Education leaders are well aware of the need to innovate to meet the needs of students in an ever-changing world. Many are also looking for ways to effectively distribute leadership to engage and empower staff across our schools while utilizing the strengths of our teams to improve student outcomes. We must do so while balancing the need to maintain more traditional, research-informed, continuous improvement processes and change management practices to create consistency and predictability for our stakeholders and community. Identifying specific strategies has been a common challenge among 21st-century leaders.

At Eden Prairie High School, a comprehensive public school serving more than 3,000 students in the suburbs of Minneapolis, we have found success through crowdsourced innovation paired with human-centered design (HCD) strategies. The model provides appropriate structure, while also allowing for creativity, voice, ingenuity, and a safe environment to test new ideas. The model also aids in the development of “buy-in” and “believe-in”—critical conditions in creating sustainable change.

Definition and Application

Crowdsourcing, in essence, is when employees are asked to submit ideas to make the organization better—in general or for a specific area. From there, employees vote for their favorite ideas, and those with the most votes are moved into a testing process.

For Eden Prairie High School, the primary driver to implement this idea was staff empowerment and engagement of stakeholders. We believe that if employees believe that their leaders are listening and value their ideas, they will feel a greater sense of empowerment, and as a result, school climate and culture will improve and engagement will increase.

We also believe that the current workforce wants to work in innovative environments that challenge the status quo. We know that traits and characteristics identified in research often do not line up with the values of some of our more traditional leadership structures. For instance, millennial and Generation Z educators tend to want more than traditional school leadership and change structures, such as department chairs, multiyear curriculum review processes, and waiting for turnover to change teaching assignments. Opening a culture in which all ideas are valued allows leaders to develop alternative approaches to engagement and talent development. As we implement authentic and meaningful change, we are able to forge genuine partnerships with employees by honoring their gifts, talents, and interests, and by providing support for our staff to learn and grow.

If school principals wait for ideas to come from our offices alone, significant change will not come fast enough. As employees with diverse perspectives and experiences across the organization engage in the process, we often receive ideas that are rich, unique, pragmatic, and innovative. Plus, frontline employees experience the day-to-day successes and challenges of our schools in ways that allow them to more aptly and precisely identify pain points and potential solutions. This input is critical to us as leaders and is often more instructive than what we receive through routine surveys and formal observation processes. As ideas are submitted and voted on, we thoroughly analyze and code them for potential actionable insights.

Eagles Challenge

In October 2018, at a special staff meeting, all employees were invited to submit ideas to the “Eagles Challenge.” The majority of the meeting was dedicated to why we were running the event. The final portion described how to submit ideas into an online platform supported by InnovateK12, which utilizes crowdsourced tools and software to empower staff. We gave people three weeks to submit their ideas of all shapes and sizes. We were thrilled to receive 75 ideas!

In November, staff used the same online platform to vote on the ideas. Voting utilized Pairwise technology, which presents two ideas at a time. Voters simply select the idea they like better and then are presented a new pair of ideas. The system analyzes all the “yes” and “no” votes for each idea, along with different comparative data, to yield rankings that indicate the thinking of the crowd—your staff. More than 14,000 votes were cast at our school.

Based on voting results, we decided on which ideas to move forward. As in nearly all phases of this innovation process, there is no clear or obvious number. We asked ourselves two questions before drawing the line: How many ideas do we have the capacity to implement with fidelity? And is there a bright line in the results where ideas distinguish themselves as having more traction within the crowd?

In 2018–19, we decided to move forward with our top five results. These ideas called for a writing center, tutoring program, alternatives to out-of-school suspension, more strategic class sizes, and a revamp of our all-school academic intervention model. We also implemented smaller ideas that required minimal or no financial cost and posed a significant opportunity. In fact, we implemented some ideas throughout the event to demonstrate that we were committed to taking action on their ideas. Examples of this included a “plus one” for staff when they present their staff identification badge at school events—they could bring a guest to events at no charge—and a schoolwide field trip calendar. We built trust implementing these less complicated ideas.

Connection to Human-Centered Design

We utilized the HCD process to implement our larger ideas. Staff from our district attended training put on by the Stanford (design school) and we leveraged resources from their site to help put those processes into operation.

In December, after personally following up with all “idea champions” (people who submitted an idea) and announcing the ideas that were moving forward, we initiated the HCD process. The five idea champions (and anyone on their team) were trained in collecting empathy data to help better understand the root cause(s) of the identified problems. Data points varied by idea, and included surveys, observations, interviews, focus groups, and historical analysis. Our leadership team supported staff in designing and implementing these methods.

In January, idea champions and their teams brought their data to an idea workshop/design sprint. In this two-hour session, teams used the data they collected to define the problem, ideate possible solutions, and select a prototype to test. This was the most challenging and exciting phase of the process, as it was here where we determined what would be tested in the spring. As administrators, it was rewarding and inspiring to see our staff engaged in this level of change.

We tested ideas in the spring. To illustrate what this looks like, we outlined the change process of our academic intervention model—CORE: Center on Reaching Each—moving from one intervention period per week to shorter intervention periods for each class (we run on a four-period block). We believed that student performance would increase if each student had access to targeted academic intervention from each teacher each week. Our pretest empathy data involved historical grade trends, student and staff surveys, and focus groups. Figure 1 (page 41) indicates we had room to grow in the staff’s belief in the model.

After a three-week test period, the same data points were employed to understand the impact of the new model. Figure 2 (above) shows the growth we saw in staff belief. More importantly, during the test period we saw grade trends for all subgroups of students outperform the historical comparisons.

In the case of CORE, the decision to continue with the new model was relatively straightforward, as academic data aligned with staff perception data. A team of 12 staff members including teachers, counselors, and administrators will guide the continued enhancement of this program.

Expanded and Distributed Leadership for Innovation

Innovative school cultures do not evolve based on the work of the principal, superintendent, or small leadership teams alone. Innovative cultures need robust teams with dynamic skills and empowerment to act. To make this happen, we have placed people in specific leadership roles within our innovation platform. For example, associate principals manage different idea projects that emerge from crowdsourcing, an instructional coach leads design-thinking workshops, and our school psychologist leads the testing and validation of ideas. This is in addition to all the people submitting ideas and working to implement them.

Today’s school leaders need to be adaptive, responsive, and agile to meet the dynamic needs of our communities. They need to think about increasing levels of engagement and ownership that have direct positive impacts for students, staff, and the community. By engaging the crowd to leverage their strengths and ideas while maintaining an HCD process, we can create opportunities and drive change in a complex environment. This process has made a significant impact on our district, and we encourage other leaders to consider how the ideas presented here might serve as a catalyst to reinvigorate change and innovation within your school.

Robb Virgin is principal of Eden Prairie High School in Eden Prairie, MN. Josh Swanson, EdD, is superintendent of Eden Prairie Schools.

Sidebar: Empowering Student Voice

The first Eden Prairie High School Student Survey was administered in the spring of 2019. More than 200 students were involved in writing the 30-question survey that touched on all core elements of our school—classroom experiences, teachers, school expectations, school culture, relationships, open-ended suggestions, and the principal. “I see connections between what I learn in class and my life outside of school” received the least favorable results of any item. To combat this reality and demonstrate to students that we are listening, we will run a focused event for students to submit ideas on how we could make learning more meaningful, which takes student voice to the next level of true partnership. As we share this work with different family and community groups, they express interest in an event of their own; we see a lot of potential in that as a future step.