Design+Tech+Futurism=Ed innovation in the Bay

Over the last 10 days I’ve been exploring place based innovation ecosystems around the Bay Area in California, and their effect on school cultures and practices — particularly how the tech industry and mindsets are influencing school design and pedagogy, and school level innovation.

There are a number of key ingredients at system level which prove to be powerful drivers of innovation — the culture and values of the Bay area play a huge enabling role, for example the more liberal political culture (on the US political spectrum) and a strong entrepreneurial and business orientated psyche which leads to a climate of experimentation, risk taking, doing and innovating, and connecting. The proximity of different organisations and ‘actors’ — education, business, analysts, VCs etc — and the opportunity for interactions to take place is also important (with any ecosystem) facilitated by infrastructure, transport and digital connectivity. The lovely weather is also no doubt a factor in attracting people to live in the Bay Area, as well as a City which is a highly diverse high energy melting pot for those who fancy an exciting and challenging lifestyle.

I met one Founder, Ashu Desai, co-founder of Make School, who is very much living the start up/founder Californian dream. (Make School is an incredible alternative to the traditional computer science degree for school leavers who want to make products and found start ups — a ‘start up school’, which has the potential to disrupt Higher Ed pathways in a number of fields) He started building apps in his bedroom as a teenager, dropped out of a computer science degree at College after the first year to establish Make School with a friend, started running summer programmes and pop up schools in schools, got accepted onto the Y Combinator accelerator, secured VC investment and successfully launched Make School in 2012. It has since gone from strength to strength and they are now expanding globally — and I can see why, their curriculum and connections are fantastic. (Who wants to help set up Make School UK??)

Ashu and I discussed the enabling conditions for innovation ecosystems in some depth, including the importance of:

  • Talent — and the talent magnetism of a place
  • Societal pressures away from the norm, combined with new conceptualisations of success and achievement — e.g. taking risk through founding a start up rather than progressing through traditionally ‘safe and steady’ professions in a upwards hierarchical trajectory
  • The development of shared language, understandings, cultural norms and values, and common collaborative mindsets
  • The need for significant financial/bureaucratic incentives for entrepreneurs — the process needs to be ‘easy’
  • The cult of ‘Cool’ — i.e. it being seen as a cool and good thing to ‘do a startup’. Ashu described it as a feeling of ‘I just wish this thing existed’! And especially now, linked to a passion amongst the digital native generation to create value for society, with a strong social conscience and a desire to solve problems
  • Business and entrepreneurship being seen as a good and positive thing within society
  • And linked to education — the importance of education pedagogy in enabling young people to express creativity, take risk, explore ideas, provide opportunities for ‘making and doing’, to make connections through multiple learning experiences, and to develop professional and social networks (building social and professional capital)

Education Trends

Tech is clearly an intrinsic part of the ecosystem landscape at every level, in part driven by the sheer number of people who live in the Bay Area and work in the sector — it’s almost impossible to have conversations when out and about with people who don’t have some connection to Silicon Valley either directly or through friends/relatives. One knock on effect of this, which Ariel Raz at the Stanford explained to me, is that there is apparently a much higher rate of adoption of tech products and tools across the general population in the Bay Area, and by extension, within schools. And linking to the wider innovation culture, teachers and school leaders are more inclined to experiment, particularly if supported by parents who share the same mentality.

Catalysts within the ecosystem (which I discuss later on) play an important role in connecting industry and entrepreneurs with educators and schools, enabled by opportunity and proximity factors. Hence why many of the innovation trends I’ve been hearing about on this journey so far (which invariably involve a tech or digital component) are originating from the Bay Area.

Some of these I have touched on in previous posts, but interesting trends which are experiencing significant diffusion across schools include:

  • the move towards blended and personalised learning
  • the development of digital platforms which enable this, and also serve as school management and curriculum management tools (helping to reduce the burden of bureaucracy/paperwork on teachers). And linked to this, platforms becoming a core tool for innovation diffusion through the emergence of platform centric school networks (this is a useful overview
  • the proliferation of maker cultures and maker spaces in schools, using both physical and digital tools for STEAM education. Which also support innovation diffusion within and across schools and communities. (A question — could maker culture be a way to reimagine and redefine ‘vocational’ education through the ‘cult of cool’?!)
  • the emergence of skills ‘bootcamp’ style programmes, potentially poised to revolutionise Higher Ed, providing intensive learning programmes — learning by doing — which mirror industry processes. Particularly linked to computer science, coding or scientific disciplines more generally
  • the development of digital and open badge systems and micro credentials, linked to expanding definitions and measures of success in schools, a drive towards increased teacher autonomy, and new value systems
  • and an area especially interesting to me — the development, embedding and scaling of design thinking as a pedagogy

