"Catalyst" for creativity - new course applies design thinking to educational leadership

First_Day3Surrounded by colorful paper, pipe cleaners, tape and scissors, graduate students embarked on a classroom exercise that might have looked more like an arts-and-crafts project than a culminating course in education leadership for Ivy-League graduate students. But looks can be deceiving – this new course, Catalyst, was a carefully-planned introduction to design thinking as a tool for entrepreneurial and innovative school leadership.  Inspired by the Klingenstein Center's Dual Degree MA/MBA students, the course was created in cooperation with the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia Business School.  The Klingenstein Center was awarded Teachers College's Dean's Rapid Prototyping Grant last fall to develop and launch Catalyst.  

“The Klingenstein Center's Two-Summers Master's Degree Program students culminated theirgraduate studies with a week of intensive engagement in design thinking, a way of applying design principles in solving messy problems with innovative solutions,” says Professor Pearl Rock Kane Director of the Klingenstein Center and Klingenstein Family Chair Professor of Education.  Catalyst introduced students to the process of design thinking: identifying an issue; listening to those impacted with empathy to identify needs, proposing a specific solution and engaging in a rapid, iterative cycle of testing those solutions and refining them. A hot topic in a number of fields, design thinking has been used for everything from designing consumer technologies to tackling delivery of safe drinking water in rural India.

To introduce the Klingenstein Center's 50 graduate students to the design thinking process, they tackled the issue of summer slide. Summer slide is the term used to describe academic achievement loss during summer months for children and adolescents, which disproportionately impacts students from low-income families.  “[Solving] the problem will leverage the experience and expertise of our students while also being pertinent to Columbia and also to the neighborhood, providing ample opportunity for field work and hopefully impact,” said Professor Kane.

Over just 3 days, students interviewed parents and students from around New Azizi_WilliamsYork City about their perspective on summer slide and their needs and wants for summer engagement.  Based on this information, ten groups created prototypes of solutions to combat summer slide and tested them in the field to gain information on how they could be improved from the children and parents who would be target users. “Making well-informed decisions is impossible unless you have a true sense of what your constituencies really need, and this can only be understood by getting out into the field and testing your theories through role playing, surveys, and one-on-one feedback,” said student Josh Wolf.

When groups presented their work on the 4th day of the course, ideas ranged from evening and weekend summer camps that parents and children would attend together,to a “food-truck” styled information center for parents that would travel the city helping them find activities for their children, to school-based, app-driven enrichment activities that would win students online badges that became real-life gift cards and even whole-school activities. Each solution was tested with families in the community, a key aspect of the design-thinking process.  “The Catalyst experience creates a meaningful dialogue between educators and families.  This course capitalizes on meaningful collaboration to develop thoughtful programs in conversation with real people,” said Lauren Rogers whose group designed a website to help families create cooperative enrichment experiences for their children and share expertise as a hybrid online and real-world community.

Jess Soodek and Julie Kalmus were part of a group that created “Pop Up Wonder Camp” a day-camp-styled set of activities that would travel to various neighborhoods providing whole family activities through the day and evening whenever parents and students are available together.  Kalmus summed up her experience in Catalyst, “The class supported us to engage purposeful collaboration around a shared problem. Moving beyond assumptions, groups used empathy, feedback and iteration to create solutions for well-defined problems that actually met the needs of others.”  Similarly, Soodek shared, “Catalyst has shown me the value of the iterating process. Having the opportunity and time to receive feedback and revise multiple times can lead to a product you never conceived as possible.”   

On the final day of the course, and their summer at TC, students were asked to think about how they might be able to apply their learning in Catalyst as educational leaders.David_Flaxman_Insight  David Flaxman summed up the experience: “I think the course has been very effective in opening our minds to an expansive, “multiverse" type of thinking.  The instructors helped us widen the scope of ideation and have truly engaged us in a process from which broad possibilities emerge. Given enough time and proper guidance, our faculty could use the design thinking process to tackle big problems.   The Catalyst experience showed me how much richer collaborative decision making can be.  Specifically, I'd like to use the design thinking process to tackle sustainability efforts like school-wide recycling initiatives.  I also think the process could help us re-imagine what effective community outreach looks like for students at our school.”

In true design thinking form, the feedback from these 50 pioneering students will be used to assess and adjust Catalyst before it is offered to the next group of graduate students.  In addition to the on-site course evaluations, hearing how the students were able to implement the principles they learned in their own schools will be key information.  At the closing of the course, Professor Kane told the students, “…in designing this program, we never settle for anything that we think is not the best. You always bring it to a level we haven't anticipated… It's inspiring and we thank you for this good work.”

The Klingenstein Center for Independent School Leadership was founded in 1977 and was the first graduate program to focus on teaching and leadership specifically in the independent and international school setting.  As a part of Teachers College Columbia University, the Klingenstein Center's remains unmatched in its ability to prepare future leaders at all levels of independent and international schools to be thoughtful, reflective, and ethical leaders able to keep pace with the constantly evolving needs of schools.

More Photos from Catalyst:

Lauren and Caitlin share their work on the initial design exercise.

Erica, Regan, and Susan work on their prototypes

Laurie, Bo, Carter, Julia, and Any talk with instructor Gabrielle about their field research results.

Marshall shares insight from his group's conversations with families about the length of summer as it relates to summer slide.

Mark charts his groups observations into the insights they will use to design their prototype.

Paper prototype of the KnowledGO app for field testing by Colette, Courtney, Nathan, James, and Aaron.

Demonstration of another app/website/library kiosk tool designed by Lynn, Josh, Will, Gabe, and Emily.

Travis and Nick demonstrate a "help desk" approach to helping parents find summer enrichment activities for their children.

Lauren and Jimmy demonstrate their group's prototype of the "Summer Parent's Collaborative" website.

Adam shows the first section of the "My Adventure" summer program selection board.

Adam with the second section of the Summer Adventure board.

Priscilla with her group's work-in-progress.

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