Using Defined Learning to Empower Teachers to Shift Toward Design Thinking and Authentic Learning

“We have the best kids and the best teachers you’ll find anywhere.” While most people would say this about their schools, Pat Cooney, Assistant Superintendent of Student Learning for Plainfield Community School Corporation (PCSC) in Plainfield, Indiana, radiates pride and admiration for the people he works alongside every day. PCSC is a suburban district on the southwest side of Indianapolis with 4 elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school and a common challenge. The district performs in the top 10% of the state. How does a district that is seeing high student achievement rates encourage students, teachers and parents to embrace a new shift toward design thinking and authentic learning?

After 27 years in education as an elementary teacher and principal and middle school principal before becoming assistant superintendent 3 years ago, Cooney knows that while his district looks largely middle class and conservative from the outside looking in, preparing an increasingly diverse student body for life after high school requires a personalized approach. As a father of five children, he knows how every child experiences school differently. He envisioned a student body schooled in design thinking, the 4 Cs (critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration) and STEM who could enter college or the workforce prepared to tackle any problem.

Cooney credits the Plainfield school board and Superintendent Scott Olinger for their forward thinking. For 3 years, he and his colleagues visited St. Vrain Valley Schools in Longmont, CO for inspiration. He found their use of design thinking to be a powerful approach. “Every person I spoke with in the district knew what design thinking was and how to use it. Some used the process from start to finish, while others only used pieces, but all were speaking the language of design thinking. We wanted that for our kids. Design thinking was the way to make the pathways our students would need to engage in meaningful problem solving.”

To get there, he knew the first challenge would be to articulate why the district should make such a commitment to design thinking when they were already high performing. “When you look at how kids score and how a district is doing in general, to me it doesn’t really equate. State tests measure how a district performs, but I can’t think of a single time one of my children used their score on a state test on a job or college application,” Cooney says. The district spent time talking to stakeholders like teachers and parents about the new approach and how it could benefit kids after graduating from high school. In focus groups, the business community articulated skills kids need to enter the workforce. “We knew if we could implement design thinking and the 4Cs well, it would meet every skill they identified for every kid, no matter their pathway. If our kids are thinking creatively, critically, and collaborating, our state scores would stay the same or even get better.”

He knew it would be a shift for his teachers especially. “Our staff is trained to be great teachers, but not everyone is trained in a STEM-based background. Bringing STEM into a classroom is unnerving for teachers if they are not familiar with it. Our elementary teachers may be solid in teaching reading and math, but how do we reshape what they know to bring STEM into their classrooms while still covering standards?”

The other challenge was resources. “People equate STEM with stuff,” Cooney observed. “They think in terms of robots, circuits, electricity. Those resources are not always plentiful inside a school. We can get depth with very little STEM-based equipment.” Instead, he views the district’s STEM initiatives through a design thinking lens and considers design thinking and Project-Based Learning (PBL) to be “one and the same”.

The initiative kicked off in an unusual way: with a pool leak. An elementary school that used to be a middle school had a pool and when the town pulled out of a financial agreement to fix it, the district filled the pool in and turned it into an “imagination lab” where elementary students could go once a month for a 2-3 hour “odyssey”. Cooney was a middle school principal at the time and realized students would be matriculating with a developed sense of design-thinking. His team recognized the current middle school approach was not as progressive. They wanted to continue on a STEM-based immersion process after elementary and developed their own idea lab to prepare students for STEM-focused high school programming. The team quickly came to see that STEM education can’t just occur as a once a month thing. The lab experience was important, but to realize their dream of design thinking K-12, students would need classroom immersion.

When Superintendent Olinger discovered Defined Learning, he thought it might be just what the district needed to start helping teachers see how to imbed design thinking in their classrooms. After evaluating several products they were already working with, they decided Defined Learning was exactly what they needed to get started. Cooney recalls, “Defined Learning is what we needed to get started. We had momentum after defining the why, but we needed the how. Defined Learning allowed us to get the how into the hands of teachers right away so they could use the career-based experiences to expose kids to curriculum through challenges that included design thinking”

There were also benefits for students. Cooney felt Defined Learning was, “an all in one product. It does a lot. High schoolers start to sense that pressure of what am I going to do with my life? What program am I going into? What am I going to do if I don’t want to go to college?” He feels that one of the most powerful benefits of Defined Learning is the opportunity to build career awareness. “As kids go through the activities they get exposure to a variety of careers they might not have otherwise known about. Our hope is K-8, when they get to make choices of pathways in high school, they’ve had exposure to a variety of careers and are better equipped to make the decision of what they want to do based on their passions and the problems they want to solve.”

To get started, the district organized a summer roll out Cooney describes as “fantastic”. They opened up the doors to allow for as many elementary teachers as wanted to come. We identified teacher leaders from each building to come to a train-the-trainer-style session in the summer. Leaders in every building helped implement the training at their level. Plainfield is blessed with a very low turnover rate of around 20-25 teachers per year, mostly leaving for retirement or because of family circumstances so this model continues to be very effective. However, like many districts, it is difficult to build in professional development into the calendar with several initiatives pulling at that time. Cooney articulates the issue in a relatable way. “If you commit too much to one initiative, you lose momentum on another. If you commit too little, the initiative is not effective. I like Defined Learning because the professional development is built in, but it does not take a lot of time to learn.”

It also did not take long for Cooney to see positive effects. “I started to see a lot of Defined Learning activities being implemented in classrooms right away. I was looking for the expected outcome- how is this engaging kids in design thinking? The 4 Cs? Is it meeting the needs of what we wanted?” He saw kids much more engaged, much more collaborative, communicating for a variety of purposes, as well as thinking creatively and critically. “When I talk with teachers I hear more consistency in the language, which is important for our kids, important for the success of any initiative. The level of engagement from students is through the roof. Quite frankly, it’s invigorating to teachers to see the students authentically engaged, digging deeper. They are feeding on that energy.”

With a strong commitment to in-person learning, Plainfield is proud to report that 90% of students have been in session for most of the 2020-2021 school year. They continue to see forward progress with Defined Learning. Cooney says, “The real hope is that at some point is that we outgrow the product. Our goal is that we get our teachers to the point where they don’t need to go to a product to implement design thinking because they see how to implement design thinking in everything. When we first started out, teachers used the product from start to finish. Now they use pieces, picking and choosing and adding content from their own content. I see that as the natural progression, it tells me our teachers feel empowered to implement but still need some support.”

About the Author: 

Meghan Raftery is a curriculum consultant with special interests in authentic learning, literacy and content integration, and student engagement.  She can be reached at


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