What if legislators used design thinking?

Design thinking is gaining support in K-12 education. Most acknowledge the model developed by the d.school at Stanford, but the idea has been around for a while, and there are other models that share similar attributes. I learned about instructional design models the last (and I mean last) time I went back to school, and many ID models rely on the process of design thinking. While there, I also took a class in computer science and learned about scenario-based design by one of its early proponents, Dr. Jack Carroll, and much of the literature I read those three years was related to human-computer interface (HCI) design. A related concept is that of human-centered design. All of these practices incorporate tenets of design thinking.

Recently, the concept of design thinking received a push by being included in the ISTE Standards for Educators (see Standard 6, Facilitator). It’s a common pattern where things developed in industry move through higher education to later reach K-12. For design thinking, that time is now. I found it a little ironic that it shows up under the Facilitator standard rather than the Designer standard, but the intent is to help students understand and practice design thinking, so even though teachers can use design thinking principles for developing instruction, students will be able to benefit from design thinking principles in many subject areas. Computational thinking also appears in the standards, but design thinking is applicable in more situations, perhaps even when developing policy.

I have been musing over what might happen if design thinking was applied in different domains, specifically policy. What if legislators changed the prevalent, current practice of negotiation and instead adopted a design thinking approach to finding policy solutions? Recent, some might say volatile, political events in the halls of America’s capital have emphasized how important design thinking might be to those attempting to address the needs of a diverse constituency of citizens. Perhaps most discussed recently is healthcare legislation, in which legislators have focused more on assuaging and persuading constituents than designing a creative and innovative solution for real healthcare issues. Design thinking is focused on finding solutions for real people, not negotiating compromises. That type of approach doesn’t happen often in industry, at least in successful industries, because bad solutions don’t sell. If your product doesn’t meet the needs of an audience, few will buy it. Perhaps legislators at all levels of government could turn to a design thinking model to address this and other important policies, as based on my current observations design thinking is a process that appears to be little known or applied in policy decisions.

What is design thinking?

Whichever model you prefer, there are some commonalities across design thinking models. These include:

  • Know your user/learner. This is a key component of design thinking. You’re designing something for someone, or a group of someones. That’s why design thinking is also human-centered or learner-centered, if you’re designing instruction.
  • Get to the root of the problem. Jumping to conclusions can lead to short-term solutions that don’t address the full problem. Finding long-term solutions requires better understanding the root causes of problems, some of which may be cultural, philosophical, or psychological in nature.
  • Develop prototypes/models and get feedback. The design process is an iterative one, meaning you design some stuff and then test it out to see how it works. And then you redesign it and get more feedback. Prototypes or models often change, sometimes completely, so you need to be open to change. Resistance doesn’t go far in design thinking.

So, how might the application of design thinking look when developing policy, specifically healthcare policy? I’ve never helped develop legislation, but I have used design thinking often[1]. Perhaps the following might provide some ideas for adapting this proven method in the arena of policy.

Step 1: Know your user

To begin with, in terms of design thinking, legislators would actually talk to people who need healthcare—different kinds of people with different needs. The d.school model calls this step developing empathy for the user. They would interview or read about or shadow different people to understand what kinds of healthcare needs they would have and design solutions for those people.

In instructional design, I use an audience analysis process (Dick, Dick & Carey, 2008) that helps me to understand what my users are like and how my instructional product might meet their needs. Sometimes I do this by talking with people in my user audience, but other times, if I can’t get to them, I try to talk with as many people as possible to try to figure out what a typical user’s day is like and how my product fits into it. I might also research users through a variety of resources, online groups, and publications. The ultimate goal is to come up with a story or picture (or stories and pictures) that help me understand whom I’m designing for and what they need.

One approach I use to get to know my user audience better is creating a scenario about the users, a component of scenario-based design. There are usually multiple types of users with different characteristics and needs, so plural scenarios are usually best. Some proponents of scenario-based design suggest you compose a “day in the life” story of your users and how whatever you are designing will fit into that day. You can also find or create pictures or even short videos to help make those stories come alive.

