HCD21: Year 1 report on redesigning our educational system

I am writing to provide an overview report on our activities and outcomes for the first year of the two-year, $250,000 Steelcase Foundation grant supporting our “Student Achievement Improvement through Human-Centered Redesign” (HCD21) project.

Our project actually began prior to their generous grant award when a handful of teachers and administrators participated in a Fall 2014 online human-centered design course offered through IDEO. It was a hands-on, project-based course that provided a good understanding of the design process. That winter, we expanded the group by adding some “original thinkers” from our staff and engaged with Seth Starner and Jason Kehrer of NewNorth Center in a day-long workshop to further connect with real problems facing our young learners and the barriers that often get in the way of change.

This initial work led to the grant application, which the Foundation board approved on July 13, 2015. Dr. Carol Lautenbach and I subsequently met with Seth and Jason in a day-long visioning and planning session where we developed a first-year process that took into consideration that our HCD team members had limited time available due to their daily responsibilities as teachers and school administrators. Following my opening keynote presentation to our full staff prior to the start of the school year that focused on our need to redesign schools structures, teaching, and the learning process, we recruited an initial group of thirteen teachers, administrators and support staff to serve as our “HCD21 leadership team.” This team provided the core effort of our human-centered design work and several more teachers joined the team in late winter.

We contracted with NewNorth Center to serve as partners and facilitators for the HCD21 work sessions and to provide some additional support during a planned, all-staff viewing and discussion of the video, Most Likely to Succeed, produced by Ted Dintersmith. We also partnered with Dave Koetje (SIM COM, LLC.), former CEO for Christian Schools International, to serve as leadership coach with a primary role of helping maintain momentum in our work, provide feedback on the process, give an objective point-of-view as an “outsider” to our HCD21 team, and conduct parallel briefings and design-thinking work sessions with a larger group of teachers across the district as well as our Board of Education.

Our first year was divided up into phases:

August: Introduction of our HCD21 project and need in the back-to-school letter for staff and keynote presentation during the all-staff opening session; planning sessions with NewNorth Center; identification of volunteers to serve on the leadership team.

September – November: Organization of the leadership team; review of the Steelcase Foundation grant expectations and timeline; overview of the Basecamp application for posting and communications throughout the project; introduction and review of the human-centered design process using NewNorth Center and IDEO models; identification and framing of the initial problem statement; developing trust in the process as well as building cohesion within the leadership team; bringing other staff and Board members along through blog postings and face-to-face updates; collection of secondary research regarding the design thinking process, need for redesign of schools, and innovative approaches to teaching and learning to improve student achievement.

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During the fall divergent phase, our team had extensive conversations centered on questioning the assumptions we have about our district, schools, families, student and staff. We worked to expose these assumptions and accompanying biases while reviewing the quantitative and qualitative data about our community, mining as much of it as possible for insights. We completed assumptive empathy and journey mapping as bi-products of our work.

December – February: We transitioned into the third phase of our work – knowing people and context through continuing secondary research and ethnographic studies. We divided our overall leadership team into smaller interview teams and identified twenty families representing a cross-section of our community. Jason and Seth conducted a training session for the interviews and organized materials to support the work of the teams. Actual students from East Lee Campus (Alternative High School) volunteered to serve as interview subjects during this training, providing some unexpected initial insights and helping us to modify the interview process for better results. Each of the four teams conducted one interview in December and we met as a whole group afterwards to analyze the results and critique our work. Each team then conducted the remaining interviews during January and February with two whole-group sessions scheduled at intervals to help maintain momentum, debrief each interview, and collect key observations.

