DT + Equity: made for each other

Equity is a HOT topic in Vermont ed right now. Just check out the latest from #vted and you’ll see that educators are talking about it, and we should be. The last few years have given rise to far too many instances that shed light on the fact that we as educators have work to do. It has me wondering, how might we use a design thinking lens to bring about our own shifts and to address our own biases?

I talked to my friend, Dan Ryder, last week–someone who always stretches my thinking while simultaneously making me feel like I’ve been asleep for the last few years as a million ideas and advancements happened in education of which I wasn’t aware.

Liberatory Design? I should know that, huh?

I have a huge crush on the Stanford d.school, who partnered up with the National Equity Project to consider how they might elaborate on the design thinking process in order to address equity issues. In so doing, they added two components to the classic DT process: notice and reflect.

The notice phase should happen as the first phase of the entire process. In it, you are checking your biases. From the d.school’s Equity-Centered Design Framework, “This phase focuses on you, the designer, in order to build a practice of self-awareness of your own identity, values, emotions, biases, assumptions and situatedness. From there, begin to reveal your authentic self, accept and build from all you don’t know so you can empathize with humility, curiosity and courage.” Before you even begin to interview your students, try to put yourself in their shoes, or otherwise build empathy, you check yourself. Like, how might my small-town, white, middle class girl from Vermont-ness affect how I’m thinking about this situation/design/my students?

And the other addition, reflectbig fan here. Meant to happen throughout the process as opposed to follow any one component, EquityXDesign created a term–“Equity Pause“–to bring intention to the practice. Indeed, if you are designing, you must constantly be returning to the user to determine your design’s effectiveness, and take the time “notice, focus and reflect on your actions, emotions, insights and impact as designer(s) and human(s) within your user’s context” (Equity-Centered Design Framework).

Design-thinking’s impact in the classroom and in education continues to grow, as it should. We must be constantly asking ourselves how we can better serve our students, and we must also consider that even when we have the best intentions, we do have biases that may undermine our efforts. This is some work we might consider as we try to do and be better.

Resources: everything you need is here at the d.school’s Liberatory Design resource collection. You’ll find their equity-centered design framework, empathy techniques for educational equity, and even some cool liberatory design cards that will get you going immediately. Let’s go!

Image cred: Simon Ray, Unsplash

4 reasons to adopt a design thinking mindset

The new school year is full of hope. Newness. Fresh starts. And like the hesitation you may feel to lay footprints on the newly polished floors, you may hesitate as you consider the best way to dive into your curriculum.

Imagine if that’s how all students felt when they entered school each day…

What if…you embrace design thinking as the underlying approach to your teaching this year? Here are 4 solid reasons why you should:

  1. Design thinking begins with EMPATHY. And empathy requires you to understand your users (in this case, your students). They are complicated human beings, and that understanding will take time to develop. Still, even from the start, when you make the effort to know your students, you invest in them, and that empathy returns to you in student buy-in.

2. Design thinking requires you to be BOLD. When you consider solutions to any problem in class, think boldly! Contemplate ideas you hadn’t before. Ask your students for their ideas. Ask your favorite Twitter gurus. Reach outside your comfort zone.

3. Design thinking exercises your right brain. As you seek to solve problems in your classroom, tap into your creative side. Embrace the DT phrase, “How might we…?” Give yourself permission to think big. Look at things upside down. Examine components in a different light. Scrutinize from a different view point. Coerce your brain into redefining the problem through myriad solutions that you hadn’t contemplated before.

4. Design thinking demands INNOVATION. Whatever you are proposing as a solution to your classroom dilemma, it must be both new and better. And the only way to tell if it’s better is to test it and gather feedback. So take the time to do so. Don’t guess. Share it with your students, imperfect as it may be (you’re being bold, right?) and be brave enough to hear their feedback.

This is a true shift in thinking about HOW you teach. It puts students at the center because DT requires that you always empathize with them. It requires you to think like a designer because that’s what you are doing in creating an experience for your students that continues to engage and fascinate them.

If you’re not familiar with design thinking, here’s a quick graphic that explains the process.

How might you use design thinking in your classroom? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

To my children’s teachers…

If you’re looking for permission to experiment, to innovate, to take chances while my sons are in your classroom, here you go:

Permission to Cannonball

Who: my sons’ current and future teachers

What: Take risks. Ditch the curriculum if it isn’t working. Ditch the whole model if it isn’t working. Try new things. Push back when my kids complain that they don’t know what to do or how to do it and can’t figure it out. Encourage them. Know that by modeling innovation and being transparent about it, you are showing them exactly what they need as learners.

Where: in your classroom. Or outside, in the community, via the Web, or any other place that might inspire learning.

When: NOW, please!

Why: My kids need you. I know you’re nervous. I know there are standards. I know there are curriculum maps and lesson plans and a grade book. I know you worry what will happen next year when my kids land in that traditional teacher’s classroom and they haven’t learned all the parts of speech or the details of the fall of Rome or truly understood what the mitochondria does. I’m okay with that, because instead you are lighting their fire. You are igniting their passion for learning. If they want to go to school because you are doing amazing things and they are thirsty for more, you are doing exactly what I am giving you permission to do now.

Photo cred: Gleb Lukomets

How: I have ideas and would be happy to discuss them if you would like, but I trust in you. If you take this permission seriously, it indicates your readiness and willingness to jump in. Feel free to reach out if you need direction.


I give you this permission slip now, in the middle of the school year, in an attempt to encourage you to take risks and to pave the road for future innovators. The due date? NOW. TODAY.

I, Lori Lisai, give my children’s teachers permission to cannonball. They may take risks and try new things in order to inspire my children to new learning.

Signed, Lori Lisai

Thank you to the teachers who inspired this post for their willingness to take risks and to verbalize their nervousness in doing so. I applaud your vulnerability and your willingness to bust through boundaries regardless.