Project Innovation: Design Learning at Cranbrook Schools
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Project Innovation: Design Learning at Cranbrook Schools

March 7, 2017

Cranbrook Schools has its sights set on the future.

By Annemarie Cronin and
Jackie Headapohl

If you drive north on Woodward, past Quarton Road (16 Mile) in Bloomfield Hills, you might notice the steel arches, like a flying bird that struts the incline and frames the gate that lets you in. It’s the entrance to a new paradigm in the delivery of education and a polished pathway for a new college prep curriculum.

This is Cranbrook Educational Community, a cluster of schools, museums and breathtaking architecture that cuts across 1 square mile of visual splendor. A residential institution of higher education that boldly leads its students through the college preparatory curriculum, enriching the senses and stimulating scientific and inquiring minds to take the template of education to the next level while embracing its mantra to always “aim high.”

Cranbrook teachers realize the careers of tomorrow need to dictate not just what but how students learn. “We don’t really know what careers are going to look like in the next 15 years,” says Stacy Rivard, head of the Cranbrook Kingswood Middle School for Girls. “How do we prepare these kids to be successful and operate in a future world?”

She explains there has been an intentional shift from the passive intake of lectures and the regurgitation of information to a more active and involved experience. The curriculum and method of teaching now evolves around problem solving, communication and the interactive exchange of ideas. The student in many ways is now leading the class.

In today’s academic environment, technology and the ability to get instantaneous information have revolutionized the way students learn. The question now becomes “how can we make it more impactful and more engaging for the students?” Rivard says.

Project Innovation: Design Learning at Cranbrook Schools

Students from the girls middle school learn about Design Thinking from Bob Vieth of the Edgerton Center at MIT.


Cranbrook’s new approach to education is called Design Thinking, a program based on research from Stanford and MIT. It’s student-centered learning that first defines a problem and then implements the solutions by understanding, creating, thinking and doing — always urging students to strive for improvement.

Cranbrook students are already using the Design Thinking process in the classroom to solve problems ranging from how they might solve math challenges, learn about different parts of the country, design a new kind of backpack or build roller coasters.

Design Thinking is being implemented across disciplines and grades at Cranbrook.

According to Kirk Effinger, head of Cranbrook Kingswood Boys Middle School, “It used to be about teaching content, test scores and how well students did in school. Now and in the future, it’s going to be about communication and being nimble in any situation.”

Cranbrook benefits from the leadership of director Arlyce Seibert, who has given 46 years of service to the school as teacher and department head. She has led the school with a fierce commitment to innovation in education. She’s recently worked to form an educational collaboration between Cranbrook and the Edgerton Center at MIT, the first school in the Midwest to do so.

Project Innovation: Design Learning at Cranbrook Schools

School director Arlyce Seibert.

“For more than a century, Cranbrook has been dedicated to breaking new ground in education,” Seibert says. “This collaboration is truly a milestone in our approach to experiential learning, with one of the most innovative schools in the country. It’s a new educational paradigm that we are in. It’s very exciting to see.”

More than 70 Cranbrook faculty have undergone the MIT training and have already begun to implement what they’ve learned in the classroom.

Students’ parents are enthusiastic both about Cranbrook’s traditional strengths and its commitment to innovation and evolving for the future.

“Cranbrook has always been great at providing its students the skills to be successful in life and in any career they choose: critical thinking skills, analytical skills, creativity and working with others,” said Kevin Prokop, managing partner of Rock Bridge Equity and father of Emily, a Cranbrook junior, Drew, a freshman, and Molly, a sixth-grader.

“The focus on Design Thinking and the partnership with MIT are a perfect match with Cranbrook’s approach and educational philosophy,” he added. “The partnership builds on the school’s strengths in both STEM and the arts, and the Design Thinking approach teaches students how to solve problems, not just what the ‘right answers’ are.”


Cranbrook’s focus on diversity and understanding different cultures is woven into the fabric of the school by the mix of international students from around the world who sit side by side with local students. The byproduct of the environment pays off in a global world. Also, classroom size is small and open discussion is encouraged, fostering an environment of respect and camaraderie.

“People think we are just that ‘art school on the hill,’” Stacy Rivard said. “This is obviously far from the reality.”

Cranbrook graduates go on to traditional careers in law, medicine, science and technology — and some will end up working at jobs not yet created.

“We are helping students explore their scientific, intellectual, creative and athletic skills and marry them with an appreciation of fine arts and performing arts,” Rivard added.

That philosophy is what prompted the Haidle family to choose Cranbrook for their children, Grace, 15, and Zack, 12, who have been attending the school since kindergarten.

“It’s great to see the school doing everything it can to provide better experiences for students,” said their father, Sam, an attorney at Howard & Howard in Royal Oak. “They take what students learn in the classroom and bring it to the outside world, whether that means visiting the DIA to see the work of the artists they’re studying or to Lansing to have a mock trial in front of a real judge.”

This diversity of exposure beyond the traditional classroom experience has been a hallmark of a Cranbrook education.

Haidle says he is encouraged by the new Design Thinking curriculum and partnership with MIT. “The fact that Cranbrook is committed to staying at the vanguard of education assures me that my children will have successful futures.”  NS

For more information about Cranbrook Schools, visit their website schools.cranbrook.edu.

39221 Woodward Avenue
Bloomfield Hills, MI 48304
Phone: 248.645.3000

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