Podcast 201 Laura Spencer -- Design Thinking and School Culture Change

Dr. Laura Spencer is a leading educator in the area of innovative leadership, teaching, and learning. She has served as a classroom teacher, an edtech director, and most recently as a district administrator who led transformational classroom change through design thinking and industry connections so that all students have learning experiences that value their unique strengths and passions. 

Laura speaks across the United States at various conferences to teachers, administrators, and industry on topics ranging from effective leadership, sustainable edtech integration, and building an innovative culture for transformational learning. She is known for her engaging hands-on design thinking workshops and professional development as well.

Laura has been recognized as an Innovative Educator, Administrator of the Year, and San Diego County’s Top Tech Exec, as well as recently winning a CUE Gold Disk and the Classroom of the Future Innovate Award. She’s been featured on The YouSchool and Innovative Pedagogy podcasts. She’s also the President of SDCUE and a founding board member of EquityEDU. She is a proud US Army veteran.

Laura blogs at laurakspencer.com. 



Full Text of the Episode:

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Scott Schimmel: Quick record, and we are on video. And Hey everybody, this is Scott Schimmel. And this is the first time we've ever had a YouSchool podcast on video and on audio. So for those of you looking at my big giant face in this computer screen: Hello. And my lovely guest today, if you've been listening and following the YouSchool podcast, this is a we've had very few repeat guests, maybe two or three. And so one of them is a very, I don't know what it means, but it's a big deal to me. Laura Spencer, why don't you just kind of give us an update of who you are? what you're doing in the world? How do you like even categorize and explain what you do because you're an educator, but

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Laura: I'm still trying to figure that out.

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I'm an educator right now doing some consulting work, but really just trying to connect with people and help them understand what learning is about in today's society? How can they transform learning? How can I support them through that work, how can I cheerlead for them. So I look at myself as a and I don't want to say a jack of all trades, but just really getting out there and trying to make a difference. So connected with people who are doing the work and seeing how I can support that.

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Scott Schimmel: You've done a lot of work on innovation design thinking, which is, I think, still very new in education. It's not necessarily new in the marketplace and in the business sector. But what is it? Is it accepted now, just your perspective is innovation and design- Is that is that a mainstay? Is it here to stay?

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Laura: I wouldn't go that far yet. I think there are more people that are trying to get on board. I think education is such a centuries old bureaucracy, that it's hard to just bring that into school systems are so many things that needed to change. But I think you have a lot of people that are trying to make a difference. So you'll see it interspersed, but you won't see it a lot as the way of things but you know, I think there's a lot of people are trying to make trying to make the move. So you see a lot of things talk about is innovation. And design thinking is starting to make a place it's trying to find it spot, you know, where where does it fit in? Because what people are trying to figure out and they're trying to understand, is it project based learning? Is it something you only do in a maker space? can it work in a core curriculum? So there's a lot of people trying to grapple with: How does it work in education versus how we've seen it work in industry? So people trying to figure that out

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Scott Schimmel: What do you Where do you think it fits?

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Laura: I actually think it's everywhere. Because I think you have to look at design thinking, first of all, as a mindset. If you can look at the world through empathy, it changes how you how you view things. So if you look at it that way that I think design thinking goes everywhere. As a teacher looks at how they're going to teach a lesson, they can use design thinking to consider the students needs, right? And how am I going to approach this from their lens? I saw thing on Twitter today, a guy sent a tweet out saying, teachers before you send letters from the parents, can you consider what parents are thinking? And no, don't? Don't come at them as "Let me tell you how to do your job." But are you building a community? Like that's that's design thinking, Right? Are you using your empathy to make a difference? And and then there's also the piece of now I want my students to use it. So are they using it intentionally? Are they using it to just do a project and then be done with it? So there's a lot of different ways design thinking can be used Yeah. And it's kind of weird, because I think the system has to change in order for design thinking to be really widely accepted. And yet, it's going to take design thinking to help the system change so that it can be wildly, you know, chicken and the egg, which should come first. But it's just that interesting paradox right now is education needs design thinking, and design thinking needs education. So how do we bring those two together? And so I've been been working with some some really cool teachers who are doing a lot of work working with schools. And you know, I know we're going to talk about it, but working with counselors and different groups, and really just trying to figure out how can we really bring this to life in a meaningful way? And not just have it be a project with a great at the end?

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Scott Schimmel: Well, you're I think I'd call you like a Twitter star.

