Everett // Personalized Learning Redesign

The Challenge

Throughout the 2014-2015 academic year the  teachers, counselors, and administrators at Everett Middle School became increasingly interested in design thinking and the role that a structured and facilitated process could have on the school community. The staff and administration asked, “What would happen if we dedicated nearly an entire semester of our site based professional development time to putting the design thinking process to work at Everett?”   Using this question as a catalyst for inquiry and action, the faculty divided into groups organized around key challenges that all related to the overarching goal of increasing opportunities for differentiated and individualized instruction. The teams of educators began their work with focus questions such as: “How do we increase meaningful and measurable student engagement in P.E. through personalized opportunities?”, “How can our school schedule be redesigned in order to support individualized student learning?”, and “How can we strengthen our Restorative Justice program by more closely focusing on individual student needs?”


The Everett design thinking teams were in a unique position compared to other District schools who participated in the ilab process because of their wrap-around approach to employing design thinking as the heart of every professional development session. Throughout the semester (and in some cases the entire academic year) every teacher in the school participated in the design thinking process in order to tackle one of the identified challenges related to individual learning. Regardless of the question at hand, teams of teachers spent weeks gathering information from a variety of stakeholders in order to better understand the challenge from the perspective of the “user” (student, parents, and staff). Teachers gathered evidence from academic journals and education research, they interviewed students both at Everett and at Denman Middle School, and they surveyed a variety of stakeholders in the school community.

For example, the challenge area of increasing individual student motivation and participation in the P.E. classes  began with the teachers on the design team stepping into the students’ shoes and understanding the problem before jumping into problem solving mode. One teacher-leader wrote,  “In designing a personalized P.E. experience, we need to understand our students’ attitudes and feelings about P.E. and fitness in general. We know that individualized goals make most sense in terms of growth – but it may be that what they need even more is a reason to exercise. There’s no point creating the individualized goals, buying fitness monitors, and having daily workout slots if the students are still not motivated to participate. It’s not only a question of what we think they need to be healthier and fitter – it’s how can we make sure they come on this journey with us. The answer? We need to understand what they care about and what they’re scared of, so that we design around them.”  

The Everett teacher teams set out to uncover the clues embedded in the student experience by interviewing dozens of students about their perspectives on the various challenges. The teachers were careful to select students from incredibly heterogeneous backgrounds and dispositions (i.e. some who love physical exercise to those who abhor P.E). They asked questions and recorded the student responses both in writing and on video. Some of the questions they asked include:

  1. What is your favorite part about PE?
  2. What is your least favorite part about PE?
  3.  Do you think that PE is important or useful?
  4. If you could design a perfect PE / fitness class, what would it include and look like?
  5.  If you had to choose, do you view PE as a time to chill, socialize, or get fit?
  6.  Was there a time in your life that you viewed PE differently?
  7.  Do you prefer working with the entire PE class or in small groups?

The notion of understanding the problem and designing proposed solutions around the user is central to the success of design thinking. The Everett team took this student-centered approach in each of the challenge areas and they were able to step into the shoes of students to more fully comprehend the complexities of the challenges at hand.   The team sought to uncover and deepen their understanding of the complexities inherent in the student experiences with P.E. specifically and ongoing physical activity in general.  The data that the teachers collected from the stakeholder interviews and surveys as well as academic research proved invaluable as the Everett faculty examined each challenge area from the student perspective and developed a 360 perspective.


The define stage in the design thinking process is a critical phase in a team’s ability to think anew about the users, challenges and solutions.  It is the step in the process where participants make sense of the rest of the data they collected; they’ve gathered data in the Discovery phase and no they synthesize and narrow the learning into themes and insights that clarifies the problem and prepares the group to begin prototyping in the Do phase.
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The Everett team members were able to continuously incorporate their discoveries and interpretation of data into their next iteration of prototype.  They displayed and shared their thinking as a collection of post it notes (see photo) in an attempt to answer the questions, “What rises to the surface? What are common elements in our thinking about this challenge and possible solutions?”  The teachers created a visual representation of what they learned from their discoveries:


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One of the dominant findings that rose to the surface from the teacher research in general was that the Everett school schedule could be more directly aligned with targeted students’ needs and the personalized learning objectives as the teachers thought necessary. There are many known and tangible obstacles to changing a school schedule and the task can be a daunting one for schools to undertake. However, the Everett team was able to tell a compelling story about the research they did to prepare the staff for a modified school schedule for 2016-2017 by going through the define phase following their discovery work.


