How to start solving your toughest educational challenges

(HINT: The first step may seem counterintuitive)

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Have you ever found yourself faced with a complex challenge or problem to solve? It could be a problem that you don’t thoroughly understand yet, or perhaps a problem involving a “moving target” as the situation evolves. It might be the type of problem that impacts several groups of people within your education community.

If these scenarios sound familiar to you, know that you’re not alone. In the world of education, we often face challenges like these. Some are large-scale — such as redesigning your district’s curricula — others are challenges we may tackle on a daily basis — such as tweaking a lesson plan. 

In this article, we’ll walk you through the first phase of design thinking called immersion” and show you how you can use it to start solving your toughest educational challenges.

Creating innovative solutions with design thinking

No matter what scale of challenge you are up against, the process of human-centered design thinking can help you find a meaningful solution. Especially when dealing with more complex challenges, this approach will not only help bring structure to an otherwise ambiguous feat but will also be more likely to lead you to a positive outcome.

You could spend months or even years studying the concept of “design thinking,” but to give you a quick primer, we define this process as: 

An iterative approach to solving a complex challenge while keeping the individuals impacted by the challenge at the center of the solution (that’s where the “human-centered” part comes in). 

The design-thinking process consists of a series of phases that help you determine a solution. You may hear experts using different names to refer to these phases, but in this article, we’ll refer to them as follows:

The Four Stages of the Design-Thinking Methodology
Immersion

Where you set the stage for a successful project by clearly defining your objective. In this stage, you will need to compile a list of what you do know and what you don’t know about the challenge at hand.

Discovery & Synthesis

Where you set the stage for a successful project by clearly defining your objective. In this stage, you will need to compile a list of what you do know and what you don’t know about the challenge at hand.

Design

Where you brainstorm a wide variety of solutions to meet your education community’s needs and then prioritize the most promising solutions.

Assessment & Refinement

where you get feedback from your education community about the solutions you’ve developed and make iterative changes to create an even more effective solution.

Although we depict these stages in a linear fashion above, it’s important to note that these phases may not always follow such a straightforward progression. As you work toward a solution, it’s common to stumble upon opportunities to tweak or improve your process, which may cause you to restart any given phase. 

Over the next series of articles, we’ll take you through the phases of the design-thinking process, beginning first with immersion. We’ll explore how you can practice immersion in your daily work — no matter how big or small the challenge — and share some recent examples of how we have used this process to design learning innovations for Michigan schools. 

We hope the information shared here will help you develop innovative solutions that positively impact your education community back home!

Although we depict these stages in a linear fashion above, it’s important to note that these phases may not always follow such a straightforward progression. As you work toward a solution, it’s common to stumble upon opportunities to tweak or improve your process, which may cause you to restart any given phase. 

Over the next series of articles, we’ll take you through the phases of the design-thinking process, beginning first with immersion. We’ll explore how you can practice immersion in your daily work — no matter how big or small the challenge — and share some recent examples of how we have used this process to design learning innovations for Michigan schools. 

We hope the information shared here will help you develop innovative solutions that positively impact your education community back home!

Don’t start with empathy… The counterintuitive first step of immersion

When solving a complex challenge, your instinct may be first to understand what the people affected by the solution want and need. But design-thinking experts know it’s critical to back up a step first. Before we empathize with our community, we first need to know what questions we should even be asking. 

If I had an hour to solve a problem, and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask. For once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.

Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask. For once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

As Einstein explains here, knowing the proper questions to ask is 95% of the battle when it comes to researching solutions. You can’t just show up and ask people to talk and expect to walk away with focused insights. 

Consider the stereotypical therapist scenario where a patient is lying on the couch talking freely about their past. In this situation, the therapist isn’t just blindly listening to their patient. Instead, they are trained to guide the conversation with curated questions that elicit emotional and functional insights into the patient’s problems. 

It’s ok to let people share openly about their situation, but to craft an efficient “discovery activity,” you must first have a well-defined plan with specific learning goals.

To discover these insights, you must immerse yourself in three aspects of your challenge: 

  1. A clear definition of your objective
  2. A compilation of what you already know about the challenge at hand, and
  3. A list of your knowledge gaps

How do you know what you don’t know?

It’s often straightforward — though not necessarily easy — to define your objective and make a list of what you already know about a given challenge. It can be more difficult to formalize a list of your knowledge gaps. How do you know what you don’t know?

To discover your knowledge gaps, you’ll want to first start by creating hypotheses about where you think opportunities exist to solve a problem. When coming up with hypotheses, it’s essential to keep a future-focused lens so that the solutions you come up with are relevant for where you’re headed (vs. where you’ve already been). 

