Written by: Kailey Fisicaro

How to Hack Your Way to the School You Want

Revamping a school starts at the top. But it also begins with small change.

For teachers, educational assistants, counselors and students to feel like they can make a difference with their ideas, they need a leader who will support them.

High Desert Education Service District offers a fellowship through the d.school at Stanford University that encourages leaders to do just that. School Retool, a professional development fellowship created by the d.school, IDEO and the Hewlett Foundation, gives educators the chance to reinvent their school culture using a change process inspired by design thinking.

For the second year in a row, HDESD gathered about 15 educators nominated by their school districts to take part in the School Retool fellowship in Central Oregon, which lasts from January to April.

At the beginning of the process, the educators – most of them principals – identify a high-level aspiration for their school, according to Anna Higgins, HDESD’s director of innovation, who co-facilitates the fellowship in Central Oregon.

This January, one principal’s aspiration was that “students will understand what high quality work is in order to do their best work and develop a high quality work ethic.” Another principal aspired “to have students furthest from opportunity not be afraid to take risks to deepen their learning,” Higgins said.

With such high-level aspirations, where does one begin? By using “hacks” – small, scrappy ways in which principals can start pushing their schools toward positive change. For the principal seeking to help students furthest from opportunity take more risks, the first hack was gathering a diverse group of students to talk about the attributes of risk-takers, and what prevents them from taking risks themselves.

“It’s OK if a hack doesn’t work,” Higgins said. “It will still teach you something.”

The design thinking process helps shift the fellows’ mindsets, so that a change in school culture goes from feeling insurmountable to feeling doable. Breaking a big aspiration into “hacks” starts putting the idea into action immediately.

“They have to fail forward to learn more about their aspiration,” Higgins said. “That’s really different from the way education usually does something new.”

How Educators Can Use Design Thinking

Higgins’ co-facilitator of School Retool in Central Oregon is Katie Krummeck, an educational designer and facilitator who is a national expert in design thinking. The idea behind teaching educators design thinking is to help them integrate the mindsets and skills into their everyday work.

“I want to equip them with the design tools to keep pushing toward positive change,” Krummeck said.

Throughout the School Retool fellowship, Higgins and Krummeck meet and check in with the fellows to see how they are adapting hacks, coach them and offer them the time, space and skillset to make their aspirations a reality.

Traditionally, new ideas can take a lot of time and resources, Krummeck said. And in schools specifically, teachers are sometimes asked to adopt so many different approaches and so much new curriculum, “implementation fatigue” can occur where educators feel burned out by constant – and ineffective – change.

“It is really hard as a leader to be kind of by yourself, having to come up with new solutions and taking a risk putting a solution out there that may or may not work,” Krummeck said.

With its design thinking approach, School Retool allows users to have a voice. When principals aren’t the only ones coming up with ideas, teachers feel more excited about implementing hacks they had a part in brainstorming.

“It allows people to try things that are more experimental and innovative,” Krummeck said.