Teresa DeFlitch, Director of Winchester Thurston’s City as Our Campus Program, discusses the benefits of restrictions.

When I arrived in Pittsburgh two years ago, I took on leadership of Winchester Thurston School’s City as Our Campus program. The program was at an early stage of its development then. Faculty, supported by City as Our Campus, had expanded the school’s commitment to real-world learning and implemented new curricula with external partners. Despite the success of initial programming, including partnerships with the Saturday Light Brigade and Heritage Community Initiatives in Braddock, City as Our Campus remained hard to define, the possibilities overwhelming. This deterred some faculty and partners from experimenting with new ways of teaching and learning.

Extreme flexibility — a highly praised Twenty-first Century skill — seemed to be holding us back. I asked myself how I might create a framework that would welcome experimentation and make updating curriculum less challenging.

Tim Brown, CEO and President of the design firm, IDEO argues that the “willing and even enthusiastic acceptance of competing constraints is the foundation of design thinking,” a process that some designers use to find user-centered solutions. I’ve enjoyed learning more about this approach, despite its trendiness. I began to consider how I might use constraints to focus City as Our Campus and set priorities that would work alongside other strategic initiatives at the school. Perhaps clarification of our goals would allow for more innovative teaching and learning even if we had to say no to pursuing certain opportunities.

Constraints, or clearly defined learning priorities, could focus the program, make it more sustainable, and push us towards the creation of a connected preK-12 scope and sequence that would strengthen student learning and give us opportunities for valuable assessment.

Over a year-long process, I worked with our academic leadership and talented faculty to create a school-wide impact statement based on current research and past and current projects, such as our upper-level Urban Research and Design course. Ultimately, we created a short list of targeted learning objectives. This is the final statement:

As part of its overall mission, Winchester Thurston School supports the City as Our Campus program as an extension of its core academic curriculum. The program prepares learners who actively apply the knowledge and skills they learn in the classroom to real-world situations using city resources and partner agencies. These courses and units challenge and guide students to operate as collaborative leaders, make meaning from diverse sources, understand how independent parts influence one another within a system, and practice applied empathy, the ability to understand what other people are feeling and guide one’s actions in response. Students are expected to communicate the lesson or project outcomes and reflect on the learning process. By participating in City as Our Campus students will gain the skills and knowledge necessary to become active citizens who are able to effect positive change in the community at large.

Educators too often want to do it all. This habit tends to prohibit schools from keeping up with innovative educational practices that are more common in afterschool programs, museums, and other more informal settings.

Instead of asking overwhelming, general questions, we can move forward asking targeted questions. For example, in the Lower School, we may ask what types of opportunities and partnerships will help us teach systems thinking to our students? What do we mean by systems thinking? What shared vocabulary should we use? This approach has the potential to lead to far more innovative and dynamic curricula.

Furthermore, we can better ascertain how to use technology and new media to improve student learning because, quite simply, the question seems less huge. This is already happening in the Upper School where we are in the early stages of preparing to pilot mobile learning in some City as Our Campus courses.

Constraints, often looked at negatively, can be positive. In the end, using constraints to shape priorities can push you and your school toward innovation. We have a long way to go before we realize the full potential of the City as Our Campus program. But in the short time we have had the impact statement — despite being a mere five sentences — there’s already ample evidence that it is directing our thinking toward the future, rather than the past, of learning.

Written by Teresa DeFlitch