13. (part 1) Using design thinking to improve professional learning with Mary Ellen Wilcox

Welcome to Cohort 21’s face to face session. Well, not actually. We are a podcast, after all, and not being face to face is kind of the whole thing.

But this is the first of a two part episode where we talk to teachers about their action plans.

Today, I share with you two conversations I had with Mary Ellen Wilcox, a middle school science teacher and steam coordinator at Rothesay Netherwood School in New Brunswick. The first conversation we had was in November of 2018 and this was Cohort 21’s second face to face session. I stole Mary Ellen away for a quick conversation to capture a moment in her thinking about a current problem, dilemma, or challenge she was experiencing in her practice. This whole day of learning for educators uses design thinking protocols to better understand what is actually happening in our school so that we can design an action plan that will have a meaningful impact on students and learning.

When Mary Ellen and I sat down and recorded, she was just in the process of coming up with a guiding question that would help her navigate her learning. We call this the “How Might We” question and it is the bedrock of good design. I love that it involves “we”, reminding us that we can’t do this alone. I love that it uses the word “might”, which suggests that there isn’t one right way.

Getting behind the right “How might we” question is everything and this first conversation with Mary Ellen unpacks this challenge for one person.   

This thoughtful dance that you can see Mary Ellen engage in around the maypole of dilemmas and challenges is exactly what we hope for from teachers. She is careful, she is thoughtful, and she is spending a tremendous amount of energy ensuring that she has the right how might question.

The next time I connected with Mary Ellen, two months had rolled by, which in the world of education is really like 2 years and some change. In the span of time between the two face to face sessions, we had gone through report cards, winter concerts, final class parties of the term, our December breaks with our families, the return to school after the holiday, and probably a handful of assessments thrown in there somewhere too. So in the next clip, notice how Mary Ellen’s thinking evolved and how much more clear she is on how she wants to narrow in on her focus for this year. It’s clear that Mary Ellen was behind the right question back in November, but this new conversation reveals how zooming in on one aspect of confidence and resiliency is the key to her making this action plan much more manageable.

When I stole Mary Ellen from the rest of the group, they were just about to start a protocol called the 5 why’s and Mary Ellen was gracious enough to let me run the protocol with her and record it for this episode.

I really mean it when I say that I wish that I could have Mary Ellen as my science teacher: her reflectiveness, ability to think critically about her practice, and sheer joy in her students’ success make her such an incredible leader in our community. I love how perfectly Mary Ellen modelled how to be vulnerable with her practice and actually learn how to be better through the support of a peer. She clearly walks the walk that she is scaffolding for her young learners!

In the part 2  of this episode, we share another “before and after” for a different Cohort 21 participant to see how another teacher makes sense of design thinking protocols to improve one aspect of their practice.

Even if you are not an educator in an Ontario Independent School and eligible to participate in Cohort 21, I share these conversations with you to give you a flavour for how teachers can use the power of design thinking, protocols, and peer feedback to develop and grow their practice. You do not need a professional development network to make this kind of thinking happen: in the show notes I will include some awesome resources for how you might simulate this experience in your own practice if you are outside of the Cohort 21 umbrella.

A big thank you to Mary Ellen Wilcox for her modelling of vulnerability, Sarah Craig for her relentless support of this project, Garth Nichols and Justin Medved for their mentorship and inspiring leadership, Mary Anne Van Acker for her editorial oversight, and the entire Cohort 21 community for their powerful blend of professional playfulness. Now go ask some juicy questions and remember we are teaching tomorrow.


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