Step 4 of The Design Process: Develop Solutions (Prototyping)

prototyping design thinking

In the schools I’ve worked and have been given real agency to make decisions, only a few meetings are usually set aside for the work of choosing a course of action and always the conclusion of this set of meetings has resulted a final decision to be implemented. The stakes are high as everyone in the room knows one final answer will come out of those meetings and the decisions made will have a long-term impact whether it is curricular, instructional, policy, budget and so on. High stakes coupled with no prototyping or any real rigor of process has meant that the primary decision makers and stakeholders often revert to prior beliefs — not the work being done before them. Sometimes the student learning results are fantastic, but across the arc of my career, those moments feel more rare and lucky, than expected or earned though teamwork.

Prototyping you team’s best ideas and evaluating their ability to solve a problem after implementation is a powerful way to take back control of the process and to . The value of this step can’t be understated. Rather than saying “before we tried something” vs. “when we implemented something” you can say, “looking at our three tested prototypes, we see that X is the best solution because of Y and Z.” This helps take the pressure off finding the right solution and the right type of data without knowing how things will turn out. Furthermore, prototyping defuses personality tensions and power struggles because multiple ideas go into testing.

A quick reminder of the Design Process:

  1. Define the Problem (Verification vs. Validation)
  2. Collect Information (Nodes and Links)
  3. Brainstorm and Analyze (Modeling or Ideation)
  4. Develop Solutions (Prototyping)
  5. Solicit Feedback (Closed Loop)
  6. Improve Your Design (Iterations, Iterations, Iterations!)

Prototyping in Education

Prototyping is the design step where a several design solutions are chosen to head to live testing. This means multiple fully functioning solutions are written, fabricated or crafted and those design solutions are put into as real of a testing as is possible. Prototypes are not merely conceptual, are not models and are rarely made of cardboard. Prototypes are the real deal.

The key concept of Step Four is to prototype more than one idea with the intention of learning from a series of prototypes the one to carry forward, yet this may be the hardest part of the design process for school and school districts to carry out as time, money and resources are always so limited, so precious. Prototyping multiple solutions or designs is meant to evaluate your designs in practice to evaluate which one solution should go forward, if none actually solve your problem or if a tweak to one making it just right (Goldilocks). It is that tweak of one prototype that might exemplify what people mean by rapid iteration.

Imagine that you are a teacher leader who is tasked with implementing a new curriculum for elementary science. Your team has taken on a new STEM focus and it is time to consider assessments. Many of the talented teachers on your team have different ideas about how to design the assessment series. You now see a perfect chance to get it right and have the best assessments possible. Your team has worked though Step Three brainstorming and now has more than five viable options for how to design assessments to best collect data, that test the skills you are looking for students to achieve and you have considered units of study and time you wish to dedicate to assessing. Still, you have more than five ways to go. What do you do at this juncture?

I recommend that you pick three assessment styles with your team that you can prototype, or make rather completely, and actually teach the unit and give the three different styled assessments to three different student groups. Say, you can do this with grade four classes in your school where a third of the students each get a different style. Then, once the unit is done and the assessments are administered you can evaluate the successes and limitations of each, pick one, make improvements, and continue forward with your whole elementary STEM assessment project. Now, you have an outstanding idea of what will and will not work for your school and the success and longevity of your work seems assured.

Let’s talk about those three you picked to prototype. It shouldn’t just be three of your favorite ideas, instead, you want to pick three concepts to prototype that appear to have different risk and reward.

  • Rational – Pick an idea that seems most like what your school would likely do.
  • Meaningful – Selecting a concept that reaches further then where you are as a school right now, but feels like a meaningful step forward for your school.
  • Wild/Unexpected – Select one idea that seems most unlike your school’s current practice or is well beyond where your school is currently practicing.

Listening maybe the single most important part to prototyping besides having more than one prototype. Here, you should engage with all stakeholders and investigate how the prototype is working. In the elementary STEM example, you might follow up with the person tasked with making the prototype test; was it easy, efficient or clear to make? Next, you might observe the teacher giving instructions for the assessment and the students taking the assessment; was is easy to understand for the students, how did they feel during the assessment, how long did it take, and so on. Moreover, you will naturally look over the completed assessments and consider what input students included, the results of the assessment and how the process of grading the assessments was for teachers. Finally, you may look to see it from the parent’s perspective; did they understand the results, did they grasp the understandings their child made and so on. Taking the time to look over every step of the process will give you and your team the best chance of success in your program.

It is my expectation that you and your team of teachers will all see which prototype performed the best and may even know how to improve on the chosen prototype prior to a full implementation. In the STEM example, the winning assessment design may have a few areas of improvement that your debriefing may revel, meaning fixes can already be applied (coming in step five and six of the design process).

Prototyping may be the most exciting step in the process for you and your team. Your ideas are coming to life and testing those prototypes has the pop of something fresh and meaningful happening on your campus. It feels like real progress and provides the sense that you and your campus are moving forward together. There’s nothing like spending time on a campus that is testing prototypes.

From your brainstorming phase, I wish you luck in having the time and energy to prototype long before settling on a solution for your next major initiative. Pick multiple prototypes in a meaningful way, check your ego and listen, listen listen. It’s an exciting time!

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