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How Are Your Users Responding to the Learning Environment You Have Designed?


Use rapid prototyping to meet the needs of everyone interacting with your school or district. 

Educators have always been life-changers. In this modern age, school leaders can put structures and strategies into place that enhance learning experiences, provide life-changing opportunities to students, and protect their pathways to success.

As a former teacher and current ed-tech CEO, it’s clear to me that strategies from the software development world can also impact educational structures.

In the software business, for instance, we refer to the people who use our product as “users,” and we focus on user-centered design to improve the overall product experience for those users.

Lately, I have been thinking about organizational design in a similar way. I challenge myself and others on my team to optimize around the question, “How can we better serve everyone who interacts with our product?”

The question deserves to be asked in the educational environment too: How can we put people first, and better serve everyone who interacts with our school or district? It’s user-centered design, but for continuous school improvement.

As you aim to enhance learning experiences, provide students with life-changing opportunities, and protect their pathways to success, I encourage you to consider these tried-and-true software strategies too:

Commit to Iteration as the Status Quo

If change is a constant, it becomes less disturbing. Version 61.1 of any software is bound to be way more awesome than Version 1. Users expect and appreciate iteration, even the ones who might initially complain that they miss an old clunky feature.

Instead of implementing big, long-term initiatives, what if we heeded growth mindset tactics and approached school improvement like an entrepreneur? Constant iteration, small-batch experiments, and rapid prototyping might sound difficult or time-consuming, but that only holds true if we require high-fidelity. If rapid prototyping becomes a practice instead of an occasion, it takes very little time. In fact, it will surely take less time to test an idea and gather actuals, than to wait weeks or months to meet again and debate the same problem without getting any closer to a solution.

Here is what this sounds like:

“How can we test out that idea today to see if it works? What is the fastest way we could figure out if that hypothesis about the best way to XXX is true?”

Instead of scheduling endless meetings to argue about guesses, every participant in meeting #1 should leave with the task of testing a proposed idea, and should immediately send an email to the team describing the results of their testing experience. Through this process, the team will be well-informed, and hopefully motivated to keep iterating and optimizing.

Example Email:


We observed that some teachers were doing really well with centers-based rotations. This method  gave all the students access to the software – despite limited technology access.

However, some teachers still struggled, despite attending the professional development workshop about the benefits of the model. After discussing the experience with them, our hypothesis is that the problem lies not in understanding what to do, but how to do it – how to make the centers-based rotation happen for students.

Therefore, we are doing a quick test this week: students in Mrs. Negron’s 4th grade class will visit a highly successful classroom in 5th grade to see other students using a centers-based rotational model. Then, they will work together to set up their room and their schedule to operate similarly.

The teacher and the kids are excited, so I’ll let you know how close we are to seeing the routine take root next week!

What have you all tried?

Commit to Continuous Learning About All of Your Users

Every stakeholder – even those on the leadership team – has a limited experience of the whole organization. It is therefore necessary to create opportunities for everyone to gain visibility into how the organization functions for every member – whether they be a leader, teacher, student, or parent. These learnings will help all team members understand what works and what causes friction among the team. Once these insights has been gained, the testing for actual solutions can begin.

Example Scenario:

The writing center, located on the first floor, is a little far from the cafeteria, but students are encouraged to visit it during lunch. Attendance is low.

Instead of holding a meeting to come with guesses to explain low attendance, gather actuals first. You could, for instance, take a few photos or film a short video of the cafeteria and the writing center during lunch hours. Explanations that would be informed by these actuals could be:

  • Kids are hungry and have to wait in a long line to get their food, which takes up a decent amount of their lunch time.
  • Students are simply having a lot of fun with friends.
  • They have to show a pass to get out of the cafeteria.
  • Kids aren’t allowed to bring food out of the cafeteria.

Bring these hypotheses to a discussion about writing center attendance and make a plan for testing and implementing new solutions.

Let the Actuals Win

Being data-driven doesn’t have to mean waiting for quarterly or annual student data. Data can come in the form of any actual evidence from your users.

Here is what this looks like:

Why are kids suddenly being allowed to eat in the writing center? Well, as it turns out, not being able to eat was one of the major reasons students didn’t take advantage of this great resource during lunch. The English Department advocated for allowing students to eat in the writing center, and it tripled the number of students attending tutoring sessions at lunch time.

Eileen Murphy
Eileen Murphy

Eileen taught English for 15 years and was the founding English Department Chair at Walter Payton College Prep as well as the author of 360 Degrees of Text (NCTE, 2011).

As the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for over 100 of Chicago’s highest performing schools, Eileen became passionate about the role technology could play in education in the 21st century and left CPS in 2012 to develop ThinkCERCA to help all students achieve career and college readiness. ThinkCERCA is one of the top Literacy Courseware Challenge winners (Gates Foundation).