How I learned to disrupt my thinking on the U.S. education system

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” ― Alice Walker
The Disruptive Design Masterclass, Valle de Bravo, Mexico, May 2016

Learning to Love the Problem

When I consider the past 5 years that I have spent working on education reform, and the complexities of the U.S. education system, I often find myself overwhelmed with analysis paralysis (over-analyzing a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, essentially paralyzing the outcome).

From my experience in K-12, to my current role in higher education, my mind weaves an intricate web of the School-To-Prison Pipeline, The Opportunity Gap and racial disparities in graduation rates , U.S. Students Underperforming and Higher Education not preparing students for the shifting economy. As I look back on my personal experience and the wealth of information that outlines the issues, I find myself asking: to what extent, in my life and work, do I engage in critical dialogue, entrenched in the system, and subsequently succumb to this paralysis without moving towards alternatives?

Recently, I took part in The UnSchool’s Disruptive Design Masterclass, and considered the approach of “loving the problem,” proposed by Leyla Acaroglu. Loving the problem means embracing the problem, getting to know it intimately, trusting that the problems hold the keys to their own solutions, and teasing those solutions out of it. This was a complete re-framing for me. To step back and look at the whole system in order to find avenues for change is tangible and, in turn, hopeful. To love, for example, the problem of the failure of the U.S. education system — what would that look like?

Mapping the System

I have always learned through creating visual representations of given content. In school, I was the kid with the color-coordinated notebook and planner — which have since been replaced by Evernote and similarly color-coordinated spreadsheets. In order to consider the complexities of education in the U.S., I needed to visualize what I knew to engage with the system.

One practical approach to understanding systems is to map them out. The practice is to draw out the system as it exists, and make connections between the various components. You consider an issue, and the spheres of the system (personal, social and political) and draw a visual representation of what we know the problem to be and the factors that influence it. Engaging in this practice, using the Disruptive Design Methodology, unveiled something I hadn’t previously considered: my own tacit knowledge around these complex issues.

I have been on both sides of the classroom and currently work at an administrative level. This, perhaps, is what we mean when we say that you are to love the problem. It doesn’t mean that you love the content of the problem — but rather, you come to see the problem as it relates to the whole — and you love it in order to engage with it and change it.

Below is a systems map I made of the school-to-prison pipeline. When you begin to draw connections between the spheres, you see how far reaching and nuanced the issues are. For example, connecting racism to the number of students of color who are arrested on-campus, provides an opportunity for educators to intervene in the system. Offering trainings on microaggressions and anti-racist workshops within schools could have a direct impact on the punitive justice models some schools employ.

System map of the school-to-prison pipeline

Owning Agency

My own educational background was built upon critical theory and on constantly naming and deconstructing systems of oppression. As a student of the social sciences, I was immersed in an experiential learning program for my degree that involved unlearning much of what I had been taught previously, and thinking critically about my lived experience as a white, cisgender, American woman. I learned about immigration through visiting refugee centers for deportees in Tijuana, about the lingering impacts of colonization and the fight for sovereignty in the face of neo-colonialism through working with an NGO In Tanzania, and engaged with globalization from a feminist perspective through considering, amongst others, the experiences of Factory Girls.

My work in education began in Minnesota (which has one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation), in both the Minneapolis and St. Paul public school systems, where I witnessed components of the school-to-prison pipeline: policing of middle schoolers, punitive discipline structures and disproportionate rates of expulsion for young people of color. It’s clear that education in the US is not working for all students. Nearly half of the young black men in the US who attend school will not earn a diploma, much less go on into higher education.

I now work in international education and student exchanges are still far too Americentric and Eurocentric and 75% of students who study abroad are white. The need for multiple interventions in our education system is clear.

The easiest thing to do in the age of information is to become highly critical of everything around us and to simply stop there. We know how to critique and have conversations around injustice, but oftentimes that’s where it ends. While the criticism of the system is important to understanding the issues, it needs to beg the question: what next? And that question begs for action and intervention.

Agency is defined as the capacity of an individual to act in any given environment. To act. What does it mean to have a deep, holistic understanding of the issues — and to take the risk of engaging with the problem in order to create solutions? As Buckminster Fuller said,“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”


There are varied experiences within the U.S. education system amongst educators and students. And there are tools that exist to help us design solutions. The question is how can we co-learn and co-create solutions to these pressing issues? Especially when working on nuanced issues, it is vital to know the history of the system, theories of systems change, and the tendencies of human behavior within structures (cognitive dissonance and cognitive biases) in order to intervene and create smart solutions. But that wealth of knowledge is wasted if it is just used for conversation and criticism.

Those of us who work in education need to be able to take complex ideas and information and offer an alternative. This process can look like mining for a deeper understanding, landscaping to identify key relationships and levers, ideating and finally building better structures. When you witness heavy policing in your school — how do you approach the Superintendent of the district with an alternative? When you are confronted with the fact that mental health crises disrupt the educational experiences of a disproportionate number of international students, what do you bring to the Provost?

Leyla Acaroglu’s Disruptive Design Method of Mining, Landscaping and Building for social change (source:

Alternatives and Future Dreaming

I am incredibly grateful for my education and background. I value the way that the social sciences have shaped my career and understanding of the world. One thing that I am now diving into, is how to layer this approach to achieve practical results. There are many movements happening across the U.S. to address these issues. The Restorative Justice model has shown success as an alternative to punitive, archaic systems that are prevalent in our schools. Educators, parents and students are responding to the misuse of standardized tests data with the testing “opt out” movement, which is growing nationally. Organizations such as Diversity Abroad are engaging students who are underrepresented in study abroad. These are just a few examples of divergent thinking addressing the myriad of problems within the U.S. education system.

Are you a student or an educator? What would it look like for you to map out your experience of how the system functions? What are the key connections and where do you have the most influence? Have you seen examples of positive system interventions?

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