Design Sprints in the Classroom

If you’ve been following my blogging journey, then you know that when I’m in the classroom, I spend a lot of time thinking about and creating learning experiences for my students instead of delivering the expected canned curriculum. As a innovation coach, I work with teachers helping them understand why powerful learning experiences are meaningful for students. I coach teachers in designing learning experiences instead of delivering lesson plans. Before pandemic, I began noticing a pattern. Teachers have enormous amounts of pressure put on them to raise student performance. They get it from all angles: parents, colleagues, administrators, society.

In Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay, Doris Santoro analyzes the professional dissatisfaction that challenges the common explanation of teacher burnout. She interviews hundreds of educators and believes that having a “moral center” can be pivotal in guiding teacher actions and expectations on the job. She explains that the “process of demoralization occurs when pedagogical policies and school practices (such as high-stakes testing, mandated curriculum, and merit pay for teachers) threaten the ideals and values, the moral center, teachers bring to their work” (Santoro, 2018, p. 5). This cannot be fixed by having more resilient teachers. Simultaneously, while teachers are expected to follow directives articulated by their local, state, and federal governing bodies, their opinions are not valued enough to fix a system that does harm to children. Teachers are expected to follow policies that they believe “outwardly harm children or violate the trust that they have established with students” (Santoro, 2018, p. 11). This constant barrage of you’re not doing enough and we don’t trust your opinion slowly erode teachers’ moral center as to why they became teachers: to make a positive impact on the lives of children. Santoro believes that this condition is reversible when educators are able to tap into authentic professional communities and shows that individuals can help themselves.

Since professional development was a large part of my job as an innovation coach, I started wondering if I could create a professional learning experience that not only helped teachers become better in the classroom, but tapped into their expertise and experiences to actually change the educational system. What if I created an experimental lab (like Google X or Lockheed’s Skunk Works) to help classroom teachers find solutions to their most stubborn problems? This innovation lab would be able to take the pains that teachers feel and the problems teachers see and reframe them into design challenges.

This was a crazy idea!

In 2019, I met Angie UyHam, founder of the Cambridge Educators Design Lab, at SXSWEDU. During her session, EdLab Remix, she shared her success with using human-centered and community-driven design to address pressing challenges in education. UyHam, along with her colleagues, were creating brand new models of learning in their respective school districts. What was most impressive was that UyHam’s Design Lab in Cambridge Public School District was able to successfully change the historically top-down, decision-making approach in education, creating opportunities to invent novel solutions, and leveraging community partnerships. I was hooked! UyHam’s passions about the intersection of education, innovation and social change matched my own. She was able to successfully transform how public schools identify and address systemic problems. If she could do it in her school district, why couldn’t I do it in my school district?

I became an educator because I believe in its power to transform the lives of children. I know that children have the capacity and capabilities to change the world, making it a more just and equitable society for us all. To that point in my career, I was hitting more and more obstacles and experiencing more conflict in my job. I never lost my moral center, but it was increasingly coming at odds with my colleagues and administration. I definitely did not want to burn out (or become demoralized), so I needed a drastic change. I needed help bringing my vision to life. This experimental innovation lab would definitely face uncertainty. Executing a good idea can be difficult in the best of situations, and I didn’t know how I could pull this off. I needed a practical way to use my experience with design thinking and creativity and apply those to some of the biggest problems teachers and students face in public education.

Time to Sprint!

What I was doing to innovate my school district was not working. At best, I was helping to create pockets of innovation instead of wide-spread system change.

In 2007, Jake Knapp got a job at Google. Jake is a self-professed “process geek” and so landing a job at Google allowed him to experiment with everything. In 2009, he got a chance to think deeply about how he and his team were able to be so efficient and successful with the launch of Google Hangouts, but struggled to get other projects off the ground. He realized that the key ingredients were individual work, time to prototype, and a hard deadline. This formula became the rough blueprint for a Design Sprint. With every new project (and new team) Jake refined his process. He used the Design Sprint format on projects such as Google Chrome, Google Search and Gmail. He distilled his sprint to an aggressive five-day process that worked for all sorts of websites, marketing strategies, and projects.

According to Jake, the big idea with the Design Sprint is to build and test a prototype in just five days. “It’s like fast-forwarding into the future so you can see how customers react before you invest all the time and expense of building a real product” (Knapp, 2016). Design Sprints are not about solving small problems more efficiently. “The bigger the challenge, the better the sprint” (Knapp, 2016, p. 26). I couldn’t think of a bigger problem or a more important project. Redesigning public education, at scale, and creating a culture of innovative moonshot thinking is an audacious goal. I wanted to regain the confidence I had in the classroom about the impact I was having with my students. In working with teachers and administrators, I wanted to know that I was making a difference in radically improving our school district.

At the beginning of the 2019–2020 school year, I co-created the X Lab with my colleague, Jon Pierce. The X Lab was designed to be an idea accelerator for education. The X stood for exponential outcomes. I believed that if we could adapt a Design Sprint for teachers to solve problems in education, then this educational research and development (R&D) experimental laboratory experience would have an exponential impact on not only our school district, but public education nationwide.