It will be interesting to see over time which of these trends and tools have the most impact at both system and school level. And how close any or all will come to fundamentally disrupting the nature of school and education design and delivery. As I discussed with Tom Arnett from the Christensen Institute, the application of new technologies is often just as important to disruption as the technology itself. And I was reminded of that quote about how we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short term, and underestimate the effect in the long term.

It also got me thinking about the wider network of VCs, Foundations, and incubators which are all supporting EdTech innovation, and whether their funding regimes could be a barrier to the transformative potential of tech tools — assuming we think that tech is going to be a powerful disruptor and innovation diffuser. For example a desire to see a rapid ROI within a short timescale leads to companies/entrepreneurs often just designing better and more efficient ways to do traditional things, the easier approach to innovation, rather than radically transforming anything.

(This is a really interesting publication by the Christensen Institute looking at the disruptive potential of blended learning to school design:

And all this also raises the question about what we mean by innovation, and disruptive innovation — e.g. it’s very possible to ‘innovate’ towards the traditional. (see for a thought provoking definition)

So what do these wider system drivers and trends mean at a school level?

From my conversations so far, four things particularly have jumped out, and linked to the points above:

  • The infusion of something of an innovation culture within schools, leading to greater incentives and interest in innovating at school level. This includes the set up of specific spaces or programmes within schools to promote new ideas and thinking, providing a ‘hub’ or school level catalyst
  • Thinking about personal level motivations, this desire is also driven by the individuals (teachers) within the school and the wider school community, for example parents who work in the sector, young people who are involved in extracurricular activities related to tech, design and making. And a culture of collaboration e.g. with industry, leveraging local resources
  • Design thinking as an important pedagogy and learning process — strongly linked to the product development process in industry
  • The role of digital platforms (something for a later post once I learn more)

The Nueva School epitomised the first three of these for me — an independent school based in San Mateo offering a project based curriculum with design thinking and making at the heart. (It is also highly selective towards those students who have the kind of mindset and motivation to succeed through their approach)

I had been particularly keen to learn about the iLAB at Nueva School, managed and overseen by Director Kim Saxe, and it’s role in school and community level innovation around pedagogy and school design practices. Within the school building the iLab is a large physical space, centrally located with outside access also, and housing a wide range of machinery and equipment. An extremely high end maker space, blending physical and digital tools, e.g. robotics, welders, laser cutters, power tools, woodwork equipment. The lab had also just acquired 15 HTC Vive’s as they start exploring VR.

The iLab runs a number of programmes linked to the wider design thinking pedagogy across the school, for example Quest and Internship, and also serves as a drop in space for students who want to make stuff and set up new projects. Depending on the year group, students can spend up to 3x70 min periods a week in the iLab, also dependent on the other electives they choose. It’s accessible before and after normal school hours, and in addition to Kim, there are 2 cross disciplinary teachers also working in the space.

It’s hugely impressive and serves a number of important functions across the school:

  • as a holder and driver for the school pedagogy around design thinking
  • as a place for curriculum design and iteration, and specific application
  • as a space for cross curricular project development around STEM and STEAM, with teachers and students able to use the space to work on projects collaboratively at any time. And with a particular emphasis on Computer Science, Robotics and Entrepreneurship. Teachers from other faculties are encouraged to work with iLAB staff.
  • as a place for skill development and trying new things/experimenting, including learning to use industry standard equipment (around 15 students are working on machine learning projects currently)
  • as a tool for diffusing practice across the school
  • as a tool for developing an innovation ecosystem around design thinking, and iterating practice both horizontally and vertically, within Nueva and across other schools. For example through external visits to the iLAB and tours, annual events e.g. the Summer Institute attended by around 150 educators each year
  • and linked to this — as a tool for developing links with other institutions such as the Stanford, where Kim is also a lecturer

Their innovation model could be seen as something like:

iLAB centric — within and across school, student and staff level
DT Pedagogy (including Quest and Internship) — working on community driven projects, solving problems specific to external groups and users
Network — events for educators, articles and publications
Upwards — through work with and other external organisations

As the iLAB Director, Kim plays a seminal role as both the ‘Culture Keeper’, as she described to me, and in evolving practice between Nueva, the and other schools and organisations. The critical link in sourcing opportunities, developing relationships with other organisations, and visioning of the growth of the iLAB programmes.

