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Madison Metropolitan School District

Principals Space Camp: Liberatory Design for the Transformative Leader

Principals Space Camp: Liberatory Design for the Transformative Leader
by Lauren Morris


Space Camp is a professional development opportunity for Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) staff, put on by the ROCKiT Innovation team. This summer, ROCKiT created a workshop specifically for district Principals, based on expressed interest in targeted instruction that would help them to better support their staff in future problem solving and other ROCKiT innovation projects.

"[The ROCKiT Coaches] are collaborative and responsive, and ground your work in effective research based approaches."

Working in collaboration with MMSD’s Research team, ROCKiT built out a four day learning experience that used creative and invigorating approaches to problem solving, so that school leaders could dig into new processes, tools and resources. Through this experience, leaders had the chance to grow innovation skills in the core elements of Liberatory Design and Improvement Science while exploring desirable solutions and opportunities. Through discussions and simulations, this workshop detailed both hands-on application and high-level strategic thinking helping train and support participants as they engaged in future innovation projects with their school.

What We Did

On day one, the Space Camp focused on Problem Identification and Empathy. Teams took time to identify and discuss the complex problems that they were experiencing in their schools. Over the course of the workshop, principals tackled problems such as: ways to ensure students leave elementary school as reader and maintain reading scores through middle school, strategies that strengthen the parent/teacher partnership, and best practices that integrate the LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) training and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program full time into a high school schedule. 

"I loved the process and team time and the facilitation was outstanding."

On the second day, school-based leaders and their thought-partners dug into their Empathy Interview to generate themes and insights from the data in order to evaluate the root cause of their respective problems and define their problem and client. They used the Persona Canvas tool to engage in this work. Once teams were able to clearly define their problems they were ready for day three's agenda: Ideation and Prototyping. Some of the ideas that teams came up with were adopting more efficient PD schedules, increased collaboration between school leaders, staff, and teacher prep programs, and creating opportunities for students to engage in more meaningful reading outside of online programs where teachers could engage with and improve their skills. Finally, ROCKiT closed out the workshop by supporting teams in exploring concepts of measurement, critical reflection, and how the concepts can be applied in a school setting.


Ideally, principals were encouraged to bring a partner or team to the workshop. That wasn’t feasible for all of the participants, which may have had a slight impact on their experiences. Schools with multiple representatives were able to dig deeper into their problems, detailing specific demographics and resources. On the other hand, the group of mixed administrators used more general information in their problem definition and client persona, but were able to bounce ideas off of each other and gain helpful feedback.

"I like when [ROCKiT] challenges our thinking and helps us dig deeper into our perceptions/experiences."

Following this workshop, staff at Cherokee Heights Middle School have explored developing a cycle of inquiry to use with their teaching teams so that staff could discuss what worked and what didn't more frequently in order to make small changes and improvements. Additionally, participants at Madison West High School generated a new PD schedule to test out so that staff are able to engage in both LETRS® (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) Instructional Practices, so that staff did not have to use as much out of contract time.

When surveyed about the experience, participants ranked the Principal Space Camp opportunity a 7.1 out of 10 in growing skills and mindsets. Despite being held virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, participants were able to reflect on themselves as problem solvers: their own strengths, areas of improvement, and how their identity impacts as school-based leaders in design work, particularly in addressing the needs of all their students, staff and school communities. They were also able to collaboratively question, iterate and prototype equity-based problems and opportunities in order to improve school processes and culture. This workshop was boosted by the addition of the Research and Data team, as we were able to incorporate more in depth instruction around systems, trend, and root cause analysis. Overall, administrators said they were very likely to recommend the ROCKiT Space Camp (8.6/10) to a friend.

What It Took:

Workshop Participants:

  • 12 School based leaders (principals, assistant principals, and coaches)

    • Representing Allis Elementary School, Kennedy Elementary School, Leopold Elementary School, Cherokee Heights Middle School, & West High School

  • 4 virtual sessions for 3 hours each and a total of 12 hours

American Family Partnership

  • 1 American Family Ignite Innovation Coach to provide resources and help the team develop it’s presentation

From the Research & Innovation Team:

  • 2 Innovation Strategists from ROCKIT to plan, facilitate, and guide the team through the process

  • 1 Data Analyst and 1 Research Director from Institutional Research + Evaluation team to plan, facilitate, and guide the team through the process

  • Approximately 220 hours over 15 weeks


  1. Liberatory Design: Liberatory Design is an equity-based, human-centered design approach to addressing challenges and change efforts in complex systems.
  2. Improvement Science: a problem-solving approach centered on continuous inquiry and learning where change ideas are tested in rapid cycles, resulting in efficient and useful feedback.
  3. Problem Identification: Developing a detailed statement that clearly identifies the root cause of a problem.
  4. Empathy: The ability to understand and share the feelings of others
  5. Empathy Interviews: one-on-one or small group conversations that use open-ended questions to elicit stories about specific experiences that help uncover unacknowledged needs.
  6. Persona Canvas: A planning document that allows teams to focus on the real needs and characteristics of the people they’d be solving for.