I’ve used these three stories or student profiles often (also see the image below). The first time was with a state education agency that wanted to develop a website to provide curricular support to students, their parents, teachers, administrators, and just about anyone who supports education. That’s a pretty big task with multiple audiences, so with the help of one of the SEA’s staff members, Kathy Boone, we used these three scenarios to consider the best way to design a solution for students with different needs. At the end of the day, the overwhelming consensus was that a phone-based solution would be more appropriate, and focusing on a website alone wouldn’t meet the needs of the intended audiences. That was just the beginning for John, Tara, and Bill, as these three scenarios and a few other I’ve developed have prompted great conversations in multiple districts and SEAs across the country.

3 Student Scenarios

Step 2: Get to the root of the problem

Many teachers will tell you that one of the greatest difficulties in introducing problems to students is helping them to identify just what the problem is. The same is true with design thinking. You have to avoid your initial gut reaction—which can often be superficial—and instead be prepared to dig deeper. In my coaching work, I find that new coaches have to grow beyond jumping to conclusions right away without trying to better understand the root causes of a situation that may conflict with or negate initial solution ideas. The most effective coaching occurs when coaches take time to build a relationship to better understand the complexities of a problem, or an individual. Understanding the user is critical to design thinking.

My professional friend and co-author of our textbook, Dr. Peg Ertmer (1999), describes the differences between first-order and second-order barriers to change. First-order barriers are those things that are external to a person and you have the easiest control over. These are things like allocations of time or access to technology and other resources. Second-order barriers are internal to individuals and more complex to resolve. People’s philosophies and personalities can be the root of second-order barriers, but they’re also the most important barriers to change. In terms of problem solving, you can implement a first-order solution without also addressing some of the second-order barriers, and the result will not likely last long.

Many problems are complex, and simple solutions aren’t sufficient to address them. As one of my mentors, Dr. Sharon Harsh, has taught me, “complex problems require complex solutions.” Oversimplifying a complex problem won’t lead to sustainable solutions. They can provide a temporary solution that looks like the problem is being addressed, but ultimately these simple solutions fall apart. Education and healthcare policy are rife with stories of simple solutions that have been unable to address the complexity of the issues they are intended to solve.

Sample Scenarios:

What if we applied these first two parts of the design thinking process to healthcare? Consider the following two scenarios based on fictitious interviews:

Hello, Mr. P., thanks for coming in for your annual check-up. That’s really important for a person with a family history of cardiac issues. Right now, you’re healthy and things are looking good. Your faithful cardio routine and close watch of your diet are probably some of the best preventative measures you can employ with your health history, and I know you are trying to avoid relying on medication. That day may come, however, as sometimes our own personal genetic histories can thwart even the best preventative measures. You’re not at that point, but I assure you that if medication becomes necessary, we’ll find the best possible solution and thoroughly discuss the pros and cons before beginning any regimen. I see your kids are doing well. Keep up those annual check-ups that are covered by your healthcare, too, and hopefully they won’t need anything more than a sports physical now and then. Be sure to keep them in the loop on your family’s health history, and you should all do well.

or this one…

Mr. J., I’m glad you’ve taken the time to debrief with me after your last surgery. As you know, while we went in for a blood clot in an area where you’ve had some issues in the past related to repeated patches of melanoma, we did find evidence of an aggressive tumor in your brain. Unfortunately, this glioblastoma, or GBM, tumor is often highly malignant and can’t be cured. Our goal is to help you and your family work through the complications of this issue in the best way possible for all concerned. You’ve overcome several difficult health concerns in the past, including some paralysis in your arms that has required ongoing physical and occupational therapy, but you are entering into a new phase of your life. We have no way to actually eradicate this issue, despite your wealth and admirable healthcare coverage. Our goal is to make you as comfortable as possible by addressing some of the symptoms and complications of this disease. I know you want to stay in your home with your family as long as possible, which may require some physical modifications to your home and ultimately the need for some equipment like a hospital bed. We have excellent and experienced staff who will consult with you and your family to determine the best care that can be provided as you deal with this health concern.

