Campus Spotlight: Mack-Boulder Uses Design Thinking to Transform School

Attachment-1“Mom, we’re going to have a say and also maybe change the world!

That was from my super-excited second grader upon returning home from the first day of school at Mackintosh Academy-Boulder. They had discussed in class the new schedule the school has adopted and the revamped program they are able to offer as a result. Included in the program are teacher-student created courses that will connect students’ learning with the “real world.” Even better, of those offerings, students are able to select for themselves which ones they want to take. This integrated approach to learning has brought out an enthusiasm in my child that has reached new heights.

His enthusiasm was soon seconded by my Mack middle-schooler who exclaimed that it was an “AWESOME” day and that this was going to be an “AWESOME” year. (Do I need to say that getting that kind of review from a somewhat cynical tween is, in his words, “AWESOME”?)

Last winter Mack-Boulder teachers and staff used the design thinking process to develop what they ultimately dubbed “Innovation Projects.” The process empowered teachers to disrupt and deconstruct common beliefs about school structures and practices; they examined how to break down the silos of education that keep schools from being more agile and relevant to the real world into which students must integrate and hopefully affect in the future. Through the Innovation Projects, the teachers sought to make bold changes to achieve that goal.

The most notable short-term changes resulting from the Innovation Projects were in two categories: how the school uses its time (daily/weekly schedules and school year calendar), and the connection between program and learning environments/spaces.

The faculty and staff began a two-part task of redefining the daily/weekly schedules and the school calendar to make better use of allotted time. Time is one of the most precious commodities in school – how schools view/approach their schedule speaks volumes about how they value optimal learning conditions for children. Since everything in school is connected to both daily/weekly schedules and calendar, it took a tremendous amount of time to evaluate, discuss, and work to align all of the moving pieces. The most significant change was to carve out a different flow to alternating Fridays.

Teachers designed afternoon programming that, based partially on input from students, will allow for students to choose which subject area they want to explore further. Students will elect two one-hour blocks, or one two-hour block, that tailor to their interests. The offerings will be from themed categories that tie in to Mackintosh Academy’s three pillars: keen minds, compassionate hearts, global vision – a deliberate move to help the school broaden its mission-driven programming in a dynamic, forward-thinking approach. Students will use skills developed during academic classes in real world situations: they will problem-solve, interact with the community, and develop their interests. Initial offerings will include: STEAM Discovery (featuring some combination of robotics, electronics, 3-D printing, and programming), Service Learning Corps (off-campus local service learning trips based on student interests), a writing/publishing group, Science Investigators (inquiry-based project work throughout the beautiful 23 acre campus and the community), and a Spanish culture group (full immersion, hands-on).

On the opposite weeks, Early Dismissal Fridays will allow teachers three plus hours of professional development time to work on mission-critical areas: teaching practices in core areas (reading, writing, research, technology & math), effective delivery of IB programming, and exploring programming in subject areas related to D.I.S.C.O. (Design, Innovation, Science, Community Service, and Outdoor Education). While teachers are busy taking an active role of the learner on these Fridays, students can select from a varied list of high-interest enrichment classes (e.g. Discovering Computer Science, Film & Philosophy: Star Wars and More) if they choose to stay on campus. An additional benefit for families is that the full year calendar is more predictable, and they will no longer need to find outside childcare for monthly professional development full days off of school, as was the case in the past.

The Innovation Projects also called for a fresh look at the timing of classes (more aligned to developmental levels), length of classes (longer or shorter classes to meet the needs of subject and/or learners), and the ability for teachers to collaborate across grade levels. The teachers, with student input, also created “club time” for grades 6-8th, where students will take ownership over the creation and running (with adult support), of high-interest clubs. The offerings may include: MathCounts (national math competition), Robotics, Fantasy Writing, and 3D Printing.

The Innovation Projects also brought to the surface critical tension between the balance of program and the learning spaces. The successful, and relatively inexpensive, transformation of a basement space into a multi-purpose Design Lab last year helped the community see the power and importance of flexible and dynamic spaces for the students. The momentum and energy from the dreaming during the Innovation Projects helped the school successfully fundraise at the spring auction for a new school library and a remodel of the former chapel into the Great Hall (performing arts space).

The new library inhabits a former storage space in the well-lit basement. It will support many of the new programs aimed at increasing and developing students’ love and skills in literacy and communication, and it will serve as a multipurpose space to hold many of the other new classes and activities.

The remodel of the chapel into the Great Hall, a state-of-the-art performing arts space, was completed this summer. The auction raised enough funds to carpet the space, create a black-box stage area, design a professional rigging system to hold a vibrant LED stage-lighting system, and a cutting edge, dynamic wireless sound system connected to a wide-array speaker system. Besides the obvious benefits of the freshened up space for learning and performances, both the lighting and sound systems were designed to be wirelessly controlled by iPad apps, giving students the opportunity and power to design and control the creative backend of performances. The Great Hall will also be used for other community and parent education events.

These changes blossomed from the creative minds of passionate teachers and students who were simply asked how could Mack-Boulder better live the school mission. Seven months ago they had no idea how their thinking would influence the school. As a result of the focused dreaming and planning, the school accomplished in a short amount of time what could have taken years. These changes have solidified Mack-Boulder’s role as an agile, future-driven, integrated program and learning environment focused on the diverse needs and interests of its learners.

What matters the most to me is that my kids are engaged and feel that they “have a say” and can “change the world.” And it’s only the first week of school.