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The Dining Hall was buzzing, as 125 employees at Cary Academy shared stories with one another about one of their most personal of objects — their wallets. Then, with one short phrase from workshop facilitator and Dean of Faculty Martina Greene — “OK, everybody, you have 20 minutes to build your prototypes” — the din of voices was replaced with the hum of working hands.

“Can you hear that?” asked Director of Diversity and Inclusion Jason Franklin. “This is what happens when folks get engaged in the creative process. Language turns off as other parts of the brain engage.” Jason would know, as an accomplished artist and teacher who was trained in art and design at NC State.

And so it went during the opening week of employee preparation for the 2015-2016 school year. A good deal of our time during these planning days is spent getting people and spaces ready for the arrival of students and meeting to review schedules, curriculum, or goals for the year.

As a kick-off to the new Cary Academy Strategic Plan, all employees went through an introduction to design thinking as a way to lay a foundation for future conversations about innovation and creativity in our work together. This isn’t a new concept to us, as all CA 9th and 10th graders are exposed to this mindset as part of their required art and design courses. However, we believe that design thinking also can help us unlock some of the goals in our strategic plan.

The protocol we used this past week came from the Institute of Design at Stanford University. Using a hands-on project to design the ideal wallet for a partner, our employees were exposed to the five core steps in the process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

“Building the wallet was a fun way to put the concept [of design thinking] into practice,” said one employee in a post-session survey. “Listening to my partner and then trying to design to her needs made me think about how much my students want to give their input regarding how we approach learning in our classroom. I hope that the students are ready to ENGAGE because I am ready!”

We were excited to use a design thinking workshop as a kickoff for the implementation phase of our strategic plan, which was developed over the course of last year involving input from the full community. A core planning committee comprised of board members, faculty, staff, parents, students, and alumni drove the process.

Our strategic vision is to create learning opportunities that are flexible, personalized, and relevant — cultivating self-directed and bold life-long learners who make meaningful contributions to the world.

Among some of the first tasks at hand as we start this school year:

  • To create operational structures and language to promote deeper innovation at Cary Academy. The design thinking workshop was our first step.
  • To implement a formal, cross-divisional curriculum review cycle. We will begin with an evaluation of our mathematics, science, and health curriculum this year.
  • To assess and improve our communication structure and flow. We have solicited proposals from outside experts to help facilitate this process.
  • To strengthen community by showcasing the breadth of creativity and innovation currently in practice at Cary Academy. We will do this through a full-day program on November 6, 2015. More information to come soon.

I will be sharing more information about the school’s Strategic Plan at the grade-level PTAA coffees held on campus during mornings throughout the fall. Dates and times can be found on the CA website.

In the meantime, you can check out what we’ve been up to by visiting a display of some of our prototype wallets in the library. Design thinking stresses the importance of sharing unfinished work, and I think you’ll see exactly what that means if you stop for a visit.