Hello, and welcome back after Thanksgiving. I always feel like it’s the hardest holiday to come back from—somehow it’s not long enough to deal with all the over-consumption—gastronomic and otherwise—that happens. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself. But it is long enough to get some serious reading done, especially when you tag on a couple of snow days, so I spent some time chasing down some ideas that I’ve been curious about. And what started as an attempt to find the connections among several approaches to improving practice has become a little unwieldy. So rather than send you another 1400 word Coaching Letter, I’m breaking this synthesis into at least two CLs covering, so far, action research, design thinking, improvement science, and some aspects of total quality management. What all these ideas have in common, at their essence, is the idea of running small experiments, the results of which are used to make the outcome of your work better.

There was an interesting article in The California Sunday Magazine recently called Redesign U, by Steven Johnson, (the author of Farsighted, which I may have written about before), about the application of Design Thinking to persistent, large, intractable challenges—also known as wicked problems. If Design Thinking is new terminology for you, here is a primer on Design Thinking from MIT; here is a TED Talk about design thinking as an approach to solving big problems; and here is another TED talk that takes a design approach to small problems—I do most of my writing in a room furnished with four large Billy bookcases.

The Johnson article is written from the perspective of Design Thinking as a thing, as taught at Stanford, and the subject of a book called Designing Your Life which, I recall, I hated. I was expecting to like it, because design thinking (the process) is closely related to the kind of process-oriented continuous improvement that The Center advocates all the time. But the book oozes with privilege and entitlement—one piece of advice, for example, is that you contact someone whose business/non-profit/other organization interests you, and they will be so inspired by your passion and initiative that they will offer you a job. That doesn’t strike me as most people’s experience of how the world works, but I think there are some people for whom it does work that way.

One of the critics of Design Thinking is quoted as saying “One of the reasons why I really push back against the focus on producing innovators in higher ed is that most students aren’t going to go into roles where that is their focus.” But that statement betrays a mental model of innovation that it is something that only some organizations and/or roles concern themselves with, whereas I think of design thinking as being another approach to continuous improvement, which everyone should be involved in all the time, regardless of role. If you are not engaged in redesign of a product, a system, or a process, then you are at least engaged in the continuous improvement of your own practice.

The quotation comes from a professor named Lee Vinsel, and he does have a point. He worries that the emphasis on innovation detracts from the bigger need of maintaining the quality of what already is. This is the subject of a really excellent Freakonomics episode called “In Praise of Maintenance” (Episode 263). And this is an issue that educators can relate to—that we always seem to be in pursuit of the shiny new thing, while the infrastructure that keeps the system ticking over is neglected. As Johnson writes, “Driving up I-280 back to the Stanford campus from the San Jose courthouse, with the grand estates of Woodside and Los Gatos clustered in the neighboring hillsides, it occurred to me that if there is a danger to be had in the meteoric success of the d.school, it lies in the assumption, so common in the tech sector, that innovation is the default mode of creating positive change.”

Right. But I’m not going to get side-tracked into writing about innovation (I have mentioned this idea before, and this snippet from CL #66 elicited a lot of feedback: ‘Skyfall is on my TV as I write this, and I love this exchange between Q and Bond: “Age is no guarantee of efficiency, and youth is no guarantee of innovation.” Likewise, efficiency is no guarantee of results, and innovation is no guarantee of improvement.’)

What Design Thinking really has going for it is putting yourself in the shoes of the end user—in the d.school argot, Empathy. And that strikes me as a very smart approach to thinking about improvement—I am sure I am not the only person who has found herself on the other side of the power structure of a system and has found it a distinctly unfriendly experience. And partly because educators are such people-persons, that has really struck a chord.

But other aspects of design thinking are just as important, including the idea of Iterative Design, or Rapid Prototyping; plan for what you think is going to work, try it out, see what happens, and then more fully implement or try the next thing. For those of you with any background in Total Quality Management, this is known as a PDSA cycle—Plan, Do, Study, Act—and while in theory this has permeated education, we still do not seem to have learned how to do this well. In particular, we tend to spend big chunks of time planning, and then we launch—and we tend to treat this launch as an Event, and as a proclamation not a feedback cycle, and for some reason we always want to do it at the beginning of the school year.

I always try to coax leaders away from this model, and more towards the idea of PDSA, although I don’t often call it that. I caution away from the big launch, and I ask questions about feedback loops and involving the user—and it is so great to see more districts involving teachers and students in their Guiding Coalitions for designing their improvement strategy. I have used the term “soft launch”, but I like the language in this TED Talk better: launch to learn (I promise that there will never be another CL in which all the TED Talks feature white English males).

More on the theme of small cycles of continuous improvement coming soon… As always, I am really hoping for comments, questions, and feedback. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Email: istevenson@ctschoolchange.org
Cell: 860-576-9410
Twitter: @IsobelTX
Website: http://ctschoolchange.org/
Coaching Letter: StevensonCoachingLetter.org

Stevenson logo