This post is an excerpt from An End to the Quiet War, by APT’s Matt Daly. Preview and explore by clicking the following links. 


For the month of August, we will be publishing excerpts of Matt’s upcoming book, “An End to the Quiet War.” The book covers a wide range of issues teachers face nationally in education, both in terms of perception, as well as our ability to do our jobs effectively and ethically. At the end of the month, the book will be released on the Kindle Format. We are incredibly excited to generate discussion on these topics, and hope you enjoy the selections as they are released.  


The process of Design Thinking is something that has become more and more prominent in both the business world and the realm of education.  Companies like IDEO and others have created Research and Development powerhouses around these concepts, and have used the process to create amazing products and experiences.

The Stanford Design School has been creating learning experiences that teach the Design Thinking process for years, and their course offerings are all posted online, and available for free to anyone who is interested.

The process is broken down into a series of steps which at first seem sequential.  The more you adapt to the process however, the more you begin to see them as cyclical and fluid.  In either case, the process almost always begins with the definition of a problem, or a desire to create some kind of change.

In order to fully define the problem, the team must gather information.  This is known as the “Empathize” step, and rather than retreating into books or journals that discuss human behaviors, the team is expected to get out and talk to people.  To be more specific, the team must go to their users, those that will experience the eventual product, in order to more effectively design around it.

The Stanford d. Think process

I spent some time consulting at The Future Project, a social entrepreneurship based in New York City, that places people they train as Dream Directors in struggling schools. These Dream Directors are tasked with effecting school transformation, by infusing a group of students with the concepts of Hope and Possibility, and putting these ideals into tangible action.

When I arrived at TFP, they were entering into a new stage in the development for the company, and they had begun to refine their own R+D process by formalizing and adopting a Design Thinking structure into their culture.

I was fortunate enough to both attend the initial trainings, as well as participate in the development of Intellectual Properties pioneering the process.  As always, we started on the base level, by going out and gathering information, not just about our problem, but by the people we were targeting as our audience.

This brings us back to the admission in the previous section regarding how we view our jobs.  That stock answer, that we “do it for the kids”, is important, just not necessarily in the way you might think.

Who are your users?

If we were to ask educators who their “users” are, there would probably be a wide range of answers.  Teachers and Administration would almost certainly include students on the list, and would most likely include other interested parties, such as parents, or the community at large. There is certainly an existing belief that parental concerns have a place in a school, but I would argue the emphasis we actually place on keeping parents happy plays a much larger role in the design of our schools and classrooms than we should be comfortable with.

The only person you serve as a teacher are the kids in front of you.

It’s that simple.  It shouldn’t be controversial.  Most principals, when asked in a vacuum as to how we make decisions with our students will reply that in this school, “we do what’s best for kids.”

I wish that this was the case, but there is almost always a gigantic asterix next to that belief, and that’s when good teachers need to intercede, and hold the line.


If we begin to look at the student as the user, a whole host of practices come into question.  The first of these is the concept of individualization as the norm, and the ripple effect that this approach has on the structure of a classroom.

Individualization cannot happen if you are constantly talking in the front of the room.

Individualization cannot happen if you have the students all reading the same texts in the class.

Individualization cannot happen if you are assigning the same essays to all of your students.

And individualization cannot happen if you believe that your job is to bring students up to a uniform standard, as opposed to optimizing growth.

This final point is the most important. Suppose you have two students enter your classroom at the start of the year. You administer a diagnostic reading test to determine their current level of reading. Student 1, we’ll call him Bob, scores at grade level. He represents a student who is growing at pace with his age and, therefore, grade. Student 2, or Jennie, enters the class three grades below standard.

A class where all material is at the same level

Over the course of the year, if these students are offered the same materials, it is likely that Bob will continue to keep pace with his progress, while Jennie will attempt to access the materials presented to her, most of which are above her reading level, and stagnate, unable to access the texts she will need to consume in order to advance.

Individualization cannot happen if:

you believe that your job is to bring students up to a uniform standard, as opposed to optimizing growth."

A class where the teacher modifies work only for the students that are behind

In another scenario, Bob and Jennie are placed in a class where the teacher modifies work only for the students that are behind. Moving students multiple grade levels in a single year is hard work, and requires that the student who is at a lower level actually does much more work than the student who comes in at grade level.  Over the course of a year, Jennie may make great strides, actually progressing two years. Bob on the other hand keeps his pace, and advances a single year.  Jennie has done considerably more work than Bob, but if they are assessed at standard, Bob will pass, and Jennie will once again be labeled a failure, further reminding her that the worth of all the extra work she completed was exactly nothing.

A class where the teacher focuses on growth

In the third scenario, teachers identify the goal of education as growth for all students.  They create a structure in their classrooms that allows for assessments and materials to be malleable based on each student’s level.

The idea that students should be given tasks that are just slightly outside their ability, and that this is the best way to maximize continual learning is not new. Vygotsky pioneered this idea in his concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). By finding materials and instruction that are located within the child’s ZPD, we ensure that growth occurs in all students.  While this doesn’t necessarily close the achievement gap per se, it is a far more ethical and fluid system that will produce better outcomes for all students, which, again, is that thing we keep telling people we are in this for.


Are there scenarios in which you find yourself defending or explaining the role of the teacher?

About Matt


Matt Daly has been teaching and coaching for over 15 years. He is an Instructional Leader, Educational Consultant, Writer, and Speaker. He holds degrees in English and Secondary Education from Providence College, an MFA in Creative Writing: Poetry, and has Supervisory Certification in Instruction. Matt lives in New Jersey with his wife, also a teacher, and his three daughters.