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Designing Big Ideas at PD: How Welsh Came to Be a Leader in Design Thinking

Ryan Welsh proudly wears the badge of “Provocateur in Chief” for Providence Day. His 14-year trajectory at PD may have had fairly traditional origins, but it has led him to become Chief Design Strategist, a position that is ever more integral to PD’s path moving forward.

HOW IT BEGAN

Welsh joined the school 14 years ago as an Upper School English teacher but sought out a new challenge at PD while he completed a Ph.D. in curriculum instruction specializing in literacy and English studies. At that time, Derrick Willard, former Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs, and Dr. Glyn Cowlishaw, Head of School, began ideating for the new Academic Center building which would serve as a replacement for the “West Wing” portable classrooms. Questions about how the space would look and be occupied rose to the surface. Willard reached out to an outside agency to start the process of answering those questions. “We contacted a firm (that doesn’t exist anymore) called Wonder by Design to do design work and ethnographic research watching the ways people live on campus at PD,” explains Welsh. “They also designed and facilitated a professional development experience for five of us teachers in the West Wing, considering, ‘What if we thought of classrooms as an ecology of spaces instead of an owned classroom and what would it mean to develop as professionals in a cohort?’”

“Over the course of the year, we learned a lot about design thinking,” says Welsh. Those three classrooms were redesigned so each one accomplished different goals, and based on what each teacher focused on in a given day, spaces were swapped out between the five of them. The teaching cohort also attended Big Ideas Fest, a three-day gathering focused on creating solutions and taking action within an inspiring and immersive design environment. The team came back from that experience ready to use design thinking as a mode of developing new and innovative pedagogy and curriculum.

Welsh was inspired. “Within the first hours of working with Wonder by Design I said to Derrick, ‘This is what I want, I want to be a designer,’” he recalls. “Because of the rate of change and complexity of the change...what if I started thinking of myself as an educator/designer? What would it mean to be constantly reiterating, developing, and changing new and different work that more closely attends to the particular needs of these students in this class in this semester?”

The final report delivered by Wonder by Design served as a catalyst for PD to think differently about how to grow and evolve the school. Dr. Cowlishaw and Willard considered the possibility of creating a design firm embedded in an independent school, and in partnership with Matt Scully, PD’s Director of Digital Integration & Innovation, a new department was born. 

One of the first and most memorable collaborations as an in-house design firm took place with Michael Magno, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs, seven years ago. As Welsh recalls, Magno reached out to him and said, “I’ve got a faculty that thinks maybe sixth graders don’t need to sit (for) a two-hour exam in every one of their classes at the end of the year. Is there a better, interesting, more meaningful end-of-the-year learning opportunity that isn’t a two-hour seated exam?”

By then, Welsh and Scully had learned a lot about human-centered design and engaged in additional learning from Stanford’s d.school. They also worked with IDEO, a global design company famous for helping Steve Jobs invent the computer mouse.

“There’s something really fundamental to design work where instead of starting with the problem, you start with the people,” he explains. “You get really smart about the people so that you better understand the problem. That leads to better results when it comes to water systems in the developing world or innovative curriculum in urban school districts.”

When Magno approached Welsh and Scully on a Thursday to ask if they could design and facilitate a discussion for a team of collaborators the following Monday, that group came up with the idea of a capstone project, which is now an essential part of the Middle School experience.

“That’s a good example of one of the very early moments where we developed an experience with support and scaffolding based in design thinking that helped people find a better way.” An article on institutionalizing innovation using capstone as an example was published through NAIS, the National Association of Independent Schools.

“I was the Dean of Students when I started capstone,” says Magno. “It was the year before I became Head of Middle School. It was just for sixth grade at first, and then we added seventh and eighth grades.”

Capstone presentations are designed to provide collaborative, problem-solving experiences for students to apply knowledge and skills they have acquired and practiced throughout the year, and take the place of end- of-semester exams for participating students.

Welsh credits Magno for his support of the in-house design firm. “Michael has been a champion since the beginning in part because he trusted us early and we collaborated successfully. It’s taken seven or eight years, but I would put our design work up against anyone’s design work, internal or external. We have a design firm that’s embedded in an independent school.”