These two fictitious interviews tell us a little more about the intended audience of healthcare. These two scenarios also suggest two very different kinds of healthcare needs, from a relatively healthy person and his family who needs little to no routine healthcare beyond preventative care to someone who may ultimately require significant physical, emotional, and psychological support to live the rest of his life with dignity. And these are just two scenarios.

Legislators interested in using design thinking would, of course, have to learn about numerous healthcare needs. They could interview or survey many different people, or talk with doctors and other healthcare providers, or read studies or briefs about the range of healthcare needs in this country. And those needs would shift based on age, gender, previous conditions, and even locale. That means healthcare needs in Wisconsin might be different from Arizona from Florida from West Virginia.

It would also take more research to get to the root of the problem, or perhaps even to understand factors that influence healthcare needs for different people. In the scenarios above, Mr. P. and his family’s religious affiliation may influence their decision to not pursue medical birth control options for Mrs. P. and her daughter (not unlike my own mother). Mr. J. may have a military background and strong sense of self-sufficiency that may discourage him from participating in obtrusive forms of treatment, as he sees personal strength and not relying on others as a distinguishing part of his moral character (not unlike my own father). So, depending upon the audience, healthcare options may be necessary but not desired, or vice versa. A comprehensive solution requires acknowledging and supporting these and other individual differences.

Steps 3 & 4 and 3 & 4 and… Develop prototypes/models and get feedback

As an instructional designer, I have to be careful of assuming I know what my audience wants and how they want to learn. That’s why it’s important to develop sample activities and materials that can be used with people who represent the target audience to see if I’m on the right track. Sometimes I am, and sometimes…well, I always mean well. And I’m open to feedback.

It can be difficult to receive feedback on something you’ve worked on, perhaps something you’re extremely passionate about, but ultimately you have to give that product up and share it with its intended user. A product’s no good if it’s not used, or worse—if it’s used but is not enjoyed or is found ineffective. Waiting until the end to determine if a product is effective or not is too late. The best products go through a cycle of prototyping with user testing to determine the best solution. There’s no right number of times to go through this cycle. It may just depend on how much time or money you have. However, these steps can actually end up saving money by resulting in a superior product.

Evaluating products as they are being developed is considered formative evaluation, and the way you gather that information varies, based on the type of product and who will use it. When designing digitally delivered instruction, I often use the process of a think aloud, where someone from the target audience works through a scenario or situation with some of the content or media I’ve developed and talks out loud about what they are thinking and feeling as they interact with it. Of course, you can turn to focus groups, interviews, surveys, and a wide range of ways to gather input, but the most important aspect is getting feedback from a real user, not other designers or content experts. Content experts, and I include myself in this group, are often so passionate about their content that they tend to be biased and overlook the actual needs and desires of the intended users. The best news about usability testing is that expert Jakob Nielson (2000) recommends that you only need about 5 unique users, as after that variances in responses level off. Five people—that’s not so hard to find and a worthwhile investment.

In terms of legislation, healthcare or otherwise, these steps are where I believe policymakers may benefit most from using design thinking. How many members of the intended target audience routinely get to review and provide feedback on legislation as it is developed? I’m thinking zero might not be an inappropriate answer. In the recent national healthcare struggles, consider how policy makers do or don’t gather input from users and adjust to dissenting opinions or different viewpoints. How do legislators collect information about patient experiences rather than other legislators? What is the process in which outside voices are considered? Even dissenting input can generate a rich dialogue and support healthy debate through ideas from different viewpoints. Contradictions or negative feedback about a product aren’t personal if they come from the intended audience. Feedback like this should be considered constructive and can improve the ultimate product.

