Design in Practice - Digital Promise

Design in Practice

Detailed below are the outcomes of one school district’s work as part of a curriculum development Challenge Collaborative which employed some of the tools shared in this document, including design sprints, developing student personas, and play testing. Participation in this work led teachers to reevaluate how and what they teach to an underserved population, increased collaboration between teachers, and created teacher advocates for innovation in instruction.

Middletown City Schools, located in Middletown, Ohio, is a district focused on re-imagining teaching and learning by partnering with innovative programs, seeking out and testing evidence-based strategies, and personalizing learning for every student. Middletown’s leadership team for this project included Fran Morrison, senior director for curriculum and innovation, and Robyn Jordan, grades 6-12 curriculum coordinator. The teacher development team was Lori Barker, Maricalice Cable, Hollie Eckhardt-Cooper, Erica Frederick, Dr. Lorryn Goodman, Katie Leist, and Allyson Vera.

Middletown is engaged in what they call “Middie Modernization Movement,” reimagining the way they approach teaching and learning for students and teachers so they can best serve the needs of their community. The initiative has included projects like a community health center and developing an urban teacher recruitment process.  

Looking for an opportunity to modernize their curriculum, Middletown Middle School has taken several measures toward innovation in teaching and learning, and Morrison saw the Challenge Collaborative as an opportunity to explore a deeper learning model, and a creative way to approach project-based learning that allows for student agency. For students, “it becomes a question of how might we solve this problem, together or individually,” says Morrison, “and it leads to more student empowerment, but also tells them that what they think and the way they solve problems matters.”  

With a new leadership team at Middletown Middle School, building rapport with faculty and staff was a primary concern in participating in the Challenge Collaborative. Prior to the new administrative team, teachers “didn’t feel like they had the permission to create. It was very much a culture of compliance,” said Jordan. Instead, teachers felt as though they had to use the curriculum given to them or risk being reprimanded. For Jordan, her focus was building trust with the teacher team “so they felt like they could create, and I would be there to support them no matter the outcome.” Jordan played a support role during PLC meetings, but when given the opportunity, it was the teachers who took the lead in the writing and testing of the units. As they designed, Jordan says they developed trust with each other and built a collaborative spirit that wasn’t there prior to their participation.

Going through the design process provided the teachers with skills, perspective, and a lens to collaborate and give feedback to each other, but also to encourage teachers in other content areas to try new things. In Jordan’s words, “They became advocates for risk taking and trying new instructional approaches.” She noted that the science teachers were sharing techniques and strategies with others during their team plan time, “creating a more systemic shift in culture.” Jordan added, “They grew so much. The ability was always there, but they needed to be out of their comfort zone.”

Use learning design to build expertise and create ownership over instructional practice.

Morrison, who became more involved in the revision sessions, initially “took a back seat, because I wanted them to feel ownership of their project, and avoid the impression of micromanaging.”

As the work continued beyond the convenings Morrison said the teachers provided a reminder to ”always remember what it’s like from a teacher’s perspective (in regards to implementation), and they were very tuned into that, not wanting to make it so complex that a peer couldn’t take their lesson and run with it.”

Use learning design as an opportunity to reflect on what curriculum and standards ask of teachers.

As Middletown explores a science curriculum adoption, the participating teachers are more equipped to take a critical look at and provide feedback on what publishers have to offer the district. Morrison says the teachers “began to see themselves as designers, and the project taught them to challenge their own thinking and the thinking of others around phenomena and inquiry”. “These teachers were used to working more independently prior to this work, and I think they really came to value the collaboration that can happen when challenging each other’s thinking.

Use learning design as a mechanism to improve peer feedback and communication.

The impact of the Challenge Collaborative on teacher leadership was also apparent as Morrison and the middle school principal went to teachers recently to gauge buy-in for an opportunity to expand Challenge Based Learning in their district. “The middle school science teachers were the most vocal,” says Morrison, “in saying we need to do this because it’s good for our staff and good for our kids. There was a transformation in the ways that the science teachers saw themselves as instructional leaders.”

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