These hypotheses will naturally reveal gaps in your knowledge. For example:

  • What are the needs of your education community? 
  • What features do they find usable and appealing (versus impractical)?
  • What emotions do they want solutions to evoke? 

Identifying these knowledge gaps will help us form the right questions to understand what is truly valuable to our community.

The process of creating hypotheses can inform your knowledge gaps. To get started, try the following four steps:

1. Review your current knowledge 

Get started by reviewing the information and data you currently have available around the challenge you’re facing. As you go through this process, consider how this information may be impacted by trends in education that are shaping the industry’s future. 

Example in action: Grouping solutions into categories

For example, our research team recently identified the need to re-evaluate our learning solutions — both those already being used by schools and those in various stages of development—  to create a future set of solutions that will be relevant and impactful in a pandemic-affected world. 

We started by compiling our current research and knowledge around effective blended and online learning practices; however, we made sure to consider this knowledge through a pandemic lens. We recognized that while some in our education community may be ready to snap back to the “way things used to be,” others had established a new baseline “normal” that they would likely carry into the future. 

Through this lens, our examination led us to identify four categories of solutions that might have a significant impact on Michigan’s education community:

  • Learning management system strategies & curriculum content, which help educators develop and deliver relevant and engaging content while organizing and storing that content in an easy-to-find way.
  • Tools to improve effectiveness, which create efficiencies, engage students in new ways, and tailor education approaches to individual styles.
  • Engagement & communication tools, which help the education community engage with one another and ensure good communication between members.
  • Personal & professional development tools, which provide access to/help track career development and education-related achievements made by administrators, teachers, and students

Apply this step: Analyze your data and forecast trends

To start addressing your challenge, tap into any data or research you or your district have regarding this challenge. This data could include results from surveys to your community, effective practices that people are using, case studies of failed approaches, etc. 

As you review this information, think about the trends you see happening in your district and the broader education industry. Consider how these shifts may open the opportunity to solve your problem in new ways. Next, it’s time to think about the resources you have available to make new solutions come to life.

2. Critique your current tools and talents

Beyond the knowledge you already possess, you’ll also need to dedicate time to understanding the tools and talents available to deliver on your (eventual) solutions. You’ll need to assess the tools and technology at your disposal and which assets are missing. 

You also have to be honest about what expertise you or your team already have and what types of expertise you’re missing. As you become more informed about what your community needs in the following stages of the design-thinking process, you will be able to identify which tasks are essential and then prioritize how you’ll need to grow your talents and tools

Example in action: Designing an online tutoring service

For example, our research team recently identified the need to re-evaluate our learning solutions — both those already being used by schools and those in various stages of development—  to create a future set of solutions that will be relevant and impactful in a pandemic-affected world. 

We started by compiling our current research and knowledge around effective blended and online learning practices; however, we made sure to consider this knowledge through a pandemic lens. We recognized that while some in our education community may be ready to snap back to the “way things used to be,” others had established a new baseline “normal” that they would likely carry into the future. 

Through this lens, our examination led us to identify four categories of solutions that might have a significant impact on Michigan’s education community:

Our team applied this step by reassessing our education solutions. We explored solutions across the four key categories to better understand the needs they might fulfill. At the same time, we took a critical look at our resources to investigate whether or not we had the right talent and technologies to execute these solutions.

For example, one of the solutions we examined as part of our “Engagement & communication tools” category focused on providing an online tutoring resource to students. To be effective, we identified that this solution would need to be personalized to students and provide them with just-in-time support. 

This realization allowed us to start thinking through which types of staffing and technology might play a role in making such a solution a reality and compare these needs to our currently available resources.

Apply this step: Consider local tools, experts, & partners

As you think through your challenge, consider any specific resources you can tap into to bring your solution to life. These resources might include a digital tool your district uses, a co-worker who is a subject matter expert in a relevant area, or an external partner with whom your district has collaborated. 

Understanding the resources at your disposal will provide depth as you move to the next step of hypothesizing where your opportunities lie. If you see a gap in the resources available in this step, you may inadvertently uncover new areas of opportunity.

3. Create your hypotheses

Your next step will be to create a brief description of a new area of opportunity that may exist to solve your challenge (a hypothesis). Keep in mind that, at this point, your hypothesis will simply be an anecdotally supported statement. Although it may have sprung from an insight, your hypothesis isn’t based on hard facts yet but is instead derived from personal experience or something you believe is possible. 

Try starting your hypothesis with, “I think there’s an opportunity to…” or “I think there’s a need for…”.

Example in action: Creating a hypothesis for an online tutoring service

For our initiative, we approached hypothesis generation by reviewing the four categories of objectives through the lens of our new, pandemic-affected world. 