Although Welsh loves his job enough to claim, “I have the best job on campus,” he admits that being the most curious person on campus often makes people uncomfortable. “It took a really long time to build up the credibility we needed to be a design firm internal to a school,” he says. “There’s a reason why people hire external firms, because oftentimes innovation is painful and miserable and people are opposed to it. You have to provoke people.”

IDEAS@PD

Around five years ago, the leadership and design teams began asking, how might we institutionalize innovation? “We like the paradox of that,” Welsh says. “We like how once it’s institutionalized it’s by definition not innovative. And if it’s innovative it won’t fit within the institution. We think that’s the right tension.”

This question has led PD to a new curricular focus, IDEAS@PD – which stands for Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship, Analytics, and Sustainability. The process of designing the curriculum made that paradox apparent.

A team of PD members across disciplines went through the early design thinking process under the guidance of Welsh and Scully. Architects hired to renovate the Dickson-Hemby building needed to know what items to reflect in

the plans; the design process for IDEAS@PD identified what really mattered most to the school. While the design firm offers clients a design thinking service, the architect said to Magno, “We would have never gotten to this place if we had to do that for PD.”

“When we were looking at the new space and looking at the language to explain IDEAS@PD, one of the tracks is called computing and innovation,” says Magno. While it might imply that innovation happens there exclusively, “It happens everywhere. Where we want to be is where innovation takes place anywhere and anytime.”

That’s the principle that helped drive the team to create an open layout. “We want to create a space where kids want to go hang out, where they can pursue their interests outside of the classroom,” Magno says. “What are you really interested in and excited about? What’s your question? Do you have an idea and need someone to help?” During the school day, a faculty member will always be available to work with students utilizing the new space.

“IDEAS will help us conceptualize what it means to be a department without isolating topics from each other,” says Welsh. “The goal is to take inter-disciplinary departments and people from different concentrations together, and consider the possibilities. The renovation in the Dickson-Hemby building is a prototype attempting to physically manifest more of the innovative practice we want to see.”

WHAT’S NEXT

In the past 12 to 18 months, Welsh and Scully have fielded numerous calls from other schools asking how PD has maintained its current position, as the school has not only stayed open but thrived during the pandemic. “What’s our secret? I don’t think it’s any profound discoveries we’ve made in the past 18 months,” explains Welsh.

“We started building capacity for institutional innovation three or four years ago.” In close partnership with NAIS and under the leadership of Dr. Cowlishaw, PD hosted an NAIS Strategy Lab in 2018 with several other schools located east of the Mississippi Rever. That experience covered ways to do strategic planning and how to incorporate innovative problem solving using design thinking.

Looking to the future, PD is well poised to handle both adaptive and technical challenges. “A technical challenge is a problem you’ve faced in the past and there might be a few variables that have changed but you know how to execute a solution to that problem. We are aces at grappling with technical challenges at PD,” explains Welsh.

“The other kind of challenge or problem is an adaptive challenge which has unknown variables, has probably not been seen before, and will absolutely necessitate a mode of problem solving that is different. It’s not that design thinking is the only way to address and adapt to a challenge, it’s just a really good one.”

Design thinking is powerful for its ability to land in a different place than would have happened trying to solve new problems with old methods. “It’s not like the ‘field of dreams.’ If you build it, they might not come,” Welsh says. “I think the design strategists have to prototype the future of what it's going to mean to be an educator because the future of education will look profoundly different than what it does now.”

PD continually tests and looks to the future with its physical spaces as well. When the second floor of the Thompson-Jones library was updated with glass enclosures, these served as prototypes for the Academic Center, which was in the planning stages at the time.

The same applies to the Dickson-Hemby IDEAS@ PD renovations. “It’s not the end to innovation and technology,” says Magno. “We want to see if it’s what we want in the future. Maybe there is a building, another space or expansion of another building, and we know it works. Or, it doesn’t and we’re going to try something else.”

“The IDEAS@PD renovation is inspiring, encouraging, and what the future of teaching and learning will look like,” says Welsh. “I’m super excited about the space and even more excited about being able to recognize that our students are doing really interesting, innovative things.”

Welsh also believes that success with IDEAS will rely on systematizing, programmatizing, and institutionalizing relationships. He says, “If we systematize the relationship building, institutionalizing innovation will be easy. We don’t suppose that once we get this right then we’re done. I think our job is to stay curious.”

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