Finally, the design cycle doesn’t end with the launch of the product. In some ways, it’s just beginning. Design models often include summative evaluation after the product is launched, but this type of feedback is then used to improve the product over time. Consider how legislation might be improved if it didn’t stay static after all the signatures. If routine evaluation data was collected, it could be used periodically—perhaps annually or biannually—to improve legislation based on real user data rather than having to go through what appears to be more like a circus with much posturing and grandstanding that comprises the current legislative process. That’s not solving anyone’s problems.

In summary, I know this has simply been a thought exercise and doesn’t take into consideration all of the complexities of healthcare or legislation. But I do wonder if there might be a better way to develop products and services that impact so many of us. Design thinking works, and there are many ways you can apply it, and many fields to which it can be applied. If we’re suggesting its important for our K-12 students, perhaps we might eventually get a generation of legislators that have these powerful skills in their tool belts.


Dick, W., Carey, L., & Carey, J. O. (2008). The systematic design of instruction. 7th edition. Pearson.

Nielsen, J. (2000, March 19). “Why you only need to test with 5 users.” Alertbox. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/why-you-only-need-to-test-with-5-users/ 

Ertmer, P. A. (1999). Addressing first- and second-order barriers to change: Strategies for technology integration. Educational Technology Research and Development, 47(4). 47–61.

[1] I am not a healthcare policy expert, but my nephew Patrick Ross is. I appreciate his support in reviewing this post and ensuring my comments are as realistic as possible, and keeping me focused on design thinking, not healthcare policy.

Common Language: The Power of a Good Continuum

Like I said last week, I love a good continuum, but while SAMR has good intentions, I’m not convinced of how helpful it is to truly impact the ultimate goal of schooling–improving student learning. But since my Mother used to tell me, “If you can’t say something nice…” I decided this week to share a continuum that I believe does help impact student learning. It’s from my friends at Henrico County Public Schools outside of Richmond, VA, and it’s the Technology Innovation Progression, or TIP Chart.

Developed under the guidance of professional friends and colleagues Tom Woodward, Debbie Roethke, Gaynell Lyman, and others, the continuum does many things to improve the interactions teachers and students have with technology. It’s also the centerpiece of two national recognitions for excellence from the American Libraries Association and the Consortium for School Networking. Despite the awards, it’s creators will be the first to admit it’s not the “be all and end all,” but it has done more to promote quality conversations about teaching and learning with technology in many of the school districts I have worked with. That’s something that a simpler continuum often does not do.

It’s Not Easy Being Simple

I understand that simplicity has it’s appeal, and that since technology integration is a complex issue that a simple framework reaches some people. But I find the SAMR too simplistic and results in oversimplified conversations about what teachers–not to mention students–should know and be able to do to improve student learning. The ultimate goal of technology integration is improved student learning, remember, so we need a continuum that helps students understand what that looks like. SAMR does not do that. The TIP Chart does.

The TIP Chart covers four categories (only one of which is presented above. Follow the link to the full chart on Henrico County’s website). The four categories are based on the 2007 National Educational Technology Standards for Students from ISTE. They include:

  • Research and Information Fluency
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Creativity and Innovation

A single post is not the place for a detailed exploration of each. What is possible is spending time reviewing the structure of the TIP Chart to better understand how it can be used. I use it as a foundation for conversations with educators at every level, from the classroom to the superintendent’s cabinet. In fact, after initial use in one district, the director of secondary schools said to the gathered group, “for the first time, I feel like I have the language to talk with a teacher about what creativity and innovation is, and is not, and what they can do to work on it.” The TIP chart, while addressing complex and sometimes misunderstood concepts like creativity and innovation, uses simple language to make these concepts tangible.

It wasn’t easy to distill these complex concepts down to the simple language that now exists. The TIP chart has and will likely continue to evolve. In fact, several of my districts have started by using the TIP chart to have conversations about technology integration and moved on to create their own continuua that sometimes address the same concepts and sometimes include other concepts they value (e.g., curiosity, imagination, flexible learning environments, global citizenship, etc.).

