A Bay Area School Leverages Empathy and Insight to Flip the Script on Education

By Steve Frechette

You know those loud bells in school that mark the beginning and end of classes? Ever wonder how similar they sound to a factory whistle? Our education system was designed to train successful factory workers: sit down, listen up, and repeat after me.

In the information age, you might assume that a college education is the baseline and should be an option offered to all. However, our education system was never designed with “college for all” in mind. A high school graduate could make an honest living as a mechanic, a factory worker, or other jobs revolving around manual labor — jobs that are increasingly disappearing.

So how to innovate the lumbering giant that is the American education system? One school in Redwood City, CA decided to start with empathy: listening to students and taking action to test out the ideas they heard.

After their interviews the school realized that students inherently want to learn, but in order to find lasting collegiate success that learning needs to happen at an individual pace — a pace where students can learn to be independent.

Technology, in tandem with teacher support, went a long way as students could track their progress and take the wheel on deciding what and how to learn. Project-based learning further helped these students prepare for independent life at college and in the economy.

Simple needs-based changes led to real world results, both quantitatively (with student test metrics) and qualitatively.

So, what’s the takeaway? Empathy is a powerful spark for change. By starting with a need, then combining that need with the courage to test ideas quickly and the willingness to fail.