Stubborn (and systemic) problems in education persist year after year after year. Racial achievement and opportunities gap in public education as well as equal access to high-quality learning experiences for marginalized students prevent public education from having a positive impact in the lives of all children. Our current educational system only allows teachers and administrators to try and solve problems by learning separate, discrete skills. I believe that teachers need an opportunity to actively solve their own education problems and be shared decision-makers for implementing solutions in their classrooms and school buildings. I wanted the X Lab to be a separate place where the things that seem impossible (and crazy) in the classroom get worked out so that teachers are handed a roadmap. A guidebook for doing the impossible. I wanted to help teachers create solutions that deliver 10X impact.

Instead of working solo, I immediately began to enlist the help of other like-minded (and crazy) educators. Together, I felt that we could shoulder the responsibility to help teachers be more student-centered, optimistic, radically collaborative, and experimental in their classrooms. With each person I enlisted, we formed a mutual commitment to guarantee that every learning experience that we produce would be culturally responsive and designed with exponential growth as the goal, field-tested with students, rapidly prototyped, and given to our teachers ready to implement in the classroom.

The best advice I received from Angie UyHam was to start small. During her first year, she worked exclusively with 3–5 teachers in her building before scaling larger. I knew it was going to be tough to have teachers clear out an entire week for professional development. Would taking a week off from teaching (and giving your students over to a substitute teacher for a week) really be worth the hassle and effort? This timeline was my first obstacle. Jake Knapp (with John Zeratsky) really believe in the 5-day sprint. Each day is designed to have one focus: Monday is for mapping out the problem and picking an important place to focus. On Tuesday, participants sketch solutions on paper and battle them against other solutions. Wednesday is for synthesizing the first two days and deciding on a testable hypothesis, getting ready to prototype. Thursday is a prototyping day. On Friday, participants test out their prototypes with real human beings (Knapp, 2016).

I couldn’t find any teachers willing to give up an entire week (or principals who would be willing to let their teachers be out of the building for the entire week). I was able to find a few brave volunteers who could be out of their classrooms for professional development for two days. Compressing the Sprint schedule to two days seemed reasonable if I didn’t forgo the prototyping phase. Maybe I could work with teachers in their buildings to test out their prototyped learning experiences after our two-day intensive? I believed in the process and knew that the only way for me to see if Design Sprints could work in education, was to give it a try. I wanted the X Lab to be completely opt-in and collaborative. I knew that if we dedicated the time, trusted the design thinking and Sprint process, and focused on our students (human-centered), then our solutions would have a real impact in the district.

X Lab Sprint Map

The X Lab Pilot was successful! I had two teacher participants and we spent three days (they were so excited after Day 2, that they wanted another day to reflect and debrief) exploring questions such as:

How might we increase student achievement among students who use special services?

How might we improve the culture of our building?

How might we decrease the number of teachers leaving the building after five years?

I learned a lot during that pilot year. By having a truncated schedule, we divided the process over the course of a semester. This lack of continuity created a slow start once we met again. We didn’t have the same momentum we would have had if we sprinted without interruption. Running parts of the Design Sprint also proved to be difficult as not everyone was as engaged via video conference versus in person. No matter what, I learned that even with the bumps, using student-centered design thinking to run a Design Sprint with teachers was exhilarating. Just putting educators in the same room with the job of creating impactful design solutions for their buildings was amazing to watch. We were able to reframe the way we look at educational problems as a district. The Design Sprint encouraged us to see problems as opportunities and to collectively find solutions together. It promoted partnerships between schools and their communities and represented a powerful system for local, sustainable innovation. The teachers who started on Day 1 may have felt the start of burn-out forming, but those same teachers felt invigorated when they left. They reaffirmed with their moral centers that brought them to public education.

X Lab Day 1

Unfortunately, we all lost a ton of momentum when in March of 2020, COVID-19 shut down our entire school district. Throughout the world, this pandemic forced everyone indoors and stretched us all to reimagine what remote learning might look like. Teachers began asking questions such as: What returning to school in the Fall will look like? Will it be safe? Can we afford for students to not go back to school? How can we create meaningful learning experiences via teleconferencing tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Hangout? What is next for public education in a post-pandemic world?

What does a Design Sprint look like in a classroom?

Since I never got the opportunity to fully implement Design Sprints in my school district, I have collected a few resources from those who have used Design Sprints in an educational context.

Sprint Stories

Design sprint in classroom: exploring new active learning tools for project-based learning approach

How to Run a Design Sprint at your School in 9 Steps

Design Sprint in an educational context

Adapting Design Sprints For Education

Revolutionizing the Public School System — a Design Sprint Case Study

Design Sprints for Kids: Unlocking the next generation’s creativity

Design Sprint with Kids!

To be continued…

Now that I have returned to the classroom, I am applying all that I learned as an innovation coach to designing learning experiences for my students. I have used elements of the Design Sprint in my classroom, but have not been able to implement a full week with either teachers or students.

