Metamorphosis Project

Our experience in transforming the classroom to teach 21st century skills

About the Project

Real people are at the centre of everything the Martin Prosperity Institute does, with this summer’s project in transforming the classroom to teach 21st century skills being no exception. The summer project involves a small team of MBA, undergraduate, and high-school students working on a design-thinking sprint to equip the next generation of students with the skills to tackle the real problems of the real people in our society.

Much of the demand for curriculum reform over the past few decades has been driven by a desire to better prepare students for the jobs of the future. Unfortunately, we can’t be sure of what jobs will look like in the future. We just know they will look different than they do today. So, maybe the only way to build our future workforce is to teach transferable skills that enable innovation, creativity and collaboration. But how, given that teachers have a responsibility to get through legislated curriculum and little exposure to work on innovation themselves? How might we help teachers teach the skills of the future?

Here is where you can get a behind the scenes look at the process behind The Metamorphosis Project. One of our summer interns, Oliver Samuel, will be sharing his insights, observations, and experiences throughout the journey toward preparing teachers and students for the future. Follow along to experience how the summer team approach complex, ambiguous problems using design, strategy, and integrative thinking.

Carlyne Saldanha
Nika Stelman
Oliver Samuel
Margaryta Ignatenko
Nicole Raytek
Mia Sanders


Integrative Thinking in Action

On June 13th, I visited John Polanyi Collegiate Institute (JPCI), a Toronto high school, to watch student presentations on how they used Integrative Thinking. Grade 12 students at JPCI have the option of taking a Business Leadership course that has them consult for a real Toronto organization working in an area they feel passionate about. Students work in groups and attempt to solve a challenge issued to them by the organization, using Integrative Thinking concepts and models. This year, the groups chose to consult for Parks Canada, Hop for Hope (a rabbit rescue centre), and the Wounded Warrior Project. Their freedom to choose which organization to collaborate with is one of the reasons students enjoy the course. They told me they loved working on a project that they felt had a real impact.

By the time I met them, the students were already five weeks into the course. They had chosen which organization to pair with, visited them, and conducted interviews with some of the organizational leaders. In class, much of their time was spent gaining a deep understanding of the challenge presented to them. The ultimate goal of diving deeper into the challenge was for the students to understand it well enough to make connections between causes and effects, and uncover less-obvious, underlying challenges to solve.

I also had the chance to witness the students’ initial presentations on their work. These first presentations showed us the progress they had made in breaking down the problem, but they had trouble communicating how their thoughts had progressed throughout the challenge. I could tell that their insights and ideas came from the time and effort they dedicated to the course, but they didn’t do their thinking justice when they tried to share it.

Instead of focusing on the journey up to the presentation, they chose to share their solutions. Without sharing which information influenced their decisions and led to their insights, it left me wondering how they had arrived at their end points. But, the substance was there and with a little bit of feedback they were able to make their thinking more explicit and reframe the original challenge into a more meaningful question.

Students from John Polyani Collegiate Institute (JPCI) presenting at Rotman

Watching the second round of presentations a week later was amazing. I could hardly believe the contrast between their valiant first attempt and the nearly finished product they shared the second time. What was especially impressive about this round of presentations was the extra element of the reframed question. One group was asked by Parks Canada to identify how to increase park attendance, but were able to restructure the question to ask “How might we expand purpose [of the park] to create identity [for park visitors]?” It was like a window opened and I was able to see how they dove beyond surface-level challenges, into deeper issues.

The experience at JPCI was different from any other problem solving process I’ve witnessed because of the constant emphasis on understanding the problem in real life, not on paper. Instead of simply analyzing the problem before jumping into brainstorming solutions, they thoughtfully mapped out the different cause-and-effect relationships from different points of view. I saw them reach relevant, realistic, and effective solutions.

A Pro-Pro chart comparing a rural or urban focus for Parks Canada

At the same time as the students from JPCI were using Integrative Thinking models in the role of consultants, elementary students across the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) were using Integrative Thinking to solve their own problems. From grades 2 to 6, groups of students took on the challenge of solving problems ranging from solving global warming to building the perfect lemonade stand. I visited a number of these classrooms across Toronto, and they were thrilled to show me how they had used Integrative Thinking models to break down a problem and evaluate the benefits of conventional solutions before addressing the challenges in their own way. Just like how the JPCI students surprised me with their thinking, I found it amazing how these 8 and 9 year olds were coming up with original solutions to complex problems. I noticed how mature their thinking was, moving beyond the obvious, surface-level facts into deeper, relevant observations and ideas. They compared opposing models, identified stakeholders, and mapped out the implications of each decision they were making. It is still hard for me to believe the maturity of the ideas coming from such young students.

Students and Teachers at Rotman’s Integrative Thinking Showcase

These two groups came together at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, to participate in an Integrative Thinking showcase. Students from across the TDSB, including many I had already visited, like those from JPCI, were invited to attend and share their projects and their experience using Integrative Thinking. In front of the John Malloy, Director of Education at the TDSB, Roger Martin, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute, and a large crowd of superintendents and teachers, the presentations kicked off with the groups from JPCI. They acted as keynote speakers, sharing their processes, insights, and solutions, while the younger kids set up their projects in another room.

Everyone enjoyed the presentations for different reasons. The organizations were impressed with how the JPCI students had arrived at their solutions, educators were impressed with the process they used, and I was impressed by the improvements they made from their first round of presentations. All of the students brought their A-game, coherently describing the progression of their thoughts and showing everybody present why their work was important. It was amazing to see their hard work pay off on such a large stage. When the JPCI groups were finished, everyone had the opportunity to visit booths set up by the elementary students. The younger students impressed visitors, especially the teachers, with their thoughtfulness when approaching problems that most would have considered well beyond their capabilities. It helped me to realize that, armed with the proper tools, students are more capable than most people realize.

Elementary Students showing Roger Martin the perfect playground

The First Thirty Days

Do you remember what it’s like to experience a classroom?

After considering the challenges and opportunities in education today, Nika, Carlyne, and I decided that the best way to begin to understand the classroom experience was to seek out teachers and students who are in the classroom every day, gaining empathy for who we would design for. We sat in on lessons, talked to teachers and students and made every effort to understand their needs. We really wanted to know how the both groups experienced the classroom; what they liked and what could be better.

With summer vacation looming we scrambled to visit as many schools as possible, visiting a new school what felt like every day.

We met all kinds of teachers and students and while we encountered plenty of contradictory beliefs and methods, we also noticed some common themes. The first, most obvious difference between teachers was their focus on equipping students with actual, tangible knowledge or with skills such as collaboration, innovation, and creativity. Even more interesting, was the fact that, whatever their stance toward knowledge or skills, every teacher believed they were preparing their students for the future — given the shifting nature of what their vision of the future might be.

Observing children in a Grade 1 classroom
Visiting a Grade 1 Classroom

Photo of Carlyne collecting observations from school visits with post-its
Carlyne collecting observations from School Visits

Our focus on Real People came to life when we talked with foremost experts in education, those who experience the classroom every day. We contacted teachers and students throughout Toronto to participate in individual interviews about their experience with education. As close as we were to the end of the school year, it was really difficult to find teachers and students who were willing to be interviewed at such short notice. However, after some headaches and some last minute cancellations, we identified 17 interviewees.

In pairs, we had conversations with teachers and with students, listening to their stories about education and their experiences in the classroom. I was pretty overwhelmed by the sheer number of experiences, opinions, and ideas. Every student had years and years to reflect on, and every teacher, even longer. It took time to unpack each individual story, but it was worth the understanding we gained. Instead of dwelling on the surface-level, we delved deep into what was said, how it was said, and what (if any) was the reason a certain story, phrase, or even word, was used.

Taking this human-centered approach to research was also helpful because it prevented me from jumping to generalizations about all teachers or students. It would have been easy for me to label people and grouping them into categories like simple students and teachers, forgetting about their individual needs. For example, we heard time and again that teachers feel that there is so much curriculum to get through during the school year. My first thought was that teachers need to be more organised, but when we dove deeper into our interview transcripts, a different story emerged. Sometimes, when teachers talked about the struggles of teaching everything in the curriculum, they are seeking help with knowing that their students are learning, because they see themselves as playing an important role in students’ lives. But by keeping the idea of real people with real needs at the forefront of our research mindsets, we’ve never lost sight of the people we are trying to help.

Now we understand the motivations, triumphs, and struggles of the classroom better than we possibly could have before the interviews. Looking forward, we’ll take our new mountain of data and construct personas based on the profiles and needs of individual teachers. These will help us ensure that we always consider Real People in everything we do.

A whiteboard with writing identifying common themes from teacher interviews
Identifying Common Themes from Teacher Interviews

Photo of the office space named The Project Room
The Project Room

What we struggled with was how we would continue to incorporate real people when were finished researching. Luckily, we were going to have three high school interns join us on the project team and it turned out, that I was going to support the team in the hiring process. I found this process particularly interesting because it began just a week after I had joined the team. It felt like I was being given a sneak peek into how I was hired.

At first I expected to be most interested in the thoughts that dictate the final decisions, but it turned out what I enjoyed the most was experiencing how the entire interview process was created from the ground up. From creating the applicant forms, to deciding on the interviewing format, I found it really interesting to witness the time and attention to detail that was necessary to create a relatively simple interview process.

It’s funny looking back, but with two days left to submit applications we started to get really nervous because we hadn’t received any responses. Thankfully, when we rechecked after the deadline, we ended up with 55, almost too many to handle. So we trimmed the initial applicants down to 16 and invited them in to the first round of interviews. In the interviews, we split them into groups of four and rotated between asking them open-ended interview questions, and participating in two rounds of building spaghetti towers, with the goal of supporting a marshmallow. In the first exercise, we asked questions geared at uncovering teamwork, collaboration, and, most importantly, empathy. With such a strong focus on the reality of teachers and students, it was essential that the members of our project team be able to empathize with real people when searching for solutions. The key to building spaghetti towers wasn’t the activity itself, but that it happened in pairs and there were two rounds of building. Working in pairs helped us to uncover how the applicants would function in a team. Incorporating the creation of two towers allowed us to observe how well everyone received and incorporated feedback. It was difficult to chose between the applicants, but in the end we settled on Mia Sanders, Nicole Raytek, and Margaryta Ignantenko, who are now affectionately called the M’N’Ms. With our team in tact, we were ready to tackle the next phase of our project: finding the needs of teachers and generating possibilities.

Marshmallow Tower from Hiring Process (left), The M’N’Ms exploring U of T (right).

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Summer Team Bios

Carlyne Saldanha

Carlyne is a summer research associate and one of the project leads on the MPI’s education project. He is currently pursuing his MBA at the Rotman School of Management and he holds a Bachelor’s Degree in media and communication from the University of Mumbai. Prior to his MBA, Carlyne was an advertising professional who consulted some of India’s leading brands and he was also a part-time university lecturer. In his free time, he is an adventure sports enthusiast and enjoys catching up on the latest foreign language films.

Nika Stelman

Nika is passionate about solving real problems that matter to real people. She has a background in food system consulting, working with clients such as The James Beard Foundation, Sysco, and City Harvest to improve America’s food environment. Nika completed her MBA from the Rotman School of Management (2016), where she focused on innovation and sustainability, and also holds a BBA from Parsons School of Design (2010).

Oliver Samuel

Oliver Samuel is a summer intern at MPI. This fall he will enter his second year at St. Francis Xavier University where he will study liberal arts. He loves playing sports, especially hockey (he’s a die-hard Leaf fan,) and is an avid reader.

Margaryta Ignatenko

Margaryta finished her grade 12 year at Lakeshore Collegiate. She will be attending U of T in September for Journalism. Earlier this month she completed two Spartan Races in one weekend with a Cops and Kids group in which she participated for the past three years. Margaryta recently set a goal to try challenge herself to move outside of her comfort zone, and is trying to perfect the art of salad making.

Nicole Raytek

Nicole Raytek has recently completed grade 11 at Bishop Allen Academy. She am a rep soccer goalie, Salesian leader, and math enthusiast! In her spare time she likes to go for runs, bike rides, watch Netflix or bake any variety of goods.

Mia Sanders

Mia is a recent high school grad and one of the interns working on the summer education project. She will be kicking off her gap year by rescuing cats in Japan with an organization called (unsurprisingly) JapanCat. After that, Mia plans to go with the flow, which so far has taken her in the direction of design, social justice, and education — fields she can’t wait to dive into deeper in her future studies and career.

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