We also scheduled and conducted several viewings and discussions of the award-winning documentary film, Most Likely to Succeed. This film, produced by venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith, focuses on the need for redesigning our schools to be more focused on the 21st century learning needs of students.


pic1The first viewing was by our senior class and the discussions following the film were eye-opening to say the least. We gained some very valuable insights into how students viewed school and their future dreams. We shared this information with the entire district. That same week, we held a session for the entire staff and any members of the community who wanted to attend. Dave Koetje moderated the discussions during and following the film. Seth and Jason collected written feedback that was input into a database as part of our research. In late winter, Dave Koetje also moderated a joint viewing and discussion for the Board of Education and Administrative Team. As of this writing, we are planning a community-wide viewing and discussion in September now that the film is available with Spanish subtitles. The film is powerful as a tool for igniting passion and critical discussion. You can find out more about it and watch a short trailer at http://www.mltsfilm.org/.

pic2March: Several lengthy sessions were held as the fourth phase to conduct pattern finding within the extensive interview and secondary research data collected. We grouped these patterns and went through an extensive process of drawing insights from the key observations in each group. From that, need statements from the point-of-view of students, parents, and staff were constructed. The team waded into the beginning of the next phase – exploring concepts and creating solutions – by evaluating group need statements and identifying four overarching themes that will help drive ideation and prototyping beginning this summer.


April-June: Several executive-level meetings were held to plan our summer DesignQuest ideation and prototyping camp as well as reflect on where we have come and what the second year of this project should look like. In addition, Carol and I met with the entire staff of each school building to bring them up to date and recruit their interest in participating in DesignQuest (August 1-3) and learning more about the entire design-thinking process.

Along the way during our journey this year, we have experienced a number of parallel events and activities that were not foreseen as we began the year:

  • A substantial number of staff (The Group of 50) requested special after-school sessions to learning more about the focus of our HCD21 project and the concept of human-centered design as it might be used in their own classrooms. Dave Koetje put together a plan for these sessions and conducted them during the winter months. The response was very encouraging.
  • It was decided to create a short film to document the purpose of our project and what some of our staff members were saying about it as well as design thinking in general. We engaged a professional videographer and produced a five-minute film, sharing it with our community and other interested parties. We are planning to produce a sequel in September that will include the ideation and prototyping activity from this summer.
  • A handful of teachers throughout the district picked up on our design thinking work and explored a variety of new ways of teaching, learning and assessing student learning along the themes contained in the Most Likely to Succeed, including but not limited to the following:
    • pic4Cardboard Challenge – our Early Childhood Center used the principles of maker education with students creating a variety of cardboard creations and holding a community exhibition where they had to demonstrate and explain what they made. In some cases, partner groups from the middle and high school joined 1st grade classes on a weekly basis to help with the construction in a mixed-age learning group.
    • Outdoor Learning – our outdoor learning space along Plaster Creek became a hotbed of environmental, project-based, and maker-space learning for elementary and secondary students throughout the year.
    • Free-Play – elementary teachers explored this learning concept where students were empowered to make decisions about what they wanted to do and where they wanted to do it at; skills such as collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity were reinforced throughout the day.
    • pic5Senior Exhibition – a graduation requirement for the past eight years, this assessment of learning took a giant step forward when the senior class and faculty designed a community-wide exhibition the week prior to graduation. It was a tremendous success by all accounts including feedback from parents, students and staff. As a side note, one of the senior class members focused her exhibition on event planning and for her project, she took the leadership role in planning and coordinating the entire event.
    • Spanish Market Day designed by students to provide an authentic Latino market experience from countries representing Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and Spain. Our middle and high school Spanish Club members celebrated the countries their families are from by selling authentic cuisines, beverages, jewelry and offering face painting. Students from all grade levels in the district had an opportunity to visit the market and experience learning by doing.
    • Project Deep Roots where Botany students designed a project to learn how to grow healthy foods and support their community at the same time. The class of ninth- through 12th-graders has been growing tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, peppers, kale, broccoli, cauliflower and other herbs and vegetables in the school’s raised-bed gardens and in the schoolyard greenhouse as part of the Deep Roots project, a name that not only implies growing healthy foods but also developing deep roots in the community to promote healthy living. The impact on student learning has already proven substantial: Sophomore Roy Duran said he’s started growing vegetable plants at home. “It’s kind of complicated, but at the same time it’s pretty easy. I’m growing tomatoes and peppers for my family. The main reason why is because of this.” He said he’s interested in seeing the impact the project will have. “We are basically growing our own good food, and we are going to make the community healthier and better.”

Several other examples, some of which have been previously mentioned in this report can be found at http://www.schoolnewsnetwork.org/districts/godfrey-lee.

