Design Thinking Course Trains Future EdLeaders

We’ve been thinking, writing, and talking about Deeper Learning for students, for teachers, and for EdLeaders. Deeper Learning involves working collaboratively, solving real-world problems, and fostering leadership mindsets (among other attributes). Last fall, we had the opportunity to see how the University of Washington’s Danforth Program is transforming principal leadership training to create Deeper Learning experiences for emerging EdLeaders. Throughout the year-long program, the program prepares educators to become principals and culminates with a competency-based performance evaluation. (The competencies are Shaping Culture and Leading Change, Driving Improvement with Data, Building Instructional Capacity, Marshaling Resources and Improving Systems, Advocating with Students, Families and Communities, and Committing to Ethical Practice.)

Jeff Petty, founder of Puget Sound Consortium for School Innovation, in partnership with Ann O’Doherty, director of the Danforth program, created a course that utilizes design thinking to immerse the pre-service principals in real world projects. These projects are designed to create and lead community change and help provide experiences that lead to Deeper Learning for EdLeaders. We recently visited Jeff talked extensively about breakthrough mindsets for EdLeaders including the importance of strategically breaking the rules, moving beyond the status quo, making the work personal, and moving towards competency-based assessment.

The course Jeff is teaching, titled “Equity by Design,” is influenced by the design thinking work that began at Stanford University with the and the work of David and Tom Kelley. The Kelley brothers’ book Creative Confidence outlines the design thinking process and how thinking (and acting) like a designer – and solving real-world problems- can help people learn and practice key leadership skills.

During our visit, a group of approximately 30 principals in training heard from a current middle school principal in the Federal Way School District about challenges the school faced with equity and student recruitment. Jeff guided the principal candidates through a design thinking process for creating solutions to the middle school principal’s problem: he needed a more equitable process for student recruitment for the school.

One goal of the course is to teach the design thinking so principal candidates can use the process with staff and students. Furthermore, the principal candidates are immersed in a design thinking process, creatively designing solutions for real world problems. This provides principal candidates an opportunity to hone breakthrough- and creative- leadership skills.

During the group reflection, the UW principal candidates talked about the importance of the design thinking process for creative problem solving and the implications for leadership. Some reflections were:

  • “The real heart of the work we are doing in the community is digging down to the root problems, not just solving the surface level problems.”
  • “Yes, we can timeline the process, but we can’t timeline the outcome.”
  • “We can use the design thinking process to unpack real world problems that occur in our school buildings.”
  • “The design thinking process can lead to innovative solutions.”

We will be back to check in with the UW principal candidates as they work on their own design challenges throughout this year.

To learn more about Deeper Learning, check out:

This post is part of our “Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning” series.  If you have thoughts about what today’s school leaders should know and be able to do and how they should be prepared, we’d love to hear from you. Contact [email protected] with the subject “Preparing Leaders” for more information.

Bonnie Lathram

Bonnie Lathram is a student advocate and former teacher.

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Tom Vander Ark

Also see great design thinking post by Sandy Speicher


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