Having visited the Stanford the previous day it was interesting to see the similarities between the two ‘labs/hubs/spaces’ — particularly in cultivating innovation cultures. The, which is housed in its own building on the Stanford University campus, is a slightly less ‘high tech’ maker space (more about pens and post its), but serves a similar function in bringing students from across academic disciplines at the University together to work on design thinking projects, acting as a catalyst for spreading and diffusing design thinking practice across the University.

In addition, through their K12 Lab programme and School Retool, the works with school leaders, educators and school districts across the US to develop design thinking practice in schools — a cross campus and cross community role — and the is also cross disciplinary in terms of its staffing team. In fact, thinking about the two ‘labs/maker spaces’, they provide an interesting case study for how higher education initiatives, tools and spaces can translate into different arenas of education e.g. secondary schools.

Design Thinking as a pedagogy
From spending time in the Bay Area I can see why design thinking is such a potent pedagogy in this part of the world, as it’s so closely linked to the wider systems and processes in the start up and tech industry — UX, prototyping, product development, user testing, evaluation, scaling. (And these design processes and mindsets are also translating to the school design and start up school world, thinking about the role and structure of catalysts). Across the US design thinking is spreading in interest and application, and pretty much everyone I have spoken to so far (in Seattle and California at least) have talked about it as a core competency, similar to communication, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, grit etc. And I’m now starting to hear some educators in the UK also taking an interest.

(for an insight into how Design Thinking is evolving in industry this is an interesting read:

Thinking about comparisons with more general project and inquiry based learning, design thinking seems very much a problem solving based pedagogy, with the evocation of empathy as the foundational theme. Ariel Raz at the described it to me as an innovation process which is framed around human needs — making something that matters and will have a direct impact, there is always an end user in mind. (A question — does it always have to be human need, could it be say animal or insect or environmental need too?!) Kim Saxe felt that traditional PBL could still be very teacher directed, but with design thinking you have an inbuilt bias to action, and continual user testing along the way, similar to the feedback loops within industry. (For the techies, agile v waterfall)

I’m no expert on pedagogy, but I did intrinsically like the sophisticated analytical and reflection process, and constant process of iteration and user testing. It feels very community led and very real, rather than top down. (In addition to the human v say animal need point, I wonder if there is also a question here around the importance of things that may have value when there is no immediate user in mind)

At a student level (at Nueva) the pedagogy proves to be an important influencer and enabler of doing, making, collaborating, pro-activity, self directed learning, connecting, experimenting and risk taking. And as mentioned above, this is often reinforced by parents, relatives and friends — or perhaps actually this is where it all starts, home cultures — as many work in the tech or design sector in the Bay Area. The language of start ups, tech, creativity and entrepreneurship infuse the dynamics of the locality — young people see ‘cool’ stuff happening on their doorstep and are able to experience it directly. It was no surprise to learn for example that Ashu, co-founder of Make School, had previously been a student a Nueva School.

(For educators interested in finding out more about design thinking, this is a really useful resource:

Empathy is an interesting concept in education, from the design thinking perspective, and I also spent a morning at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University learning about their work in analysing people’s social and emotional reactions to VR experiences, and longer term effects on behaviour and potential changes to behaviour patterns. Simulated worlds are designed to provoke an emotional reaction, or trigger an emotional response, and you could certainly see the potential for say the treatment of phobias, and introducing challenging situations to allow familiarisation and adjustment. One particularly powerful simulation looked to tackle issues around gender and race discrimination, where the user, wearing a VR headset, is initially conditioned to feel like a person from a different ethnicity or gender, then has to navigate an encounter where they experience abuse or discrimination or stereotyping. Almost literally putting yourself in someone else’s shoes — which is how Ariel described their starting point for school and curriculum design at the

I really loved their shadow a student challenge — in this case, having school leaders spend time shadowing students to better understand their day to day experience of school:

(As an aside, the team at VHIL are also just in the process of working on a new simulation around homelessness, creating a world where the participant would experience the whole journey from stability to living on the streets —cc Beth Knowles)

V early thoughts on the role of catalysts & accelerators
I’m very much at the beginning of the journey in terms of looking at the role and function of catalysts and accelerators/incubators in US ed innovation ecosystems, but I had the opportunity to meet with the New Schools Venture Fund, one of the more established catalysts set up in 1998 by three social entrepreneurs and VCs, and Digital Promise, which was launched in 2011 by President Obama as the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies.

