Designing Teacher Education

by: Arti Sharma

Mobile Application WireframeThe expectation to set aside three full days for a design workshop was enough to arouse the cynic in me. It was a frigid January morning and I arrived at MIT’s W20 wearing my skepticism on my sleeve. What could possibly be learned by having a group of educators, engineers, design thinkers, and administrators congregate around and deliberate on the challenges of preparing teachers to be 21st century educators? It did not take long to realize that I had landed in a room full of people who in spite of their disparate professional backgrounds had one important thing in common — they had the audacity to believe that a long established system as complex as education could be reimagined and reinvented.

We were gathered to think through anticipated challenges and brainstorm solutions for MIT’s pioneer competency-based teacher education program, the Woodrow Wilson Academy. We had a warm, playful and knowledgeable facilitator in Jessica Artiles. In her unique style that was both approachable and compelling, she led us through the entire experience with remarkable dedication. Jessica often referenced personal experiences and drew on them to make the exercise as well as challenges more relatable.

The Challenges

These were a few of the questions we were all invited to consider:

  1. What will students be learning and doing in the schools of tomorrow?
  2. What will teachers need to know and be able to do to shape and lead schools of tomorrow?
  3. What do all first year teachers need to know and be able to do before they start teaching?

Teams were quickly formed based on challenges we chose to work on. I ended up partnering with a current Harvard student who had previously been a biology teacher and another teammate with a background in Special Ed and software development. We had a wide range of perspectives represented among the three of us, and this proved to be an incredible asset in terms of generating ideas and fleshing out concepts.

Materials and Process

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs

This quote by Steve Jobs referenced in the 2003 New York Times article “The Guts of a New Machine” encapsulates what we set out to accomplish working in small teams over the next couple of days. We began by trying to understand the problem by breaking it into a series of questions that collectively represented the larger issue we were trying to come up with solutions for. To do this well, it was important for us to empathize with the challenges of being a first-year teacher. The opportunity to observe a real classroom at a Cambridge charter school, and access to volunteer master teachers throughout, made this quite easy for us. We focused on what skills, knowledge, and attitudes a first-year teacher would need to have to be well prepared for facing the challenges that awaited them in the classroom.

Hackathon ParticipantsGenerating ideas was the easy part. Finding patterns in these ideas and trying to narrow our focus enough to begin sketching out meaningful solutions was challenging. This is where having limited time to get through these phases turned out to be a positive thing. Using the excellent range of prototyping materials available to us, we began constructing our visual prototype. Our first prototype was about using role plays in preparing teachers on topics such as behavior management. Feedback from the expert panel surfaced many of our assumptions and challenged our thinking enough to lead us to revisit our proposed solution. We got past this through quick and dirty user research — ultimately landing on a solution outlining the use of previously captured classroom teaching footage alongside active discussion to glean the most important points.

Where we ended up with our final pitch looked drastically different from what we originally set out to work on. Reflecting back, this was an amazing opportunity for us to learn and further refine our solution concept. It made us think harder about creating authentic learning experiences for learners. This is always important in learning but even more magnified when you consider the competency based nature of the Woodrow Wilson Academy.

It is also important to note that we were able to accommodate several iterations of problem solving and ideating for solutions because our prototypes were intentionally low fidelity. Throughout the workshop, the importance of creating prototypes was emphasized over and again. We were also continually and helpfully reminded that creativity and originality were far more important to focus on.

Lingering Takeaways

Project Brainstorming on WhiteboardWelcome Diverse Perspectives Inviting diverse perspectives and valuing them is instrumental in helping us detach ourselves from the problem at hand and begin sketching out solutions that are truly unbiased and unconstrained. “It means stepping back from the immediate issue and taking a broader look. It requires systems thinking: realizing that any problem is part of larger whole, and the solution is likely to require understanding of the entire system” (Norman, 2010).

Empathize When we are solely focused on business goals and project deadlines, it is all too common and far easier to convince ourselves that we have a good understanding of user needs without having to engage with them. Kolawale (2014) recommends that we make users “the source of the energy” behind our work. If we give them “the time and the space they deserve” in our process, we cannot go wrong (Kolawale, 2014). In order to attain real empathy with target users, Norman (2010) strongly recommends the method of “observation — not questionnaires, not focus groups.”

Question. Always. An atmosphere of questioning should be encouraged. Questions can help expand and open up the way we think about a problem. Norman (2010) reminds us of the significance of questioning. He strongly encourages us to “question the problem, question the assumptions and implications” (Norman, 2010).

Design Thinking is a Mindset Tim Brown (2015) describes it as “a set of tools that can grow old with us” and it is encouraging to see organizations across industries and at all levels adopting it. At the TLL, we have been seriously experimenting with incorporating design thinking into our work. In addition, we are actively engaged in advocating for the integration of design thinking principles into our curriculum. We believe design thinking can be an excellent framework to help our students develop insights from multiple perspectives and hone critical skills needed to creatively approach real-world challenges. Faculty who are are interested in bringing design thinking principles into their classrooms can start by requesting a consultation session. There are also opportunities to participate in hands-on workshops led by TLL staff. Our most recent offering, during J-Term, was received well with faculty, staff and students in attendance.


Brown, Tim. "When Everyone Is Doing Design Thinking, Is It Still a Competitive Advantage?" When Everyone Is Doing Design Thinking, Is It Still a Competitive Advantage? Harvard Business Review, 27 Aug. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2016. <>.

Kolawole, E. (2014, May 07). Insights from the Knight News Challenge: Applying design thinking. Retrieved February 15, 2016, from

Norman, D. (2010, June 25). Design Thinking: A Useful Myth. Retrieved February 10, 2016, from

Walker, R. (2003, November 30). The Guts of a New Machine. Retrieved February 20, 2016, from

See also: Event