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You're a voice on Twitter, let's say yes. And I saw one of the things you did this summer was, I think you called it a design was a design thinking for happiness?

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Laura: Yes. Right.

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Scott Schimmel: For High school kids. So I was like, What is that? What do you mean by that? Because the birth of your school is out of a design shop. And so like you're saying, I like the way said, it's just the way you approach things. And a lot of times people are asking me from like the the background of YouSchool what, what's our credibility? Where'd we get our PhD? Where did you know? We didn't we don't make least the core team. But everything we've done has been how do you actually understand what kids are going through? And how do you ask questions to give space for that? So tell me about what so it was arrangement of high school who called What do they want? What did you do?

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Laura: So one of the counselors from Rancho Bernardo knew friend of a friend, right have a lot of things happen, today's networking. So she reached out and she said, Look, we have about 70 amazing students that are going to spend two days at USD learning how to become pure counselors. Right? So they're going to be leading the charge at their school site, really helping students move forward. She said, we first she said, We'd love to have you come in and maybe do a keynote and get the kids jazzed up about the work you do. But then the more we talk, I said, How about we turn this into a workshop? The thing about keynotes is they're they're fun to excite people and get energized, and I like doing them. But with high schoolers, I just felt like I really wanted to take them further than just saying go out and be awesome. And get this at the tangible. So he switched it and did a morning workshop. And so the whole idea behind it is if you're a peer counselor, your job is to help with conflict, to help students navigate high school to handle peer relations to handle stress and anxiety, all the things that that happened. But a lot of times we spend so much time with those students talking about and here's the thing you can do, or here's the you can say, but not really showing them how to do it again, through the lens of the other person. So the design thinking for happiness was a pretty simple concept, and had all these things welcome into groups. And they first really sat and talked about what brought themselves happiness. So we did some reflection activity, they did said some jotting down on on paper and such as to when you feel like that pure bliss, right? Like Jason Silva talks about like the off. And I showed him a little video when you when you have off what's happening in your life. And so they thought about that for a while. And then they interviewed each other. So really taking it deeper. Tell me about your your experience. And we talked about interviewing, when you're interviewing to get information, kind of like an empathy interview. You're not saying Oh, yeah, yeah, let me tell you about me with that, right. It's all about listening. It's just about asking why it's about encouraging. So really spent a lot of time with the interview process, they were interviewing each other.

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And then they decided, as a group, what's one person in our group that we're going to design for their happiness, so I'm going to take myself out of the equation, and I'm going to design for that student instead of myself. And then I just took them to the whole design thinking process, the brainstorming that I do, and the prototyping, you know, it's pipe cleaners and styrofoam and cardboard had a whole wall of just, here's all the junk I could find in my shed that you can design it.

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Unknown: And

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Laura: but what they what they learned was how different happiness is for somebody else. And they talked about that when they did the shirt, we did feedback at the end, and each group of sharing is they realize this would have never been something I would have considered.

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Because it's not what I do. Right? So like, like, for me, if you say, hey, Laura, you know, what would make you happy this weekend, and I said, I'd love to go off roading this weekend, and you're just thinking like, I would never ever do that. So it was important for them to hear from each other and to design for that person. And then we brought it back to that conversation as as peer counselors. What's the important work here? It's not what you think is the right solution. It's what is happening in front of you. And we had a lot of conversations about that. Because I think especially at those ages, they hear these things like, Well, you know, if you're being bullied or you end up being, go talk to a trusted adult. And they actually when I when I brought that up, they kind of giggled in the room.

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Because let's be real, how many 16 year olds are going to walk up to a trusted adult and say, I'd like to talk to you about the anxiety in my life. And the fact that this girl is bullying me, right? Yeah. So we really had to have those conversations about how do you listen and take it from somebody else's perspective. But I told them, I said, Look, if you had said to me confront your bully, and they laughed, I said, I would rather curl up in the fetal position and cry. I'm not confrontational, like that brother dropped out of school, I probably would have fit. If you got to know me. And you realize that I love to write. And then you said, What would you like to write about what's going on? Now you're connecting with me and what I need, right? And not what you need. So is it was two hours it was I think it was it was transformational for them. Their projects were so amazing. You know, one group even did a skit about a girl going to a concert and having this experience with their friends and, and what they also learned was the missing pieces in people's lives. Because when you're designing for happiness, what you realize is like those moments aren't 24 seven. And they're really not meant to be I think you have to have non happiness in order to appreciate happiness. But they also started to realize things like there's a lot of loneliness. In high school, right? There is a there is a lot of anxiety. There's a lot of cliquish behaviors that are fun for some but absolutely terrifying and horrible for others. So it was it was pretty eye opening. And in fact, the counselor at the end, she said, Oh, I wish you could work with our staff on this, you know, we need this too. And, you know, say well call me when you're ready. And yeah, but I just think it's that type of work that we don't get time to do. We're always rushed.