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One way to grasp the do stage is to imagine a set of stacking dolls where a small doll fits inside a larger one and so on. The multi-layered set of dolls starts with one small application or idea and that doll is absorbed by a slightly larger version following critical feedback in between each “doll.”


The image of the stacking dolls holds true for the do process in that this stage often begins, as it did with each of the Everett teams, with an application of an idea as small as a prototype on paper, followed by a tabletop model and simulating experiences for students before purchasing thousands of dollars for an untested plan.  The team focused on P.E. student engagement had the benefit of a series of facilitated sessions held at the Thurgood Marshall  Ilab and from these sessions they were able to begin prototyping solutions directly with students.  The team tested a variety of prototypes with students including heart and fitness monitors and student-centered fitness rubrics. The P.E. team held one another accountable throughout the prototype period with reminders and encouragements to embrace risk and failure in order to learn. One team leader wrote to her colleagues, “This is the homestretch, so I present you with a challenge! ​Test 5 different prototypes with a total of 50 students by the end of this week. Tips: Push some boundaries: get the toughest kids to test our prototypes, leave the HR monitors with the kids for a couple of days and see what they do with them. We need to BREAK things – failure is the only way to learn!”.

The P.E. team used fitness monitors with students in a variety of predefined contexts (kettleballs, running, etc.) and they aggregate the student data after each prototype to see what they could learn from each round:

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Clearly, the Everett teachers wholeheartedly embraced the ethos that risk, breaking things (metaphorically and in reality), and learning from failure are key elements of results-oriented program design.  In fact, the faculty held a showcase of their findings and risks/failures that resulted from their prototyping in order to drive home the point that learning and growth can be found in risk-taking and iterative design.

In parallel the design team focused on the master schedule created multiple prototypes of a modified schedule and got feedback from the staff before landing on one that the whole school quickly embraced for the coming year.

The Results

Each of the Everett design thinking teams learned a tremendous amount from their prototyping and in many cases made concrete program changes based on their data and observations.  In addition to a completely revamped PE program that is now engaging all of its students with increased personalization, the most wide-spread change that the Everett teachers put into action was a fundamental change to their school schedule (designed in April, 2015). The schedule change went into effect in August 2015. The goal of the schedule change was to offer more individualized and personalized attention for the academic needs of all students. The new class schedule allows teachers to provide additional support and more one-on-one and small group time with students.


Period Time
Students Enter 7:55 – 8:00
Homeroom/Block 1 8:00 – 9:30
Block 2 9:33 – 11:03
LUNCH 11:03 – 11:27  6th graders cafe

11:27 – 11:51  7th/8th cafe

Block 3 11:54 – 1:24
Block 4 1:27 – 2:57
Study Skills/ Intervention 3:00 – 3:30

Reflections & Looking Ahead

As with any heterogeneous group of teachers and administrators the Everett teachers and administrators have a variety of take-aways and reflections about the design-thinking process and the results from their respective projects.

A sample of the main takeaways and reflections include:

  • The knowledge and dexterity of the design process facilitator is absolutely essential to the quality of the process and final product. The main facilitator for the P.E. design thinking process from the iLab was credited with being able to adapt the process to adjust to the needs of the group.
  • The team members felt that three sessions only scratched the surface compared to what they could have done with more ilab time and facilitation. Many teachers felt that a longer chunk of time (perhaps in the summer) would be well-worth the investment.
  • The use of a separate, designated space for design thinking, planning, and prototyping was credited by many teachers as a catalyst to their ability to shift focus from their day to day obligations to the longer term. The Ilab space was referred to by teachers as “inspirational” and “the ingredients for creativity just based on how it looks and feels”.

The Everett administration and teachers are committed to using these reflections and incorporating them into their next iteration of design thinking faculty work.



    • Jennifer Kuhr Butterfoss

      I love this topic and the risk taking! One question I have though is how the schedule was actually changed (what was it before?) and how did this address the question around PE?

      • The schedule change that we implemented that affected PE was the following: we still have 88 minute blocks for all the core classes, but for PE/Electives, the students switch halfway through the block so they have 44 of PE each day. They no longer change clothes in the locker room and they just get right into fitness activities. We’ve seen a 22% increase in number of students who fall in the Healthy Fitness Zone this year compared to last (33% to 55%) which is exciting but of course we still have a LONG ways to go since only about half our kids are in the healthy fitness zone currently.

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