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Design Thinking Imbedded in School Culture

Posted by Grace Lee on Oct 10, 2013 7:34:00 AM

Stanford University's d.School has stimulated innovative ways to solve problems across nearly every industry--including education. This week we had the privilege of visiting with Dr. Brett Jacobsen, Head of School, and select members of his leadership team at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta, GA, where design thinking has become an integral part of their school culture and curriculum.describe the image

The transition to design thinking wasn't the result of a sophisticated strategic plan but rather progressive inspiration. Dr. Jacobsen attended a conference where this philosophy and practice was presented, and was won over to this method for innovation and learning. He then identified a science teacher at MV who he thought could become a champion for the cause. This was followed by a blog post he wrote describing the new Mount Vernon Center for Design Thinking, giving definition to the desired results and a high level description of the destination. The transformation of the school had begun.

After extensive research and training, the MV team simplified the d-School methodology into a four-step DEEP process for design learning:

  • Discover
  • Empathize
  • Experiment
  • Produce

The implementation of this culture has encouraged an entrepreneurial spirit and momentum at the school. Using a quote from hockey great Wayne Gretzky, the question has become: How do go where the puck is going to be, rather than where it is? Schools, like organizations in every industry today, must stop creating for today and start surveying the landscape to understand what's coming in the future.

From Concept to Culture

For any change effort to have long-term impact, it must become ingrained into the school culture. First, introduce the concept, then establish common language. Prototype to test out different possibilities and assumptions, and then incorporate into the beliefs, rules, and goals of the organization. Mount Vernon leadership, for example, overhauled the organizational chart, expectations and evaluations of performance, revised the school's mission statement, and celebrated those leaders who embraced this new vision. It didn't take long for them to realize that "builders" would create higher value in this new paradigm than "sustainers." Design leaders are highly desired who are flexible, agile, story-creators and -tellers, writers, video makers, and portfolio artists. Design thinking has opened faculty minds to flexibility and new methods.

Recommended Book: Bringing Innovation into Schools by Susie Boss

The Cardboard Challenge is a featured special event at Mount Vernon, where elementary students research a city or a building and construct a model using a sea of cardboard materials. Such programs have contributed to imbedding design thinking throughout the school, conditioning teachers and students to create.

An Innovation Diploma in the planning stage at Mount Vernon, along with the implementation of curated comprehensive e-portfolios.

Recommended Article: Ewan McIntosh (, "What's the difference between PBL and design thinking?"

Design thinking has transformed this entire school and created some key differentiators in the highly competitive Atlanta school market. Dr. Jacobsen has used this blue ocean strategy to set the pace, increasing student performance, faculty engagement, enrollment and fundraising as a result. That's exciting school growth!

Topics: School Design, School Culture

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