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Scott Schimmel: Right? You know, I think mentioned in the staff, we get to do some work with principals and admin teams cabinets. And I think a more of a recent thought for me, because of design thinking is, is I just see an assumption that you all think you know, your students, because a lot of them come to your office that, you know, you hear about problems with students hear about the problems at home, with a small percentage of the students in your campus. And I guess my design thinking lens is you actually don't know your students at all. Unless you are a student, and go to class and sit with them, and are on the snaps with them. You actually don't you there's no way you could get to know them. And so what you're describing is a process to close that gap. I've been calling it immersion, like cultural immersion. Yes. Like with study abroad, like we're going there not to bring our values or our perspective, we're going there to immerse ourselves understands their values, I think of 21 Jump Street and her back in the day. Yes, these adults going back into high school life. Because if if you're in charge of policy, programs, curriculum, instruction, parking lot, security, like and you don't know them, what are the odds that you're going to design things for them that are a miss? And I would say 100% chance?

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Laura: Well, yeah, and I think too, I think back and just, you know, my, my days and schools and such and and doing things like focus groups? Oh, let's bring some students together. And let's have a focus group. But I think well, first of all, so you've already made some determinations just based on having a focus group? Do you now have kids to feel confident? You have kids who are talkers? And you have who have kids who have maybe been selected? Because they get along well with teachers, right? So you kind of remember sitting with the ASB group with him and thinking like, this is not this representative of the student body and so trying to understand, so he went immersion, and I do a lot with empathy mapping, just being able to sit back and say, if, if you're listening to a conversation by saying somebody, yes, what they say is important. But it's also important to look at what they're doing. What we talked about this with high schoolers, you know, are they talking along with their hands? They seem jittery? Are they diverting their eyes? Because they don't want to look at you like, those are all important things to note. And also, what might they be feeling? You know, there's certain usually words that kind of give you those clues, right? Oh, this is anxiety driven? Are you feeling happy right now? And, you know, what, what are they thinking? So when you look again, instead of just taking a face value of, well, you know, she said, she was mad at me. Okay, well, let's dig into that a little bit more, and really what's going on, and it can be something completely different. I think it's important to to do, my and my daughter's school does this cool thing every year, it's called shadow your student day. And so they, they're very nice, and that they make it a minimum day. For parents, you actually attend from from seven to eight to three, and parents, they are crazy. Yeah. So you know, I just follow my daughter to all of our classes for the day. And it's cool, because it's an opportunity for parents to I think, connect and remember what High School is like, Yeah, right. So for me, it's high anxiety day, like, I joke with my daughter, like, I do not want to go back to high school, like I dreaded high school, I just did not have great experiences, and now you're making me go back for a day. So that's a nice connection with her for her to kind of, you know, laugh and say, okay, mom, or for me to say I need my coffee. And she says we can have coffee, you know, during class and. And, but yet, on the flip side, it's also very painful. Because 1, high schools for the most part haven't changed, and that's not a slight on any of our teachers. It's just a sense of what it is. Right? And but the other thing, I think that when they're missing the mark is a lot of teachers kind of amp it up, oh, parents are here. Today, we're going to play a game or I built this lesson to engage the parents. And really, honestly, I just want you to do what you do. Yeah, I don't don't stop you your normal day, because I'm in the room. Right? You do. Because I think that would give me a better understanding of what my daughter's going through, right? If I go and say, Well, I don't understand why why you're so stressed out about biology. That lab was really cool today. Like, I don't care.

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Scott Schimmel: Because if she was great, she was really excited.

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Laura: So I don't know. I think teachers of course, are afraid they will. They want to make a good impression. I am a teacher too, I probably would do the same thing. Right? Like when principal, you give your best lesson possible, right? You dust off, you're like, here it is. And but I think in terms of building empathy, and really like going back to your question, understanding each other, just do what you do. And let me let me understand out what's happening, right, and I can better help a child, as she stressed out through these days trying, trying to get into college, try another lifetime play sports and work a job and do her thing. And so that would help me better. I think.

