Reflections on Redesign: Lessons Learned from the Fuse Architect Project

A central aim of Highlander Institute is to support equity, access, and opportunity for all students through the use of blended and personalized learning models. We believe these are powerful levers for engaging students in their education and better preparing them for future success. However, these approaches are challenging to implement and, in many cases, have fallen short of their promise for underserved students, especially at the high school level.

In January 2017, Highlander Institute partnered with seven Rhode Island high schools for an 18-month redesign effort supported by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. This project was an opportunity to learn about what it takes to redesign the high school experience and what is possible when students are empowered as partners in the design process. A summary of the project and our learning about designing an Integrated Learning System and pivoting toward student-centered learning can be found in the full report, which is available by request. However, we have distilled the larger report into five key takeaways that apply to any redesign team leading a high school change effort.

#1 Redesign is a team sport.

The Fuse Architect design teams showed us the power of a heterogenous stakeholder group coming together to craft a shared vision for teaching and learning and working in an ongoing manner to bring that vision to life. The feedback on the design team approach reinforced our belief that bringing multiple voices to the table and collaborating around design problems should serve as standard practice for districts seeking to move toward student-centered learning.

The Fuse Architect project was our first experience with formally involving students in the planning of classroom and school redesign. We found their perspectives to be invaluable and are now encouraging all of our partners to include students on their design teams, when possible (based on scheduling) and appropriate (based on age of students). To facilitate this process, we recommend completing our Student Voice Calibration Exercise, which outlines a series of steps Design Team members should take to ensure that student voice is an integral part of their design process. In addition, we recommend that Design Teams complete a full or half-day student shadow to build understanding of and empathy for the student experience. We found this Student Shadow Protocol, developed by IDEO, to be a helpful resource for organizing, conducting, and debriefing the shadow.  

#2 You say tomato, I say tomahto.

Any education reform or redesign effort, particularly one that utilizes educational technology, is bound to be awash in jargon. Therefore, it is important for the design team to define terms and make sure that stakeholders are aligned in their understanding and use of these terms.

In one of the Fuse Architect redesign projects, we observed a lack of common language around ILS functions, which made it difficult for different stakeholder groups to communicate clearly about their expectations and experiences. To address this, we developed a list of common terminology related to integrated learning systems, which can be accessed here.

While this list is specific to the redesign focus of Fuse Architect, we recommend that design teams use this as a jumping off point and build upon it to develop a custom list of educational terminology relevant to their redesign efforts. For example, it may be necessary to invest time parsing out the variations between blended learning, personalized learning, student-centered learning, deeper learning, and project-based learning. It is likely that redesign team stakeholders have different understandings of what these terms mean and how they relate to their vision for the school, so it’s worth investing time up front to gain clarity and use the terms with precision.

#3 Boil the sap down to syrup.

It takes about forty parts maple sap to make one part maple syrup. That’s a lot of boiling; but the results are sweet. We believe all redesign teams need a clear and concise vision statement to define and guide their work. Without it, the Design Team’s work will likely lead to confusion about everything from how to get started to how to measure success. Conversely, a clear vision provides a north star for team members to refer back to throughout the redesign process.

We recommend that teams begin with a loose brainstorming discussion about what they hope to see in classrooms at the end of the redesign effort. In addition, it is equally important and informative to discuss what team members do not want to see. This can be a wide-ranging discussion in which Design Team members are encouraged to speak freely and share unpolished thoughts. The idea is to get all of their ideas, aspirations, and fears on the table.

From there, it is more efficient to have a few members of the larger team take the raw “sap” from the brainstorm and boil it down to the proverbial syrup. This typically takes the form of a statement that ranges from a few sentences to a few paragraphs. The more descriptive and less jargony the draft vision statement is, the better. The draft can then be shared back with the larger team for input. This drafting process typically requires a few rounds of revision until a statement emerges that satisfies all design team members.

Not surprisingly, in the Fuse Architect project, we observed that the design teams that crafted clear design statements at the outset were better able to leverage technical coaching supports because they used the statements as a touchstone for teachers and coaches. In addition, teams that were unable to commit sufficient time to the visioning process or that did not fully invest in the process struggled when it came time to operationalize their vision.

#4 How do you eat an elephant? Slowly, and one bite at a time.

When a new initiative comes along, excitement and momentum can drive the impulse to dive in and get started. However, a slower and more deliberate approach is more likely to result in lasting and worthwhile change. We recommend the following to teams taking on redesign projects:

  1. Use the planning year to be extremely intentional about the shifts in practice you want to see in classrooms and identify how they are aligned to the current student experience and other building or district level initiatives. When structural or systemic issues arise, invite those in power to come to the meetings to work through them.
  2. Schedule specific benchmark dates to review progress and reflect on the pilot implementation. The following benchmark tool was created by one design team, with our support, to guide their first six months of the pilot.
  3. Set your team up for success by anticipating and budgeting for the teacher planning time, personalized learning time (in and out of school) for students, data review days, and student-teacher meetings that will be necessary for successful pilots.

Additionally, teams can sometimes be overzealous in their aspirations. While we applaud and encourage “moonshot thinking”, we caution teams against taking on too much too quickly, which can lead to burnout and disappointment. When we began the Fuse Architect project, we believed that the best way to support design teams with the adoption of a new model for student-centered learning was to begin with a heavy dose of design, followed by a heavy dose of technology vetting. We were approaching the challenge with a subtractive method: school teams would start with a full-stack solution and then customize it over time, much as a sculptor begins with a block of stone and slowly chips away to refine it into a shape.

What we found is that an additive process is more appropriate, where one piece is added, studied, and tweaked, and then another is added, studied, and tweaked and so on until the whole emerges. We now believe that the most successful approach involves a small amount of upfront design work, followed by a heavy dose of change management support to clarify and refine the vision. Implementation must be supported with a series of small hacks and multiple iterations. Only then can a design team arrive at a new vision for teaching and learning that is sticky enough to scale to all teachers and classrooms.

#5 You need multiple measures to tell a multidimensional story.

As an organization, Highlander Institute has always believed that measuring impact in a classroom requires the use of multiple measures. However,  prior to Fuse Architect we did not have an internal framework for organizing the variety of instruments that we and our partner districts were using to measure the efficacy of student-centered learning pilots. While we were familiar with the concept of using a family of measures for continuous improvement (as outlined in the table below), we had not used it to structure our data collection.

Process Explanation: Process measures are used to capture the extent to which behavior is changing or not changing.
Example: Classroom observation data based on a walkthrough rubric
Outcome Explanation: Outcome measures are used to quantify how outcomes are changing (if at all), presumably as a result of the intervention.
Examples: Student attendance rates, behavior referrals, achievement data
Balance Explanation: Balance measures are meant to capture how people (typically teachers and students) feel about an intervention, including any unintentional consequences.
Examples: Surveys, stakeholder focus groups

Based on our experience with this project, we recommend all redesign project teams proactively outline the process, outcome, and balance measures that they’ll use to gauge the impact of pilot implementations. Coupled with a schedule for data collection, this becomes a measurement plan that teams can reasonably enact and sustain. After all, a data collection plan that is too burdensome will be neglected or abandoned altogether.

Furthermore, educators know in their bones that their work is too complex and multifaceted to be captured by a single measure. Therefore, both to capture the impact of redesign efforts and to maintain the trust of participating teachers, measurement plans must incorporate diverse and complementary instruments that, when used in tandem, tell a sufficiently rich story of change.

To request a copy of the full Fuse Architect report “Fuse Architect: Designing High Schools for Integrated Learning Systems and Student-Centered Learning”, please contact info@highlanderinstitute.org.