The following graphic provides an overview of the structure of the chart. For each category, you’ll find more teacher-centric activities described on the left. As you move to the right, you’ll find descriptors of more student-centered learning activities. It’s not that the left is bad and the right is good, or vice versa, it’s just a way to interpret those types of instruction. Many teachers move back and forth from one side to the next, sometimes during a lesson or across a unit. One of the greatest benefits many teachers find with the chart is that while the top row describes what teachers do–in a way that is far less punitive than most state teacher evaluation instruments–it also describes what students are doing (in the bottom row) for the simple reason that if students are to take greater ownership of their learning, the actions students take to do so have to be understood and described.

Tip Chart structure

By academic, I’m referring to those simplified, well-structured activities all teachers use to teach concepts and allow students to practice skills (e.g., five-paragraph essay, proofs, scales, etc.). Authentic implies the instruction incorporates problems or phenomena that students will find outside of school–whether actual problems or problems with a real-world context. I’m not just saying “word problems,” which are usually still simplified academic problems. Authentic problems are complex, also referred to as ill-structured, and may have more than one correct answer or no correct answers. Academic exercises are used to train students. Authentic problems require students to perform new skills.

There’s more to it than that, but that’s a good start. Please take time to review the full TIP Chart from Henrico County and consider how it might support teaching and learning in your own school or district. I’ll dig into it in subsequent posts.

Voices from the Field: Stephanie Krajicek

Stephanie KrajicekLast summer I attended the ISTE conference (formerly called NECC) in Denver, Colorado. ISTE is sponsored by the International Society for Technology in Education and is one of the largest educational technology conferences. While I was there, I tried to attend as many sessions possible related to technology and language acquisition, which is where I met Stephanie Krajicek, whose enthusiasm drew people like a magnet to her poster session. Her presentation focused on Technology Integration for English Language Learners (ELLs) and was a colorful and engaging amalgamation of ideas she has used in her classroom and with other teachers. Now a graduate student at Purdue, Stephanie continues to provide training to teachers on using technology matched to the needs they have for working with ELLs. I was able to catch up with her after the conference by phone and she provided some great practical tips.

Focus on the Learning

Stephanie’s poster was brimming with colorful screenshots of student work using many different technologies, especially social-networking applications—those that encourage students to communicate and collaborate with each other. She notes that the problem is not having access to interesting and engaging tools, but finding the right one.

“Many students,” she reports, “may or may not have had access to technology, so you have that extra level of language teaching.” An example she gave was that a common standard is to compare and contrast main characters in a story, which can be difficult concepts for ELLs to begin with, but adding technology means you may have to teach them what it means to log on, what a mouse is, when to right-click vs. left-click. She cautions that you have to be able to determine how much content knowledge they are going to get out of a technology that is complex.

With the teachers she works with now, she starts with a specific project, challenge, or need they have in their classrooms, and then she finds tools to help them meet those needs. She focuses on what they have access to—right now—and how it can be used to meet their needs. She’s done her homework, too, and has amassed a list of many different tools that can be applied in different situations for students at varied age and language levels. You can find some of the examples she’s identified, presentations, and helpful tips on her blog at http://eyeontransformation.blogspot.com/.

A Short List

So what are some of Stephanie’s favorite tools? Below are a few we talked about.

Storybird. Storybird is a collaborative site this is intended for families with younger children. One of the best aspects, according to Stephanie, is that the interface is really simple to use so you can get kids writing and creating short books literally by “clicking on the page and typing.”

The focus is on telling stories, but a benefit is that it allows ELLs to not only tell their stories but to share them. “Too often,” Stephanie admits, “teachers forget that final critical step of the writing process—publishing.” Storyboard allows them to publish their stories for each other, their teachers, and their families. Since the stories “go beyond the teacher’s desk” they carry greater weight, they have greater consequence. Students can also collaborate on stories and share them with each other during the writing process.

