in her school is driven more by what the teachers want to learn. There is a technology committee and a book club, for example. “I feel like the morale is a lot higher,” Britton says.

Since last October, West has had the opportunity to contribute to her colleagues’ professional learning at CHOICE Academy in the District of Columbia Public Schools by sharing what she learned during a summer blended learning institute. Her “hour of power” takes place every Thursday during “morning collaboration” when she facilitates a session on using blended learning in the classroom.

And Smith said something like the Hour of Power can keep teachers from getting burned out and wanting to leave the classroom.

“The Hour of Power puts some of the decision-making regarding a teacher's professional development back into their own hands and gives them some empowerment over their own learning,” she says. “That ‘buy-in’ from teachers is a very important starting point before embarking on any professional development journey.”

Moving Forward

The members of the Hour of Power team say their design thinking experience has been a confirmation of steps they are already taking to make professional learning more relevant to teachers’ work in the classroom.

Banks says she has spoken to colleagues in Jefferson Parish about implementing the model at several schools where she works. “I am looking forward to strengthening the prototype and transforming the ideas into concrete actions and plans for an official proposal,” she says.

But the teachers say they also plan to use some of the improv activities with other teachers to spark more creative solutions.

“It's rare for teachers to come together and design projects or activities that would have a big impact on the school community without fear of being rejected,” Banks says. “The design thinking and the improv protocols will play a huge role in expanding ideas that come from teachers.”

The collaborative exercises can also be used with students, West says, because they teach students how to build on each other’s ideas, vet sources, generate thoughtful questions, analyze and think creatively—exactly the skills students use to reach the goals of the Common Core State Standards. 

Design thinking,” she says, “weaves together a lot of the standards that need to be taught in ways that people will really need to use them.”

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