At Wallingford Public Schools in Connecticut, design thinking helps educators create authentic learning experiences and achieve the ambitious goals they set for student and community engagement.
The Wallingford 100 Program is a set of guiding principles that raises the bar for the district’s 12 schools, aiming for 100% in three key areas: community involvement, student engagement and student success in school and beyond.
“Every initiative, every new curricula opportunity and every new technology opportunity is guided and influenced by how it’s going to positively impact our achieving the Wallingford 100,” says Dr. Salvatore (Sal) Menzo, the school district’s superintendent.
In its quest for excellence, the district is using design thinking and the Nureva™ Span™ visual collaboration system to engage its students and community partners.
Building strong relationships with dynamic collaboration
To Sal Menzo, strong community relationships are key to his schools’ success. For the past six years, the district has made it a priority to involve the community in school initiatives and planning. Teachers and administrators work alongside parents, community leaders and business partners to develop innovative solutions to problems and brainstorm new opportunities for growth.
Design thinking is what drives the collaboration, providing a framework where participants identify problems and develop, test and refine solutions. By its nature, design thinking is a messy process. And the low-tech tools the district was using before made it even harder to keep things organized. “The messiness became very arduous,” says Sal.
Collaboration often took place around poster boards filled with paper sticky notes where ideas were collected and displayed. Capturing the information was a time-consuming process and someone was always left to type up the notes and ensure all the important points were properly captured and curated. Sal felt there had to be a better way, and once he saw the Span system, he knew he found it.
“We weren’t able to collaborate efficiently. It wasn’t as engaging as we wanted it to be. And we weren’t able to document what we were doing in an authentic way or build off that documentation,” he explains. “The Span system has allowed us to take it to the next level, and that’s really what we were hoping for.”
The district has a triple Span system in a Community Idea Lab in its central office, which has transformed a wall into a 30' (9.1 m) interactive workspace. Since it was installed in February 2017, the system is used for student project work, administrative meetings and community engagement. “We have really used the environment to solve real problems,” he says.
Sal says one of the highlights so far was a complex community consultation exercise that took place last summer. Over five days, more than 150 parents, former students, business representatives and community leaders came together to explore new ways to transform learning at the district’s middle and high schools. They used the Span system to probe questions like, “What does modern learning look like?” and “What technology and curriculum can best support it?”
They worked together on the large digital canvas, sharing ideas, manipulating information and actively collaborating. He says the voices were loud, the conversations complex and the sessions transformative. “That was a very authentic opportunity during which there was incredible engagement with the system.”
The Span system also made it easy to track all of the information electronically and come up with tangible recommendations for the district to consider during its planning.
Turning students into creative problem solvers
Along with enhancing community collaboration, design thinking and the Span system are working together to increase student engagement and help students build the skills they need to become critical thinkers and flexible problem finders and solvers.
“Using the design thinking process coupled with the Span system has been incredibly beneficial,” says Sal. “It has transformed the way instruction occurs.”
Instead of learning theory alone, students are getting more opportunities to solve problems and create things. Six of the district’s twelve schools have makerspaces, and students in all schools will have a chance to experience the Span system.
The district has also developed its own curriculum to support the design thinking process and provide students with a personalized, constructivist learning experience. The DreamDesignDo™ 3D Learning™ Curriculum helps students from kindergarten to high school become better thinkers and collaborators. It weaves design thinking principles into every content area, providing a framework for students to define problems, brainstorm solutions and test and create prototypes.
Another exciting project starts later this fall when kindergarten students get their chance to become design thinkers. They’ll use Span software in their classrooms to come up with ideas about the problems they face in their daily lives. Then they’ll share those ideas with third-graders who will use the Span system to come up with some realistic solutions that will be implemented next spring.
Seeking the next best practice in education
Sal’s main message to other educators is that design thinking in the classroom can have a real impact on student success. And he has the stats to prove it. He says over the past five years, the district’s high school graduation rate has gone up 5%, the value of student scholarships has tripled and more students than ever are being accepted at Tier 1 universities.
He also encourages schools to keep pushing the limits when it comes to creating learning experiences that are “more meaningful, much more authentic and much more engaging.”
“We need to make sure we’re constantly challenging ourselves to not just worry about best practice but next practice, and to really create the next best practice for students.”
A new design thinking solution
Find out more about the technology solution that's helping Wallingford students and teachers define problems and visualize solutions.