Could design thinking help us design better school policies?

I’m reading Tim Brown’s book Change by Design, part of my prep work for my job as Chief Educator-in-Residence at Quarter Zero, and I keep wondering: What if we used design thinking to tackle everyday problems in schools?

For example, tardies.

Tardies drive high school teachers and administrators crazy for so many reasons, but here are a few:

1 – Some kids are consistently tardy, and they seem to prefer wandering the halls to being in class. Then they wander in and disrupt the class in process.

2 – If we start teaching before they show up, they’ll miss something, and we’ll either have to repeat it (wasting everyone’s time), or let them flounder (not good, if we want them on task).

3 – If we don’t start teaching before the latecomers show up, they get later and later every day, and pretty soon we’re ceding substantial class time. And more students will start being tardy, figuring class won’t start on time anyway.

My school has tried a lot of different approaches to chronic tardies over the years. In the late ’90s we hauled kids before a “tardy committee” and made them justify themselves. I think they could even get dropped from the class, if they didn’t shape up.

For a few years after that disbanded, we were encouraged to start class with a quiz or some other unmissable activity every day, so latecomers would have an incentive to get there or suffer the consequences.

Nowadays, we are not allowed to use grades to punish (or reward) behavior, so that doesn’t work. It’s mostly on the teacher now, though we can enlist student deans to call home and let parents know if tardies continue.

So what does design thinking have to offer?

For one thing, Brown says, if we want to solve problems, we need to observe people and see what they do and say, like anthropologists do. Without judgment.

When the kitchen gadget company Zyliss was trying to make a better can opener, they observed all sorts of people using can openers — from children to professional chefs — and they quickly learned why and how people struggled with typical openers.

I imagine we could learn a lot from candidly observing our chronically tardy students. We’d see where they go, what they do, who they are with, whether they check the time, and what ultimately prompts them to go to class.

We’d also see whether their behavior is different for different classes, and whether certain teacher behaviors create more of an impetus for students to show up on time.

That would be interesting to know, wouldn’t it?

Design thinkers also practice divergent thinking. Rather than jumping on a new solution right away, they develop as many possibilities as they can before evaluating them. They solicit ideas from everyone — customers, front-line workers, managers and CEOs.

The idea is to get beyond incremental change and actually think differently.

Again, it would be interesting to know what solutions the students themselves, their parents, teachers and school leaders have to offer — instead of just talking to ourselves.

We could test various solutions — harsher consequences, immediate emails home, shorter passing periods, longer passing periods, more clocks around school, more warning bells, etc. — before just settling on one.

I know this sounds like a big time commitment to deal with a small problem, but for a lot of teachers in a lot of schools, it’s not a small problem. Tardies impact the classroom culture, and they impact student learning. And we don’t have a solution that works.

It would be worth trying to think about this problem — and other everyday problems — differently.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. She is also Chief Educator-in-Residence at Quarter Zero. Visit or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom