Using Design Thinking to Develop Personalized Learning Pilots

Using Design Thinking to Develop Personalized Learning Pilots

May, 2014 – Program Day Five


Since January, the 19 D.C. public and public charter school teachers of the Education Innovation Fellowship (EIF) have explored the expansive field of blended and personalized learning in search of promising practices to implement in their classrooms. Drawing from visits to over a dozen schools in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Detroit and D.C, as well as intimate conversations with thought leaders like Gisèle Huff, former Governor Bob Wise, and Tom Vander Ark, the Fellows are now in the “Design and Innovate” phase of the Fellowship. The focus of this phase is to design blended and personalized learning pilots for their own classrooms and schools, and to begin prototyping these designs over the summer.

Since the beginning of the Fellowship, the Fellows have engaged in a parallel study of design thinking. The goal is to empower them with the skills to design blended and personalized learning solutions that are truly user-centered. The design thinking framework they are using (see the graphic depiction below) is based on the Stanford Institute of Design’s design thinking framework.


Using this framework, the Fellowship encourages teachers to hone in on a core problem in their school or classroom that’s impeding student success, and strategically problem solve around it through rapid prototyping. The Fellows are currently in the “prototype” phase of their design process, and will use the lower-stakes environment of summer school to begin testing and iterating on their designs.

Below are three takeaways for educators interested in using the design thinking process in their schools and classrooms:

1.) It takes time to empathize with your users:

Fellows spent the better part of two months in focus groups and workshops learning about the “empathize process.” Then, they talked with students, teachers, parents, and administrators—their ‘users’—to define a clear problem they saw as a roadblock to student success. In a day-long workshop, Fellows spent an entire morning reflecting on the challenges their users face, and then devoted an afternoon to begin designing a personalized learning solution to address this problem. While time is a resource rarely on a teacher’s side, this time-intensive reflection is fundamental for designing a classroom centered on student success. Ultimately, if a teacher seeks to personalize student learning, she must take the time get inside the heads of all her students.

After the Fellows spent time empathizing with their users, they worked on clearly defining the problems they plan to address with their pilots:


2.) Seek feedback as you “ideate” and “prototype:”

At our most recent program day, the Fellows broke into their learning teams (typically consisting of 4-5 teachers) to discuss their prototype designs in group feedback sessions. This gave Fellows a chance to reflect on the problem they plan to solve, and then debate and discuss one another’s designs. They had a chance to discuss their pilot projects with outside consultants as well.


3.) Fail fast, and approach the design process with excitement:

It’s common for educators to feel that they encounter more setbacks than triumphs in a single day. Using the design thinking framework embraces the idea of failure and encourages teachers to “fail fast” as they iterate on their prototype designs. In framing problems using the design thinking framework, setbacks become steps forward to optimize the personalized learning experience for students.

Are you interested in learning more about design thinking? Take a virtual crash course in design thinking from the Stanford d.School, formally known as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design.

Written by Adam Hill

Adam Hill

Adam Hill is the Curator of Institutional Practice at Ingenuity Prep, a new public charter school in Southeast D.C. utilizing a blended learning model, and Curator of Fellowship Knowledge for the 2014 Education Innovation Fellowship. You can follow him on Twitter, @adam_ingenuity.


  1. Please let me know when such a course would be conducted again. Specifically for personalized learning. Thanks!

  2. nice, all above mentioned solutions are valuable. I can also try to apply it in my teaching.

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