I visited the site and noticed that it is in “Public Beta,” which means that it’s free for now, but probably until they can figure out a reasonable business model. There is drag-and-drop art of many different styles students can incorporate into their work, and they can put text anywhere they want to with a click of a button. Storybird automatically creates covers, for those that might need that help, but they are also customizable. Your account tracks the storybirds you are working on, those you’ve published, and those you want to read, so you could actually create reading lists for students.

Webbing tools (concept maps). Stephanie notes that when teachers get caught up in teaching content they might overlook the need to help ELLs use higher-order thinking skills in the target language. Content requirements, especially in the higher grades, often include abstract terms, like compare and contrast, analyze, organize and others. Webbing tools provide visual supports for students to master skills like these using language and images that can visually be organized, linked, or highlighted. She likes to use them for prewriting, as well.

Many teachers have access to the popular Inspiration and Kidspiration software (Kidspiration is designed for younger students), but Stephanie has been using the web-based version of Inspiration’s concept-mapping software called Webspiration. Like Storybird, Webspiration is in free Public Beta but the plan is that it will eventually be offered as a subscription service, hopefully with a break for schools and following acceptable guidelines for secure use by younger students.

Webspiration is similar to its offline versions, and you can even upload or download files from Inspiration. But Webspiration adds the component of collaboration. You can collaborate synchronously or asynchronously, but Inspiration recommends you not collaborate with more than 25 people synchronously. In most settings, more than 3 or 4 might get confusing, anyway. There’s also chat functionality for additional real-time interaction. Collaborators do need an account, so you should follow acceptable use for setting up accounts for students.

Comic strip makers. There are several free and for-fee online and offline tools that allow students to make comic strips or cartoon-like presentations. The benefit for ELLs is that they are highly visual and give them an opportunity to practice English skills with simpler language. Plus, they’re fun and engaging. A short list follows (an Internet search will find many more):

  • Chogger. Create comics with drawing tools or by uploading your own images.
  • Comic Creator from readwritethink. Free online tool from the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English with templates for short black-and-white comics.
  • Comic Strip Maker. Create one-page, three-panel dialog-based comics using one of six character templates.
  • Make Beliefs Comix. Make three-panel comics you can print or e-mail using characters you can manipulate with simple click-driven commands.

Feed aggregators. Aggregators pull in information from different kinds of websites, such as news sites, blogs, and others. Google Reader is an example, but many e-mail programs also serve as aggregators. (You may find helpful the comparison of dozens of different aggregators found on Wikipedia.) The idea is that you can pull in information you are interested in from your favorite sites, or even set up searches for specific content that shows up in your mailbox—or reader—every day.

Stephanie notes that after time of constant English use, ELLs can bog down and tune out. It’s just tiring to process all that information in a new language. Feed aggregators allow you to provide access to background knowledge in their native language to keep the learning going. Some of the things she suggests you try are:

  • Give students access to current events, those that parallel what you’re doing in your instruction, in their native language.
  • Provide extension activities for students who need enrichment.
  • Teach research and writing skills by having students bookmark and annotate websites, perhaps using a social-bookmarking tool like Diigo covered last month, and monitor their work. You can make sure they are finding relevant information, highlighting the most pertinent information, summarizing correctly, and making sure they’re not plagiarizing.

Walk the Walk

Stephanie had more great tips, both at ISTE and on the phone, so maybe we’ll hear from her again. When I asked her what higher education faculty could do to better help their teacher candidates learn about and use technology effectively, she emphasized modeling. She says that most of the technology experiences for many teacher candidates coming to her workshops is using Blackboard (or other learning management systems), but that’s not technology integration. That’s information management.

Since space is limited, Stephanie recommended—in a very 21st Century skills sort of way—that you might want to follow some higher education faculty that are modeling what they want teachers to do through social networking. One of her favorites is the English Companion Ning. She’d like to see something comparable for ELLs. A short list of sites she follows is below. Maybe we can all follow her lead and set up a feed aggregator to follow them. Thanks, Stephanie!