The TeacherSquared Lab: Rapid Product Development for Teacher Prep: Borrowing product development innovations from other fields, teacher prep collaborators design new tools for common needs
by christian sparling
TeacherSquared aims to facilitate FAST progress among our partners. Some of our most compelling collaborative work has involved creating new tools that work for multiple programs. Unfortunately, most of our go-to protocols for cross-institution collaboration tend to be SLOW. Who wants to wait around several months for a bi-weekly working group to generate a long-debated product that still needs to be customized to become institution-ready? We wanted faster results. In response, we decided to innovate and experiment new ways to collaborate.
Product Development for Teacher Prep: The TeacherSquared Lab
Traditional product development cycles take months, if not years. To address this challenge, Jake Knapp from Google Ventures has developed a 5-day Sprint process geared toward locking a small group of core contributors in a room for a week with no devices and a rigid protocol in order to develop a new product or initiative. In his book Sprint, Knapp remarks, “The five day process held up. It worked for all kids of customers, from inventors to farmers, from oncologists to small-business owners…Time and time again, the process brings teams together and brings ideas to life.”
We reacted: How might we use this approach in teacher prep? And how about about a day and a half instead of 5?
TeacherSquared has adapted and refined a one and a half day in-person process where leaders and teacher educators from a variety of teacher prep institutions join together for a fun, rigorous, and intense collaborative process we call the TeacherSquared Lab.
TeacherSquared Lab 1.5 Day Process
After conducting four labs in two years, here is the refined approach we have adopted to facilitate groups in creating new products.
Like typical training events, the first step is to identify enthusiastic participants and find a great place to host the event. We have found great success with using community-based organizations affiliated with teacher prep partners to host events in vibrant, inspiring venues. To get everyone on the same page prior to arriving at the lab, we assign a small amount of pre-reading with check-for-understanding activities. To avoid any drama with “picking teams,” we assign participants to their product-based small groups in advance. We use a pre-event survey to solicit relevant skills and preferences in order to ensure each group has high-skill, high-will contributors.
Day 1 MOrning: Networking & Learning
We kick off the day with a community builder to set a collaborative tone, and to get participants excited about the day ahead. We can’t rely exclusively on the pre-work for the entire foundational context, so we add group learning activities to ensure deeper understanding of the topic(s) of focus. We use this time to build on the pre-reading, unearth misconceptions, and illuminate the needs that the lab products we are about to go create should address.
Mid-Day: Product Discovery
After a morning of whole group time, it’s time to dig into small groups for product discovery. Groups use their initial time to focus on specific needs to build relevant product requirements. When groups first meet, they quickly identify group skills and roles, clarify working norms, and start brainstorming visions for their product.
Afternoon: Prototypes & Feedback
After establishing a vision, groups sketch their product on chart paper and craft guiding questions to crowdsource input from the large group. We use a gallery walk protocol where reviewers use post-its to give targeted feedback on elements to keep, revisit, or scrap altogether. This protocol allows one member of each lab group to present the product sketch and solicit feedback from other lab participants who play the role of critical consumers.
Day 2 Morning: Product Development & Communications
Day 2 starts with coffee… and then immediately into a working session to develop a standing version of the product. This is where the prototype starts to come to life! Groups write up summary statements and brief how-to tutorials so that product development can be continued by early adopters after the lab.
Day 2 Mid-Day: Product pitches & Early Adopters
As the whirlwind event nears the end, groups showcase their products in their current state with product pitches via whole group mini-presentations. Listeners add feedback and indicate their willingness to pilot via a shared input document. Identifying potential early-adopters is critical so that the host can facilitate continued development of the most promising products with users who are excited to put the tools to use in their own contexts.
To guide groups through all of these steps, TeacherSquared creates a Playbook template for each group to self-facilitate the action steps of the Lab process. The playbook is a standardized Google doc that all lab participants can access and edit. Lab groups can progress at their own pace, using their own judgment to dive deep in the right conversations or skip less relevant or optional activities. Playbooks enable each group to work independently and limits the airtime needed by the Lab facilitator. TeacherSquared facilitators can monitor playbooks in real-time and quickly pop in to groups that are stuck, misdirected, or progressing slowly. Feel free to borrow and adapt this generic Lab playbook for your own use.
Labs: What We Have Learned
- Time Constraints Empower Creativity
Time is short, but makers will rise to the occasion. Despite the formidable time constraints necessary to keep the process moving, groups will solve problems and develop impressive products despite a seemingly impossible fight against the clock.
- Generic Products are Powerful
Due to the time-constraints involved, lab products are rarely research-based tools. But this doesn’t mean they aren’t effective! The collaborative nature of making a generic, high-quality, one-size-fits-most product means that a new tool can have a positive impact even if the research on its effectiveness is yet-to-be-acquired.
- Products… and By-products: Professional Development and Networking
Labs don’t just result in new products; they have positive secondary results. Participants note that Lab events also serve as strong professional development opportunities. Participants are both makers AND learners. Not unexpectedly, the chance to deeply engage in rigorous content under stressful time-constraints leads to bonds among lab participants. Lab participants tend to continue connecting after the event, which we endearingly refer to as the network magic of the lab.
- The Lab Process is a Powerful Way to Launch a Working Group
TeacherSquared launched a working group on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with a Lab. Labs are a great way to generate great ideas, but the products are unrefined. A working group structure can make up for the shortfalls of a lab, particularly that 1.5 days is enough time to get a great ideas started but not enough time to bring a product fully to market.
- Lab Products are Hit or Miss
Not every lab group will create a product ready for early adoption. Even the most promising lab products may still require a pilot phase by early adopters in order to have maximal impact.
To date, TeacherSquared has facilitated four labs to develop new products in service of our partners and the field of teacher prep. Here is a list of our labs as well as products that are appropriate to share with public audiences.
If you choose to pilot any of the products below, please share your experience with us!
Lab #1: Promoting High-Quality Practice in Teacher Prep
May 2016 - Houston, TX
Facilitating Large-Group Practice
Promoting High-Quality Peer Feedback during Practice
Lab #2: Eliciting and Interpreting Student Thinking
December 2016 - Denver, CO
Products developed are institution-specific
Lab #3: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Teacher Prep: Working Group Launch
March 2017 - Memphis, TN
Cultural Responsiveness Diagnostic for Teacher Educators
Institutional DEI Self-Evaluation
Initiatives for Supporting Teacher Candidates
About the Author
As deputy director for TeacherSquared at Relay GSE, Christian’s work focuses on operational support for cross-institutional initiatives that support data-driven improvement, DEI, and teacher educator development. Prior to joining Relay, Christian worked at Uncommon Schools as Associate Chief Operating Officer serving North Star Academy in Newark, NJ. He started his career teaching 1st and 2nd grade in the Bronx, NY through Teach For America.