Chicago Public Schools is the third-largest school district in the United States, with more than 600 schools providing education to approximately 400,000 children.
Hope can be hard to find in a sea of grim data. In 2013, school leaders had plenty of numbers quantifying the ways in which student misconduct was threatening school climate and safety. But rather than dictating a universal approach, CPS saw the opportunity to bring together cross-disciplinary teams of administrators, teachers, parents and students, to try to solve old problems in new ways.
We used human-centered design to create a common language, aligning these diverse teams around shared values and goals. And we worked with each team on a challenge related to student behavior, coaching them through the design process from initial research through prototyping ideas.
We conducted a series of five workshops with a cohort of eight CPS schools, each of whom had identified a focused issue of student behavior. The issues ranged from tardiness and disrespect to poor attendance, failing grades, suspensions and violence.
After conducting interviews and observations with fellow members of the school staff and community, participants sketched and brainstormed ideas for new roles, programs, products, communications and events.
Teams selected concepts that showed potential for maximum impact with minimal investment, since budgets were tight and implementation was critical.
In one session, teams created low-fidelity prototypes for their strongest ideas, and were able to immediately share them with others for rapid feedback.
In another session, teams acted out their new program and service ideas, in order to know how they would play out in real time.
Many teams designed new programs they could implement in their schools. For example, one team began with the complex challenge of freshmen dropping out of school. Rather than focusing on the dropouts, they spent time with their positive deviants, on-track 9th graders, and noticed a pattern: all of them were engaged in at least one after-school activity. This team designed an after-school activities fair for prospective freshmen, in order to make the exemplary students’ behavior more of the norm.
Through a series of workshops, our participants learned the human-centered design methodology—from framing to prototyping—and began to transfer the process and principles to their own environments. In this way, the experience built capacity for educators to become everyday innovators.
I couldn’t have been more skeptical. I couldn’t be more excited.Workshop Participant
Client & Community Outcomes
The teams who engaged in our process created incredibly insightful solutions, because they went about the work of problem-solving in a completely different way. The focus on appreciative inquiry meant that they studied the small minority of students who were “living the solution,” rather than focusing on the majority who were exemplifying the problem. This appreciative mindset was mentioned over and over as a most valuable new way of thinking.