I had the opportunity to spend last year as an Education Fellow at Stanford’s d.school (an ‘edu fellow’ in d.school parlance) where I explored the idea for my new nonprofit Substantial, which launched officially this past Fall. Substantial’s mission is to redesign the way schools and districts recruit, train and support substitute teachers. Despite its ubiquitous nature, substitute teaching is an aspect of the education system that is seen as particularly intractable and efforts to improve it are often met with hopelessness and resignation. By learning design thinking, I launched into experiments that deepened my understanding of substitute teaching and helped the vision for Substantial take shape.
Last month I got to return to the d.school with my new co-workers to run a two day sprint, co-hosted by the K12Lab. We invited a group of educators — some current school district employees, some folks affiliated with other education nonprofits and a handful of educational consultants — to help us dig deeper into what we’ve been learning over the last year. Using design thinking, we considered how Substantial might best build a business model and grow.
The two days were inspiring and thought-provoking, and one of the biggest a-ha’s I came away with was just how being incubated at the d.school has significantly shaped Substantial’s culture and operations. From embracing experimentation and a bias towards action to focusing on human values and being mindful of process, I was struck by how deeply ingrained the values of design thinking have been incorporated into our organizational DNA.
One of the key ways these values manifest is in our framing of emergent work as being a part of our own Design Lab. Simply by using this language I have noticed that we give people permission to be a little more comfortable with genuine experimentation and to try, as David Kelley has put it, “to get away with something.” New ideas for the Design Lab can come from Substantial staff or clients, and it is really nothing more than an organizational approach to being open to taking risks and experimentation. The key is in emphasizing that prototypes are quick, inexpensive and designed to inform the process rather than solve the problem.
When Substantial prototyped an aspiring teacher workshop in West Contra Costa County schools, the experience led to unexpected learning about teacher training more broadly. An unexpected outcome was the idea for a new prototype identifying a cohort of classroom teachers (who all began their careers as subs) who will be working with Substantial this summer creating content for new subs over the summer.
I was also pleased to note that while design thinking is evident in how we work, we have incorporated some other better practices, including a quality improvement emphasis on metrics and measurable goals, and a sustainability focus that prioritizes earned income as critical to building an effective, lasting and impactful nonprofit organization.
The sheer unlikeliness of bringing the open-mindedness and creativity of design thinking to the challenge has created opportunities that would have never been imagined without, while the concrete nature of quality improvement has provided a clear map for taking concrete steps to achieving positive change. Perhaps most notably, our partners in the school districts have found the work inspiring and hopeful, giving them the support needed to do the innovative work that originally attracted them to education.