Designing the Future of Education

Special Focus : Imagining the Future of Education
World of Work February 20, 2017

Most agree that schools have struggled to keep up with the pace of society’s changes. Although it’s easy to point to the “industrial” nature of the way schools are designed or make lists of the skills we need to foster for the future, actually creating the new models for learning is a daunting task. 

And yet, there may be no more important cause today than evolving our systems of learning to support and engage the next generation. Life no longer provides the stability for these young people that it might have in the past. As business and government systems change rapidly, not only do we need people who are equipped to redesign and rebuild our systems, it has become clear that learning is a skill needed throughout life… not just during school years. Meanwhile our youth are increasingly disappointed by their experience of school. In a recent study surveying 22,000 high school students in the USA, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence found that when asked how they feel in school, the most common responses were “tired,” “stressed,” and “bored.” 
How might we redesign our education systems to best activate the next generation to both navigate an unknown and complex future and meet the challenges that accompany it? 

One of the tools at our disposal to help us address this complex question is design thinking. Design thinking has recently received a lot of attention in the world of education, but relatively little is known about its potential for addressing complex challenges. 

At its root, design thinking is a human-centered approach to problem solving that has been codified by understanding the mindsets and methods of a designer. It has been used to develop new products, services and, increasingly complex systems such as schools. The process and mindsets of design thinking offer an integrative approach to designing many aspects of a system so that all parts fit together. 
I want to share three stories with you, about people within the education system who realized that they could be designers. These stories, to me, hint at how we might design the future of education. 

The first story is about an administration team in Peru who applied design thinking to their approach to school design. In 2012, a team from Innova Schools recognized the systemic challenges in their country. Given that this was one of the lowest-ranked countries on the PISA survey, Innova wanted to design an international-quality school system that would be affordable for the emerging middle class and scalable enough to disrupt the country’s struggling education system. Along with a team of designers from IDEO, they engaged hundreds of people in the process of design. They learned a lot about the challenges people face, but also the wishes they had for their future. For instance, there was enormous desire from parents and teachers to be part of the change in the country, but both groups expressed they needed help in knowing what to do. They also learned that students were craving to have their imagination engaged, since many schools were still operating under a rote methodology. 
After months of researching global best practices, applying creative thinking born from the constraints and conditions in Peru, and trying out new ideas with students, teachers and families, Innova Schools launched a radically new model. In a context where students are historically seen as passive receivers of information, Innova’s blended approach to academics encourages the development of a self-directed drive for learning, while students are supported by teachers to help them apply this knowledge to meaningful, real-world challenges. There’s an innovation program through which tens of thousands of students create solutions to social challenges in their communities each year. Teachers are regarded as learners in Innova’s system as well – recognizing that to be part of the change of their country they, too, needed to learn and grow. 
Having grown 41 schools serving 32,000 students (as of March 2017), the central office of Innova Schools now acts more like a design team than an administration. They have come to realize that schools need to constantly evolve along with the people they are serving. Innova’s team now regularly seeks inspiration in the world, engages with teachers, students and families to understand their needs, and they pilot new ideas for iterating on the design of their system to best take care of the challenges they find. Innova uses design thinking on a daily basis to create and evolve their schools.  
The application of design thinking isn’t limited to the design of schools. People throughout our education systems are making design decisions every day – especially school leaders and teachers. 
My second story is about Charlie, one of the thousands of educators who have joined The Teachers Guild, an online community of teachers who collaborate across school boundaries to design new solutions to challenges in education. Charlie is a high school teacher in Maryland in the USA. In his conversations with his students he noticed how they were struggling with feeling their time was being wasted, wishing they could work things they cared about instead. Charlie wanted to help make the experience at school different for his students, but he understood that he couldn’t change the entire model of school himself. He noticed, however, there was an opportunity to do things differently during the times he wasn’t in the classroom. Substitute teachers always struggle to be effective — that problem has stood the test of time! As part of a global community of teachers who welcomed new perspectives, Charlie shared his idea – what if students could work on passion projects when their full-time teachers were out? His peers in The Teachers Guild loved this, and a school district in California, thousands of miles away, decided to pilot Charlie’s idea. Students who were part of those pilots reported feeling renewed inspiration to design their own learning path, and increased enthusiasm for coming to school. 
While it’s exciting to hear that a teacher can help another school district innovate, what’s even more exciting to see is the effect on Charlie. The experience of designing a new solution – even for another school – gave him more confidence to design solutions within his own school walls. He has now been appointed the director of faculty development in his school and infuses the process and mindsets of design thinking into the way he collaborates with his teachers, inspiring them to be designers of the interactions in their classrooms and across the school. 
Which brings me to Andrew. I met Andrew when he was a 10th grade student at the Henry Ford Learning Institute in Dearborn, Michigan. A year before, Andrew had taken an introductory course about design thinking, and I wanted to understand what stuck with him. He told me that his favorite project was the one where they got to redesign a nametag for someone else. I was surprised to hear that something so simple could have had such lasting impact on him, so I pressed further. 
Andrew told me that he never realized he could make something that made someone else happy… and how good that felt. He had learned new things about himself – that he could be a leader, that he could effect someone else’s experience, that he could understand someone else’s needs and interests and make something meaningful from it. When I asked Andrew what he felt he could design now, based on the learnings from designing that name tag, he said “Well, the state economy of Michigan could use some help. And the school cafeteria. I’d like to redesign the school cafeteria.” 
These stories represent, to me, the heart of what’s needed for the future of education. A system that fosters capabilities and resilience that allow people to navigate the rapidly changing world that they are stepping into, by continuously designing what we would like it to become. While design thinking isn’t the silver bullet to solving everything, it does have a significant role to play in creating these new models of education and preparing students to thrive in the future. And, it may even help bring back some of the joy in learning.