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How Can Schools Use Design and Futures in this Unique Moment?

Letter OneThis is the first letter in a series between two educators, Ariel Raz a designer at the Stanford, and Richard Boerner, Superintendent of Graded – The American School of São Paulo.

Dear Rich,

Welcome back to the United States!! I suspect that after being in Brazil for the last school year, it must feel like you hopped into a flying metal tube from some science fiction saga and been transported into another reality.

While I’ve had the great fortune of being healthy, safe and grounded over the last five months, the pandemic has been incredibly disruptive to how our group at the has worked with K12 schools. Of course with that disruption comes opportunity. But despite my natural optimism, when I think about what each school must do to prepare for the next academic year, it still feels daunting.

I suspect that the feeling stems from the difficulty of navigating uncertainty while preparing plans that remain solid, specific and communicable to the wider school community. It’s been helpful to reference the work my colleague Lisa Kay Solomon has done on the intersection between futures thinking and design. In design we take on an empathic lens towards the human experience, embracing complex problems in the hopes of creating equitable and liberatory outcomes. Futures thinking gives us the ability to look further out, practice flexibility, and rehearse critical decisions, setting the conditions for an adaptive school community.

The cloud of uncertainty brought to schools by the spread of COVID-19, racial inequities and an economic downturn, require a unique approach. We believe that approach must blend an equitable design approach with an active posture towards the future.

How do we use design and futures to plan and prepare for this incredibly unique moment?

  • Futures thinking helps you investigate and explore possible futures and their effect on your organization. It helps you develop a long-term vision based on macro, societal conditions.
  • Design is about discovering and understanding what people might need in that future and co-constructing experiences, that will build their skills, mindset and abilities to thrive in that future.
  • An equitable lens helps design with our community members who have been historically marginalized, and amplifies their voice as you design together.
  • Both methodologies hold a method of parallel prototyping, or creating multiple versions at once. In futures thinking we work within multiple possible futures to better understand what’s possible. In design we plan for multiple prototypes and iterate on them based on feedback.
  • Our hunch is that when futures thinking and design is incorporated into K12 planning these two methodologies enable schools to be more agile, imaginative and ready for disruption. It builds our muscle for change, by mitigating ‘change fatigue’ and helps us be ‘change fit.’
  • When you structure such work through a collaborative process, it spreads adaptive knowledge across your organization so that many members can rise to challenges as they arise.

I wonder about how these methodologies play out in your school. How have you worked with your community over the last few months, and how has design and futures thinking impacted how you’ve prepared for fall?

Your friend in California,


Read the next letter in our installment here




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