Can Future Education Be by Design?

After a century of a “Factory Model” or “Prussian System,” is it possible for education to have a standard design?

Originally appeared on my blog 11 March 2016.

Let’s talk about design thinking and education. First, let’s jump back to 1989. Taylor Swift was born, The Berlin Wall came down, Tokyo’s Nikkei stock market crashed, and I started kindergarten. Kindergarten is a German word that means “Child Garden” when translated directly. What a wonderful thought, and it was pretty true. So much cognitive growth happened for my classmates and me in that year.

The Teacher

Ms. Lyons was adept in ways that I can hardly remember, but are so memorable, that my 5-year old mind can recall them as if she taught me yesterday. Learning was mostly a game and mentorship. Yes, there were worksheets and assessments. (How did I get a “Non-satisfactory” in “scissors?” I was but a toddler.) But more than that, the amount of time I spent doing, playing, and learning through so many methods — manipulating physical objects, singing songs, creative writing, partner reading, and discussions about thoughts and feelings — left me greatly prepared for future education and socialization. Though, no other grades ever felt like this. Why did this approach change?

The Next 12 Years

If kindergarten felt like anything, it didn’t feel designed. The environment had plenty of routines and cues, but they fell into the natural pace of learning. It all felt natural, and it leveraged who we were as children. There was clear purpose that meant a lot to me and my classmates. Learning was free flowing and mistakes were okay. (Though I freaked out, once, when I accidentally cut through an unexpected sheet of paper stuck to my t-rex sheet. Ms. Lyons was so comforting. Maybe that’s why I failed “scissors.”)

This changed starting with 1st grade and lasted through senior year. The Prussian System set in immediately. This isn’t to say that I had few or no great teachers. I had many very good teachers, but too few managed to break from the traditional approach of desks in rows, student compliance with a curriculum designed at a distance, emphasis on worksheets & text books for rote memorization, and getting high scores on tests that skimmed the surface of huge concepts. Once again, the teachers weren’t bad — they were very good at their craft. But, their craft was mismanaged in ways that they didn’t fully realize.

So, if education was and is still malfunctioning (notwithstanding technology’s questionable interventions), what does that mean for its future? To me, the answer is clear yet very murky. Schools have to become hubs that blend experimentation with fundamental knowledge acquisition. What that experimentation looks like and how fundamental knowledge is acquired, that’s not so clear. But, I can give some examples of who is doing it well. Let’s start with one of my heroes.

Project H and Emily Pilloton

After I finished teaching for two years in a traditional-ish classroom in Philadelphia, PA, I was looking for the right solution to education. Research during my master’s degree indicated that a test-driven pedagogy focused on fixed curricula was only one possible approach, and that mostly supported a standardized testing system. All of these ideas looked wrong, so I went looking for answers. Typical answers popped up: Montessori schools have been around for a long time, and they do things differently. The only thing about those schools is they only serve Pre-K to kindergarten students. But these ways engender something amazing in learners. Why does it end there?

Then, I found Project H and their mission. Project H is a design-for-good organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Emily Pilloton is its founder. Their work started with water access projects in Africa, and that led to work in education and learning environments shortly after. One day, a superintendent of Bertie County schools in North Carolina, USA contacted Project H to build similar learning environments for their schools. That was the spark that got the design company firmly rooted in the education world.

Project H employed design thinking strategies to bring students into the decision making processes for their education. This ultimately led to physically making the spaces and objects within their learning environment. Moreover, Project H extended this approach for the high school learning program. School became a dynamic maker space for these students literally building many parts of their education. Maybe this is an extreme example of resource intensive hands-on, project-based learning, but why doesn’t this happen in more schools?

Design Thinking and Education

Let’s be clear, Project H is not the first organization to try this style of education, but it should serve as a beacon. When you bring the community and learners into the education design process you start to access new, varied opportunities for education. This situation begets so many questions: Should we standardize the learning process if it can vary between communities and grade groups? Can learning and all the programs that go into learner success (e.g. teacher training) be standardized? Should teachers be trained in design thinking and engineering principles? The list goes on. It is clear, though: future education needs to change, and it needs to empower students to take on the challenges of their time. This can’t be done with just paper and pencil or even learning how to run machines.

