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What do you get when you put 5 classroom teachers, 6 teaching artists, 3 youth development staff members, 3 graduate students, 1 coach, and 1 parent in BIF’s office space for a 2-day intensive “design jam”?  What if they all come with a problem they’re currently facing and want to tackle? During the last weekend in March, we found out.

Fueled by caffeine, collaboration, and adrenaline, these 19 dedicated educators worked in teams of 2-6 to tackle their chosen challenges, using our Teachers Design for Education (TD4Ed) curriculum. In the week leading up to the event, the teams conducted qualitative research to explore their issues and develop a deeper understanding of what they meant to various stakeholders. At the design jam, they reflected on what they had learned, generated and evaluated 60-70 new ideas to solve their challenge, built 3D prototypes of a new solution, tested out their concepts with a partner team, and plotted next steps to implement what they had created…all in just over 8 hours.

Sound intense? It was. But all five teams walked away with a tangible solution they were excited to test out and implement on their own turf, and it was an inspiring way to wrap up the work we’ve been doing on the TD4Ed project over the past six months.

As our current phase of work on TD4Ed draws to an end, we wanted to share some of the things we’ve done, how our thinking has evolved, and where we see TD4Ed going next. Beyond just what we’ve learned specifically about TD4Ed, we think the larger lessons we’ve learned about the fields of blended learning, professional development, and education innovation have broader applicability, especially for those who are playing in these spaces.

Want all the insights and details? Use the links at the bottom of this post as an index to jump to more in-depth information. Interested in just the highlights? Well, here’s the quick version:

Where We Started

In round one of work on TD4Ed (November 2013-June 2014), BIF’s Student Experience Lab (SXL) designed, tested, and launched a free, collaborative platform that teaches educators design thinking skills and empowers them to create, test, and implement solutions to challenges they face in their classrooms, schools, districts, and communities. Through a series of pilot programs in Rhode Island, Chicago, and Philadelphia, the SXL co-created this platform with teachers and with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).

Round two of our work, which we started in October 2014 and are now wrapping up, gave us a chance to strategize around how to partner with other organizations to get TD4Ed into the hands of more teachers, make it even more valuable to them, and create a sustainable model for TD4Ed going forward.

At the start of this second phase, we had in mind a variety of partnership types that could increase the impact of TD4Ed in different ways: integrating TD4Ed with a high profile crowdfunding site to attract new users and offer them funding for their solutions; offering blended in-person professional development trainings; rolling TD4Ed out across an entire school, network, or district; working with other organizations to create sponsored design challenges around specific problems; embedding TD4Ed into existing tech platforms that educators are already using; and/or offering micro credentials to teachers that complete the TD4Ed curriculum. Our goal was to figure out which combination of partnerships would be the right mix for TD4Ed, and make those partnerships happen.

What We’ve Been Doing & What We’ve Learned

We started by identifying who the major players were in each category and looking into the unique elements they brought to the table that could deliver value to our users. After getting an overview and deeper understanding of the potential strategic value of each partnership type, we began having conversations with representatives from the organizations that seemed most promising and experimented with what form these partnerships could take.

Through this process, our biggest and most generalizable learnings have included:

Learning #1: Experiences must be personalized.

Educators need choices, and it’s wise to accommodate a variety of levels of desired time investment and learning outcomes. With TD4Ed, we found that the full 6-8 week curriculum works great in a blended, facilitated model. But not all teachers have 6-8 weeks to commit to learning a new process. To give such teachers a chance to use aspects of design thinking in their practice, we played with a spectrum of engagement options. These ranged from bite-sized individual downloadable guides and activities to concentrated one-off workshops and the above-mentioned weekend-long design jam, and finally to more extensive blended professional development training.

        Learning #2: Engage teachers early in their career.

Working with individuals while they are training to become teachers is a particularly powerful time to make in a difference in their practice and mindsets, and ultimately in their students’ learning. Teachers-in-training are looking to add new skills to their teaching arsenal, and are more likely to have the time to try out resources. From the ways we’ve seen education students engage with design thinking and the TD4Ed platform, we recommend that others working in the education space think about how they might bring their tools to teachers-to-be.

Learning #3: Teacher-designed solutions — and the teachers behind them — are powerful.

This comes as no surprise, and we’ve seen it time and time again both in the initial round of work on TD4Ed and in everything we do in the SXL. But it bears repeating. In this phase of work we’ve seen over and over how educators take the solutions they’ve developed — and the design thinking process itself — and run with them.

We had been tossing around the idea of involving TD4Ed teacher “alumni” in our blended professional offerings for a while but got serious about it after an illuminating conversation with    Wendy Sauer, our Program Officer at BMGF. She thought incorporating teachers into our PD facilitation could be a great model for TD4Ed, and so we decided to experiment with what that could look like. At our design jam, we invited one of our pilot teams, a group of teachers from Warwick, Rhode Island, to join us to offer tips, share about their TD4Ed experience, and describe how their solution has grown and evolved over the past year. It was a powerful moment in which the new participants saw just how significant the effects of their solutions could be.

Learning #4: Professional development training and edtech platforms must deliver learning experiences that are relevant, interactive, and ongoing.

The BMGF recently put out a report on teachers’ views on professional development, describing how teachers believe that PD is effective when it involves “learning that is relevant, hands-on, and sustained over time.” This finding resonates deeply with what we’ve seen from TD4Ed. Whether learning is delivered via online or in-person methods, it must align with educators’ existing skills and capabilities, as well as the challenges they are currently facing, and provide ways for them to collaborate and learn actively. Much of the power of TD4Ed lies in how it enables teachers to take on challenges of their own choosing through an ongoing, hands-on process.

Learning #5: There’s a productive tension between integrating into what teachers are already doing, and offering them a completely unexpected experience.

There’s great value in incorporating learning opportunities for teachers into the things they’re already doing and the online and in-person spaces they already inhabit. Meeting educators (or any users, for that matter) where they are is critical to making new experiences valuable to them. At the same time, creating new and unexpected experiences can inspire creativity and open novel pathways for collaboration. In our design jam and workshops, we’ve taken teachers out of their everyday contexts, and as a result, have seen them develop new and enriching ideas and connections. Creating unexpected experiences is something that can be done in online spaces, too.

Where We’re Going Next

In the end (or at least for the time being…iteration is never complete!), most of our energy is going toward offering blended professional development training on TD4Ed. We’re also pursuing a few other complementary avenues, including delivering TD4Ed via existing edtech platforms (look for us on BloomBoard!), offering TD4Ed to teacher credentialing programs, using TD4Ed as a way to engage networks of teachers around larger challenges, and continuing to offer micro credentials to recognize educators who complete the curriculum. Crowdfunding and rolling TD4Ed out across a model school, network, or district fell out of the running for us as pathways to pursue for TD4Ed right now, but looking into these areas taught us useful lessons.

We still believe that storytelling can spread the impact of TD4Ed beyond individual teams, schools, and districts. As educators continue to use TD4Ed to tackle the challenges they face, we hope it becomes a free marketplace of ideas, where teachers, administrators, policymakers, and others can learn what effective, teacher-designed solutions look like.

Looking for all of the blog posts in this series? Use the links below: