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“The area of early education is experiencing tremendous experimentation and progress, but what has been missing are right brain thinkers. These are individuals whose craft is seeing patterns, making connections, adapting what works in one context to the realities of another context.” - Tony Berkley, Program Director, Youth and Education, The W. K. Kellogg Foundation

In 2007 the W. K. Kellogg Foundation engaged the innovation and design firm, IDEO, to design a compelling vision for the future of early childhood education. The foundation was ready for a new perspective on a well-explored topic. IDEO's design thinking approach engaged the foundation and its stakeholders in new ways that promoted feasible, yet innovative, solutions.

In this paper we describe the combined use of ethnographic-style research and design thinking in a project addressing a complex, systemic and philanthropic challenge: public education in the United States. We seek to provide the reader with a clear and convincing case study demonstrating the value of ethnography plus design thinking in any business context or social system where many stakeholders need to be brought together to work toward a system wide solution.