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Scott Schimmel: Somebody said that, because I was at my wife and I went back a school night for our son's Middle School the other night, for some reason, I've never been able to go to back to school net for all of our kids I've always had work commitments. So this is my first one. And the way they designed it was we went to every single one of his class periods. So my wife and I were walking and we were in this like, you know, passing period. I was I knew a bunch of the parents kind of some of them. But my wife said, "Hey, I'm gonna use the restroom for a minute." And I'm like, "Well, what am I going to do? Just stand here?" "Yeah." And I stood there, and I was all I wanted to do is pull up my phone. So that I could hide. But I actually saw one of my son's buddies, and we've carpooled with him. And I waved, literally, I waved at him, and, and he didn't recognize me or didn't see me, and he turned away, and all of a sudden, I'm like, I'm waving at somebody who's not waving back. I'm like, "we gotta get out of here." We're bringing back all the memories. But it was it was so helpful to your point, to go home and think about my son, who I see him at night, when he's maybe grumpy, or tired, or had a stressful day. And honestly, I came back and I was like, buddy, you I love you. Like, you're such a champ. I can't believe you do this all day, like that's so stressful on so many levels. And he doesn't have the tools yet or the self awareness yet to realize when he waves at a friend, and they don't wait back, what actually just happened to him on the inside. Right, he has to live the rest of the day like that. Not knowing I mean, it's just so how do we and this is you and me talking. And how do we? How do we get school leaders, principals and superintendents like, how do we get them to do that work? I mean, it's not, it's not hard. It's not hard to immerse yourself in student culture for a day or two, it's not hard to find students who wouldn't normally come to a focus group and take them out to lunch, like you can do that. But what are your thoughts on that?

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Laura: I think you know, its face. It's not the actual action is not hard. But what's hard is making the time and seeing like the importance of doing it. Yeah. So in terms of like, how to how we do it. That's where I struggle, because I think once you do it, you're going to know it's a game changer, right? I think once you go out there and have those experiences, you'll never go back. I don't know how to how to do that. It's like the gift of time, right? The permission how many times I work with teachers, and they'll say, well, do I have permission to do that? Is it best kids? Then you have permission? Like it's weird. And I and I'm realizing it's all the way up? Like I think even superintendents, they report to the board. They have all the people that work in their office. And if they were to just go down the street and have lunch with a couple couple of kids, it'd be like, Oh, my gosh, your schedule is packed. So I think building that why is important. And again, that's that's what does, I think you can fit so well, right? Because that's, again, empathy and the defining piece of, we need to remember who we work for. And then how and we work for the students. We work for their parents. And so then how do we meet their needs? It's even back to school night, I was talking to a friend the other night at a district for back to school night starts at 515. Do you think are there 515? Right. Yeah. And they do that? Because it's more convenient to teachers. They can get out earlier, they can order home, right, but it's not convenient. How? How do we bridge that? We keep telling you stories? Yeah. He's uh, he's tired. What am I like my idols and my mentor. There's a superintendent in Wisconsin. His name is Joe San Filippo. And he he keynotes and he talks and you can find him you know, of course on Twitter, which is just where I met him. And one of the things he said to me is he said, you know, we might not be the most innovative district out there. I said, our stories are out there. That's his. That's his mission. And his storytelling. He gets stories out there every day about fall Creek, I think even Obama, one time was like a go crickets are set like 30 story is out there. Because that's what he's committed to doing, like getting out the good word about school. And so maybe it's just that maybe it's like you and I, and the ones who are doing it like, like amplifying those voices that are getting the word out and saying, What story could you tell today? Yeah, I told every principle and every Superintendent every single day, you need to tell a good story. How are you going to get it if you're in your office

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Scott Schimmel: today? Yeah. Right.

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And stories, change culture, cement manager, right, calibrate the right things. That's

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Laura: right. And then they said, when you start to really tell the stories, and you start to listen, because in the beginning, it's probably only took a picture and these kids were building a robot. But then you start digging into that a little bit more, and you connect with that student and you realize this is a game changer for that child. Right? Now we're having a different conversation. Maybe the robotics club is even getting funded more, because you're in there, and you're making those connections and understanding what a game changer that is.

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Scott Schimmel: Yeah. Wow.

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Unknown: Okay, years, that's just a thought, but just a thought.

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