This process allowed our team to form hypotheses about innovation opportunities that have changed or stayed the same since we initially conceived our solutions. It also allowed us to create hypotheses about new opportunities that now exist or may emerge in the future.

Going back to our example of designing an online tutoring resource for students, we reviewed all the information we had gathered to develop the following hypothesis:

We think there’s an opportunity to offer an online “space” to host tutoring sessions that will account for different learning preferences and various types of course topics. 

Apply this step: Reflect on the data you gathered in previous steps

As you start developing your hypotheses, remember to draw on all the information you have gathered so far in the immersion process. This data should include any best practices you have compiled, lessons learned regarding failed solutions, the direction your district or the industry is heading, and internal resources you have available (or recognize that you currently lack). The lessons you learned in these steps will help you to generate your hypotheses. 

4. Develop your list of knowledge gaps

The final step in this process is where we get to the point of identifying what we don’t know. Start by looking at your hypotheses and determining the type of information that will help you validate (or disprove) your hypotheses. How might this information be obtained? These are your knowledge gaps.

Example in action: Knowledge gaps for an online tutoring service

Using the hypotheses we developed for our tutoring service initiative, we created a list of knowledge gaps in our current research that needed to be answered before determining if this concept was indeed a valid opportunity.

This process yielded the following questions:

  • How are students matched with a tutor (e.g., right skills, personality, learning style)?
  • Do students have unique tutoring needs for remote classes versus in-person classes?
  • Could our current learning management systems offer an effective tutoring space?

We recognized that not everyone in our community could answer each of the questions we wanted to ask. As we planned to move into the discovery phase of the design-thinking process, we knew that some questions would have to be posed to administrators or teachers while others would be more relevant to students and their parents.

Apply this step: Ask how and why questions

When you’re ready to start creating your list of knowledge gaps, think about asking how- and why-based questions around each aspect of your hypothesis. By choosing how- and why-based questions, you help ensure that the information you collect will provide the answers you need to validate, eliminate, or revise your hypothesis.  

Bringing the pieces together

Now that you have a list of your knowledge gaps, you are ready to translate these gaps into actual questions and conduct research to start answering them.

Completing the immersion phase will put you on the right track to solve the complex challenges you routinely face in your role as an educator. As you continue through the design-thinking process, the structure provided by each phase will help you turn what might otherwise seem like an overwhelming task into a highly intentional, step-by-step process. This approach will ultimately help you develop meaningful solutions that will have a positive impact on your community. 

You may be tempted to skip this first phase of immersion and jump right into asking questions to try to solve the problem at hand. Remember, however, as Einstein said, it’s critical first to ensure you’re asking the right questions. Once you know what problem you’re trying to solve, you’ll then be able to start working toward a solution with greater odds of success.

In the following article in this series, we’ll dive into how to transform your list of knowledge gaps into a list of insights that will inform your future solutions.

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Our research over the last decade examines and explores educational practices in digital learning, including what works well now and what may be more relevant in the future.

Topics explored include:

You can check out all of the research produced by the MVLRI team in our publications archive and on our blog.

Limited Course Capacity

We’re sorry to inform you that we have reached capacity for several of our Semester 1 and Trimester 1 courses. You’ll notice when attempting to enroll students in our Student Learning Portal that some courses are unavailable. While we are no longer accepting new enrollments for these courses at this time, many courses continue to remain open for enrollment.

With many students across the state 100% remote, demand for our online courses is greater than ever before. Because every course we offer is taught by a Michigan-certified teacher, this high volume of enrollments has created capacity issues for our teachers who provide each and every student with individual feedback.

While the Michigan Virtual team anticipated and planned for significant increases in student enrollments this Fall, the increased demand we’ve experienced has been unprecedented. As a result, we are taking steps to hire even more part-and full-time teachers to support larger numbers of student enrollments for Semester 2 as well as for Trimester 2 and 3. 

For schools that still need online learning options this year, please fill out the form at the bottom of our virtual pathways page to meet with someone to discuss other solutions. While some of our teacher-led courses are full, we may still have the capacity to help you in upcoming terms or can discuss timing to implement a whole-school or collaborative program in which local teachers from your school/district use our online course content to teach students. We also have free course content and resources available for you to use.

We know this is an incredibly stressful time for all, and we’re sorry if the courses you’re looking for are unavailable. We never want to turn away a student who wants to learn from us. Our top concern, however, is student success, and we have a policy to not take on additional enrollments if we cannot guarantee that all students will have a quality online learning experience. 

We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate the unusually high volume of enrollments we are receiving.