NewSchools describe themselves as a second stage catalyst, working across new school design and set up, leadership development, and the development of new innovation tools and services for schools, framed around challenges which are co-designed with educators — and with some proof of concept required to access their programmes. Identifying and developing education entrepreneurs is an important objective for them, and it was great to gain a deeper understanding of the range of different catalysts within and across the system, working at different levels, which I hadn’t appreciated previously.

(It was also interesting to discuss with NewSchools the current priorities for the educators that they work with: tech tools around ELA, Maths and Science; personalised learning and student agency; expanded definitions of student success — mindsets, skills and habits — what structures need to be in place to develop people; equity and addressing achievement gaps in education)

Digital Promise is a similar actor in this space but primarily a network and movement builder, coming in at something of a middle level and working with school district Superintendents and existing district schools to build innovation communities. Their role is much more focussed on convening and facilitation, building clusters (regionally) and communities of practice — a system glue. And developing something of a ‘lab’ network of schools to trial and test new ideas and innovations.

Regarding catalysts specifically, some initial thoughts I had on the key characteristics included:

  • as a connector and convenor, linking entrepreneurial individuals, organisations and other actors and creating and building pathways for innovation
  • including connecting and translating knowledge and ideas into actions — bridging grassroots needs and sentiment with systems thinking and mobilising resources
  • having an organisational function which is something like innovation strategy+funding+space & time (space and time being: the space and freedom for education entrepreneurs to meet, think, network, spark and generate ideas, have interesting conversations. And funding to free up their time to do this)
  • all of which translates into building human capacity and innovation communities (talent magnetism) — very much framed around growing networks — including pan state networks enabling innovation diffusion to occur
  • significantly de-risking the process of edu innovation, and creating teams and mashing up skillets to also help de-risk and ensure the best chance of success
  • agile and responsive organisations, creative and flexible to respond to grassroots and school based needs

Digital Promise shares many of these features too, particularly in taking both a horizontal and vertical approach to innovation — cross network, drawing in financial resources and expertise from above, and building personal capacity and autonomy below. Both organisations are highly networked at the grassroots, troubleshooting almost, and leveraging resources including sourcing external partners and expertise around a set of projects or programmes, focussed on areas of educational need. This evolves over time depending on the funding climate and changing school and educator led needs at the grassroots. (I was really excited and interested to hear about Digital Promise’s work on educator micro credentials for example, redesigning/reconceptualising teacher training and practice development)

Both organisations are shifting and evolving the power dynamics across the system in their own way, and enabling the expression and growth of autonomy at a school and individual level. One of the main differentiators (other than ‘client’ group — new v existing schools) however seemed to be around the speed of change. With Digital Promise, the network building approach is likely to mean that change is potentially much more incremental and over the longer term, perhaps with less clear or certain immediate effects or outcomes, however with the advantage of having the potential for greater scalability and diffusion. A process of ‘school improvement’ almost but towards new and disruptive approaches. NewSchools on the other hand is injecting innovation capacity into the system with immediate effect — e.g. through establishing new schools, or targeted leadership programmes for people of colour.

NewSchools also works around existing school redesign through leadership coaching — which is a particularly interesting challenge in the UK also. Well, right now it’s a virtually non existent conversation, other than towards improving Ofsted or exam/P8 outcomes taking very much a no excuses and highly controlled approach. It’s something that needs to be cracked (or re-messaged?) if more widespread system change is ever going to happen, and I’m keen to keep an eye on the outcomes and learning from both of their programmes over time.

Linked to catalysts/accelerators as connectors and convenors, there is also something to be said here around the role of information or content platforms (knowledge convenors) such as Getting Smart and Ed Surge, in signposting and building innovation communities and pathways — e.g. across different catalysts, incubators and other programmes. Just not sure what this is yet…to be continued…