Equity Defined: Designing for Social Justice in the Classroom

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The 2005 book Why We Teach is an edited collection of essays and reflections written by 21 K-12 practicing teachers. Sonia Nieto collected and edited these essays to give teachers a voice in education. So often, teachers are not included in the policy debates that affect their daily interaction with students. The book offered a platform for teachers’ ideas, values, and practices.

Why We Teach Now (2015) followed the same format as it’s precursor, but the conversation changed, centering this time on the concept of “discourse of possibility” (Nieto, 2015, p. 5). These essays showed teachers thinking critically about teaching and learning and included a desire to be more socially cognizant in the classroom. In the essay, We Can Win: Social Justice Advocacy Inside and Out of the Classroom, Jesse Hagopian states, “Being a social justice educator means a focus on pedagogy that would empower students to understand the challenges they faced and help them develop their own strategies for resistance as well as organizing to resist corporate reform education” (Hagopian, 2015, p. 207). I believe that if teachers truly focus on designing learning experiences that empower their students, they can not only focus on pedagogy. They need to “develop their own strategies for resistance, as well as organizing one’s coworkers and union brothers and sisters to actively resist the corporate education reform agenda and social policies that undermine our ability to address the needs of students” (Hagopian, 2015, p. 207).

If teachers push their students to be critical thinkers, they, too, must be critical of the system they are teaching in. This means not only respecting student diversity, but promoting social justice. Teaching for social justice means empowering not only your students, but the entire school community. As educators, we are charged mentoring students and motivating them to greatness. Sonia Nieto recounts a conversation with a social justice teacher named Mary Ginley who explains why she continues to teach, “…because someone has to make sure white kids realize that everyone isn’t living happily ever after in a racism-free world and smart Black girls with accents know that they can go to Harvard if they set their minds to it” (Nieto, 2015, p. 247).

Teaching is a political act, not just an act of service. Paulo Freire says “all education is with a purpose and that purpose can only be political, for we either educate to liberate or we educate to dominate” (cited in Ladson-Billings, 2005, p. 54). We must be dedicated to “challenging injustices such as inequitable access to educational resources facing students and communities of color” (Lopez, 2015 p. 175). We must “create spaces of empowerment where educators, youth, and community members can converge to engage in critical dialogue for community liberation and educational transformation” (Lopez, 2015, p. 175). Designing for social justice in the classroom is designing empowering learning experiences that develops students’ resistant capital (Yosso, 2005), and exponentially increases their “resilience, academic motivations, and civic engagement” (Lopez, 2015, p. 179). Equitable access to a quality education is the most basic right of every human. An equitable, rigorous, and quality education gives students the chance to redefine our society; a society that focuses on peace, social justice, and sustainable and renewable human cultural capital (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1990, p. 114).

Social justice in the classroom also means restorative justice. Restorative justice originated in the 1970s as mediation or reconciliation between victims and offenders. Instead of referring or suspending students, if teachers really worked to empathize with their students and repair their hurt, they can help rebuild trust and develop the social and emotional skills of their students. When teachers remove students from class, we exclude kids from learning. We also fracture the trust within the school community. This does little to repair any damage done and takes away students’ opportunity to reflect on their misbehavior and set intentions for new ways of being. Couple those implications with implicit bias, security involvement in school discipline, and disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates for students of color, and we have a school-to-prison pipeline across our country.

Teachers have a responsibility to create a safe learning environment for their students. Restorative justice circles are effective in building and fostering a safe and trusting school community. For example, since 2014, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has implemented programs to foster restorative justice practices district-wide. These programs are grounded in the understanding that culture change starts with relationships. Their primary goal is to make social justice a reality in public education by addressing the disproportionate suspension of African American and Latino students for non-education code violations. This also includes anti bullying programs and policies. When addressing bullying specifically, teachers need to be intentional in implementing restorative justice circles. They need to be aware of the risks the power imbalance between students may present to students speaking up.

Restorative justice practices lead to reduction in misbehavior and disciplinary actions, as well as improved attendance and an improved school climate. For example, a comprehensive restorative justice program in Pittsburgh Public Schools led to improved school climates, reduced suspension rates (including reduced disparities in suspension rates between Black and white students, and low- and higher-income students). When students feel psychologically safe, they are able to learn at higher levels. Amy Edmondson (2019) has written extensively about the importance of psychological safety. Fear is not an effective motivator (especially with students) because fear inhibits learning and cooperation. “Research in neuroscience shows that fear consumes physiologic resources, diverting them from parts of the rain that manage working memory and process new information. This impairs analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem solving” (Edmondson, 2019, p. 14). These are exactly what we want to encourage in our students! When you have created an environment with high psychological safety and high expectations for your students, you get collaboration and creativity and innovation in your students.

Anti-racist educators who promote social justice practices in their classroom (including restorative justice) create meaningful learning experiences for their students.


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Adrian Neibauer

Adrian Neibauer

I am a learning experience designer. I’m an intellectual thinker. I push the boundaries of what’s possible. I have lots stories to tell and change to make.