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  • Writer's pictureBrett Taylor

Design Thinking PLCs

Design Thinking PLCs are an innovative new way for teachers to collaborate and test out new ideas in the classroom. This article is a quick preview. If you want more information, check out my book Design Thinking PLCs: Revolutionize Teacher Collaboration.


Professional Learning Communities have been an important part of educational organizations for a long time. PLCs support teacher collaboration and planning through a study of student data. As teachers work together to understand what students know, what they need to know, and how to teach it, they can improve student learning. When implemented well, PLCs have been successful in promoting student learning. However, many PLCs have become focused on compliance. In implementation, they often fail to meet the objective of supporting teachers in effective collaboration and teaching.

Design Thinking

Design thinking is a process of designing new products, services, and processes through the stages of empathy, define, ideate, prototype, and test. This process is focused on understanding the needs of the students and designing new ways to meet those needs. Design thinking is an iterative process, which means as you try out new solutions, you collect data to determine what is working, what isn’t, and what needs to change. This iterative process works extremely well in the PLC process and teachers excitedly engage in the collaborative innovation process.

Creates new and innovative solutions

We know what we know. That is why the ideas and solutions we come up with are generally based on what we have done in the past. This is one of the reasons that the routines of school are continually perpetuated over the course of decades. When teachers come together to collaborate, oftentimes it becomes a sharing session of what we are already doing, not designing new and fresh ideas we have never tried before. Even when we do try something new, it is generally based on what another teacher has done that has been successful.

Most of the systems we have in place in education are all about building on past practices. But today’s students are not the students of yesteryear. And just because a teaching strategy worked on one student doesn’t mean it will work on another student.

Design thinking is a process that helps teachers create new solutions to meet unique student needs. It is an iterative process, meaning that a solution is always being developed, tested, changed, and retested. Innovation requires change. If the past was working for students, we could all point to one model that would help all students to be successful. We all know that model does not exist. By using the design thinking process in teacher collaboration, teachers can create new ways of teaching that will support the students in your classroom.

Ensures that the student voice is heard

We all want to help students. For the most part, we think we know what is best for them. In a world where standards and outcomes are created far away from a classroom, it is easy to lose the student. Even when student data is considered in designing a curriculum, it doesn’t consider the actual student, just the student work. In a sense, this process reduces students to numbers and words.

Design thinking starts with the student. We must connect with them and understand their experiences in order to design solutions that will help them succeed. The empathy portion of design thinking allows us to really understand the needs of the student and the testing portion allows us to reevaluate what students are learning and still need to learn. In many ways, this is the most revolutionary part of the design thinking process. Real teaching should always address student needs. But when classrooms are often set at 30 students or more, when we are focused on curriculum, when we are limited by time, it is easy to lose the student.

Fosters teacher creativity

Teachers are not robots. None of us signed up to be told what to do or to read a script. We have all seen education reduced to this in the name of guaranteed viable curriculum or standardization. Teachers want to be creative. It is exciting to create a new lesson and then see the learning happen as it meets student needs and supports their learning. Creativity inspires and motivates. A creative faculty is alive with excitement and discussion. They are excited to come to work every day. A creative faculty is a faculty that is learning and promotes a culture of learning within a school.

Wanting all students to have access to a good education is a great intention, but teaching is more nuanced than that. Often times students need another way to access learning. Administrators can sometimes be wary of allowing teachers to be creative because they are concerned they will abandon all rational teaching practices. They worry that teaching will become about fun and games without any real objective. This is why design thinking is great for teacher collaboration. It focuses the creativity on student learning. Yes, teachers are coming up with new ideas and creating innovative prototypes. But they are completely focused on student needs and student learning. A creative classroom does not have to be a chaotic classroom.

Helps teachers define actual student needs

Teachers often make assumptions about how to support students or what they need. Sometimes these assumptions are made from past experiences. It is easy to forget that every student is different and the complexity of student lives means there are a number of reasons why students are struggling. Even academic achievement data can lead to assumptions because it only presents what the student does or does not know. Academic achievement data doesn’t allow the teacher to understand why the student does not know or cannot accomplish something.

Design thinking presents an opportunity to dig deeper. Teachers are able to understand the motives behind student learning. They are able to define a specific need, based on observation, interviewing and data collection. In traditional PLCs, the focus is on what a student needs to learn and measuring whether or not they have learned it. Teachers then make plans as to how to support students if they did not learn, but those plans generally did not involve why the student has not learned. Design thinking allows teachers to understand student needs and define the why. This previously missing component empowers PLCs to truly support student learning in the way they were intended.

Creates an iterative course of action

Part of the PLC process is an opportunity for teachers to learn together and make changes based on student needs. Often times, this process leads to small tweaks in instruction that do not radically change. Teachers are looking at student learning issues and trying to make changes, but the process does not provide a means to develop new strategies for success beyond planning. Incremental change is often the result of this process.

In the design thinking process, the ideation and prototype stages allow teachers to think outside of the box and create new solutions for student learning. They then test these prototypes with students and collect new data. The new data allows teachers to find out what is working and what needs to change. They can return to the ideation or prototype process. This process allows for the possibility of radical change. Teachers are truly rethinking their teaching approach and trying new ways to support student learning. Constant improvement of the process leads to improved teaching and student learning over the course of a sustained time period.

Allows teachers to create multiple solutions

When we find a problem or need, we generally use the same tried and true solutions we have always known. This can lead to repetition. I have been guilty of re-teaching a student in the exact same way that didn’t work the first time. We are a solution-driven culture and we focus on the fix instead of allowing time to consider all of the possibilities. This process perpetuates repetition and does not support the process of creating new solutions.

The ideation stage of design thinking allows teachers the time and space to collaboratively consider multiple solutions to student needs. Teachers learn multiple ideation techniques in order to improve their creative thinking and find ways to generate solutions that uniquely meet the needs of students. By learning how to generate multiple possibilities instead of jumping in and planning out a mediocre course of action, teachers learn how to improve their teaching and add new skill sets to their tool belt.

Focuses on student data

Traditional PLCs have helped teachers to focus on student data. This is a foundational element of traditional professional learning communities. When this is done consistently it allows PLCs to support student learning. Unfortunately, collecting data is a missing piece of ineffective PLCs. PLC members often start with a desire to collect data, but meetings are often wasted when certain team members fail to collect data. Often times, teachers feel the data they are collecting is disconnected to the most important things they need to accomplish every day.

In design thinking PLCs, teachers work collaboratively to decide what student empathy data needs to be collected. Because design thinking creates a shared student need among the members of a PLC that all are working toward, teachers are more likely to be engaged as they have been part of the focus of the PLC and are designing their instruction around it.

Teachers create an empathy protocol, which includes specific plans for collecting data and analyzing data as a team. Later in the testing stage, teachers also collect data on teaching and learning practices and schedule a time to analyze the data and iterate on moving forward. This shared process improves the participation of PLC members in the student data collection and analysis processes.

Builds on the current PLC model

Because Design Thinking PLCs are structured around the basic ideas of traditional PLCs, most schools already have an infrastructure for PLCs to meet. Adopting the Design Thinking PLC model instantly into schools reinvigorates teacher collaboration. While teachers do need training and support with the new model, it does not require creating an entirely new system. Design thinking works with existing PLC teams. Teams collect work together to decide how to collect empathy data, use empathy data to define student needs, ideate for creative solutions, and prototype and test new solutions. Design Thinking PLCs are exciting and change education for students by ensuring that their learning needs are met.

You can find out more about Design Thinking PLCs and download a playbook at .

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