Over the past two years, several staff have enrolled in IDEO online design thinking courses (free and tuition-based) to strengthen our leadership roles and sustain the HCD21 project outcomes.

In summary, we found that much of our HCD21 work and efforts to bring our key district and community stakeholders along has piqued an interest in learning more about design thinking, maker education, flexible learning spaces, and learning by doing through project/problem-based activities and exhibition. We know from this early work that much of the ideation and prototyping will begin in these areas.

The HCD21 team identified through the convergence process four key concepts that will frame our work going forward:

  • Student Choice: How might we provide students with more choice in their learning so that it feels more relevant to them?
  • Socialization in Learning: How might we create more learning environments where students feel free to collaborate with each other, communicate their points of view, and focus on topics that are more engaging and relevant?
  • Create a Culture of Acceptance and Belonging: How might we build on the unique and positive aspects of our community and school culture so that all students feel they belong regardless of their backgrounds and beliefs?
  • School-Parent Communications and Engagement: How might we create a more open, two-way communication link that provides a welcome atmosphere for parents and community members, while engaging more adults from the community in our school culture and academic programs?

Our artifacts from this first year, any of which can be made available to your Board of Directors include:

  • 258 discussion threads on the Basecamp 2 online collaboration platform
  • 170 documents uploaded to support the discussions and the research
  • 164 research articles, posts, and videos uploaded to a data-base in our DropBox online repository
  • 20 family interviews conducted producing several hundred scripted insights uploaded to the DropBox online repository
  • Many dozens of digital photographs detailing our work, activities in schools, and family interviews
  • A dozen 4×8 panel boards documenting the divergence-convergence work of gathering, analyzing and pattern-finding

Feel free to browse the many photos taken during this nine-month journey to date by clicking on https://goo.gl/photos/EzQ8Qd76UFf7UbKJ6 (note, this will open up the album in this window so you will need to use your browser back-up arrow to return).

Part 2 of HCD21 Year 1 Report: Addressing specific expectations This post provides a listing of the project expectations and our progress towards achieving them.

Going Forward

While we continue to work on specific plans and process for the second year of this project (and beyond) our basic expected outcomes for the coming year will be to:

  • Continue throughout the year to make design thinking a powerful teaching and learning structure within our entire school district, employing it not only in the classrooms but also in Board and administrative planning and district redesign efforts.
  • Host two community-wide screenings of the Most Likely to Succeed documentary in early October. This film now Spanish-subtitled which will be a great benefit for bringing more parents and community members along on this journey.
  • Conduct an intensive ideation and prototyping camp (DesignQuest) in August to reinforce the need for moving from conceptualization towards action, and to identify some early ideas that can move towards live testing during the school year.
  • Conduct live model tests, observe, document the learning results, and iterate, iterate, iterate.
  • Take physical steps to overcome barriers and constraints to the extent possible through waivers with the Michigan Department of Education to support live testing and monitoring of results.
  • Organize the process and results of our HCD21 project to create a strategic plan for the district that sustains this change model and the results that are achieved.

We are excited to continue this journey and look forward to year two of our partnership in redesigning K-12 teaching and learning.

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Listing of key web addresses for further examining the work of the HCD21 Team

Google Doc File: http://tinyurl.com/GLPSHCD21

Superintendent’s Notes WordPress blog postings:














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Link to Sep 1, 2016 All-Staff Opening Presentation (slides 36 to 56 are specifically about the Steelcase Foundation grant, HCD process and invitation to join in this journey: https://www.dropbox.com/s/leoy4jc6uxl6wx3/Free%20to%20Learn%20Keynote%20Preso%202015.pdf?dl=0

Mlive article by Monica Scott, Aug 14, 2015: http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2015/08/school_district_awarded_250000.html

2016-03-10 15.53.35

School News Network articles:













About David Britten

Retired U.S. Army Officer, former elementary, middle and high school principal, currently serving as a public school superintendent.
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2 Responses to HCD21: Year 1 report on redesigning our educational system

  1. Pingback: Part 2 of HCD21 Year 1 Report: Addressing specific expectations | Superintendent's Notes

  2. Pingback: Michigan study mirrors the foundational work of our human-centered design | Superintendent's Notes

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