Project Based Learning (PBL)

The Buck Institute for Education’s project-based model promotes an effective learning philosophy: 
1. Identify actionable problems/topics in the students’ immediate world that they find interesting.
2. Work with them to develop the hard and soft skills needed to respond to that problem/topic.
3. Create solutions. 
4. Present, implement, and evaluate solutions.

This kind of learning, though it doesn’t correlate directly with standardized testing models, provides a more lasting, meaningful education if it is implemented well. It might also sound very familiar, you know, like design thinking. Moreover, if it’s used as a framework, then teachers and administrators can skillfully weave curricula together into meaningful projects. Technology can be a big help, and this will be discussed later. I believe PBL is more effective than teaching standards in subject silos.

Resistance to Flexible Approaches

The upsides of PBL are often seen as its downside. With more variation based on community interest and needs, the less standardization and control exists for the governments that fund public education. This percolates into efficiency and transparency questions around budgeting, resources, and education law. Personally, in 2008, I lived next door to New Jersey’s Speaker of the House (Rep. Joe Roberts). We discussed education regularly, and he had the same refrain: if we can’t measure it (via standardized tests), we can’t know that it’s working. Basically, “If you aren’t assessing, you’re just guessing.” This statement, I agree with, but standardized testing as the end-all-be-all of assessment, I do not.

This is a narrow approach to PBL and other flexible learning models. In the real world (in my colleagues’, friends’, and my experiences) it’s about getting work done and letting that be an expression of your content mastery and competence. This is part of a flexible approach. Teachers and education leaders have to be clear and thoughtful in deciding what mastery looks like, how long it should take to reach, and what to do if it is achieved (or isn’t). This means that we need to have highly trained educators with tremendous skills in classrooms and in the principal’s office. It means we need to trust them to know what effective teaching, assessment, and learning looks like.

Personalized Learning and Technology

Salman Khan is quick to point out that if competency and project based learning does not allow for standard measure of measurable content (e.g. math, science, grammar) then future learning will be hindered. For example, in our current learning system, if a learner achieves an 80 or 90% grade in any subject area, that learner is missing out on 10–20% of the content. If this persists year over year, that’s a huge loss in knowledge. This is where technology and personalized learning has jumped into education.

[Aside: learning 80–90% of a topic annually doesn’t mean that a person will never learn the content missed. Rather, it sometimes takes longer for certain ideas to click or requires different learning opportunities. This doesn’t excuse educational inefficiency, but it doesn’t preclude a permanent knowledge gap.]

Personalized education and technologies are hot in the learning and EdTech world. EdSurge, a leading arbiter of all things education, has an entire website devoted to it. With powerful algorithms that can modify content and assessment based on user performance and preferences, these tools can be mistaken as the end to the means. In fact, the opposite is very much true, and Sal Khan has pointed this out through Khan Academy Lab School in Mountain View, CA. Personalized learning and adaptive learning technology empowers students to quickly fill mini-gaps in knowledge so they can get back to working on projects and content that matters.

Unstandardized Learning

So here we are again at the question of standardized learning. Just like medical research, technology is pushing education research and practice ahead very quickly. Instead of teaching to the middle or teaching standardized curricula and materials, we are moving into an era of the individual. The ability to effectively identify and act on individual needs means we can bring people together in disparate groups in local and distant places to work on the problems that matter to them today. Five and six year olds can collaborate with tweens, teens and adults (and any combination thereof). Learning can be less about assessing for progress and more about working to learn deeply.

Now that we’re moving into the era of the individual, we need to ask important questions about the design of our education system. How can we best serve our students? How can we make district and school decisions transparent and of the highest impact & empowerment? How can we train teachers to facilitate these approaches effectively? Who is going to be accountable for these monumental changes? If anything is for certain, it is that data and technology are changing the world and allowing it to be fluid and flexible. Education systems need to incorporate these changes, and they need to move away from a purely standardized approach to a flexible, project based type approaches rooted in the real world. The standardized everything of education will fall to the wayside, and a personalized, malleable approach that incorporates design thinking will become an important way forward. This will fulfill the promise of high quality education for all.