Redesigning the Oppressed Mind

An innovative approach to redesigning racial inequities in progressive private schools towards a more equitable and inclusive learning community


What follows is a paper I wrote back in May 2010 for my masters thesis for a course called Issues of Race and Ethnicity in Education at Mills College in Oakland. It was written while helping create the East Bay School for Boys, long before DSX (founded on equity and innovation) and before my fellowship/employment at Stanford’s (the epicenter of design thinking in education).

May 4, 2010

“Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity. Design thinking converts need into demand.”
-Tim Brown

In this paper, I seek to explore how I, as both an educator working towards anti-racist practices and a craftsman, can utilize design thinking to redesign what I believe is a poorly designed educational system deeply rooted in racial inequities. My hope is to use the design thinking framework to begin the process of rethinking how we think, talk, write, and take action against inequities in education. Given the utter breadth of the topic of education in the U.S., I would like to focus specifically on private schools. Since all of my twelve years of teaching has been in private secondary education, my focus will begin here. As a set up to the examination of private schools, they themselves created in response to inequities in early compensatory or public schools, I will look at a brief picture of the inequities in the larger primary and secondary educational systems in the United States.

Thus far, through much of my research, the topic of racial equity in education has been relegated to academia, traditionally left-brained. According to Daniel Pink (2006), for nearly a century, American society has been dominated by the knowledge worker, the well-educated manipulator of information and deployer of expertise.

By employing design thinking, I hope to continue to grapple with racial inequity in education towards change by using such right-brained aptitudes Pink refers to as “high concept” and “high touch” (Pink, p. 52). High concept detects patterns and opportunities to create artistic and emotional beauty, craft a satisfying narrative, and combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new. High touch is the ability to empathize with others, understand subtle human interactions, and build joy and capacity in one’s self and others towards purpose and meaning.

Design Thinking Methods

This paper is intended to be incomplete. I will begin by setting up the “Brief”. The Brief is a design term stating a dilemma or problem much like the scientific method’s process of opening with a question. This inquiry will take its form through design thinking’s Inspiration followed by Ideation (Brown, 2009). Through my doctoral thesis work I will work towards Implementation, the final mode of putting the process into action through prototypes.

The Brief

There are four main areas of design: symbolic and visual communications, material objects, activities and organized services, and complex systems or environments for living, working, playing, and learning (Margolin & Buchanan, 2000). It is the latter that encompasses the former three and where education as a designed system lies. This is where I would like to apply design thinking.

Design thinking is fundamentally an exploratory process. Design thinking is comprised of overlapping spaces rather than sequential steps. These spaces are inspiration, the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions; ideation, the process or generating, developing, and testing ideas; and implementation, the path that leads from the shop or paper to the real world (Brown).

Design thinking is a new way of approaching business and social systems. It has its genesis in the design firm IDEO created by David Kelley and comes from decades of design theory based in the need to create ever better products so companies can have a larger market share and people can have a better life. This seems like a win-win, but what if the win is one sided and actually millions of people are being left out of the larger gains: equity and access to the very goods from products to education?

Much like Pink’s “high touch”, design thinking is not just a linear, rational, and analytical process. It is intuitive, constructed on ideas that have meaning and functionality and the ability to recognize patterns (Brown). Its purpose is to create ideas through observation and empathy. Sharing ideas in Critical Race Theory, design thinking flourishes in a rich culture of storytelling (Brown, 2009, Gillborn, 2008). To be a design thinker one has to innovate and, as Tim Brown states, “…innovation has become nothing less than a survival strategy…It is no longer limited to the introduction of new physical products but includes new sorts of processes, services, interactions, and ways of communicating and collaborating” (Brown, p7).

When a company’s design fails to appeal to its clients, it either redesigns its product and processes to meet the needs or desires of the people or it will disappear and be replaced by a “better” product or company. Bad design can alter history. The consequence of bad design can be illustrated during the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Because of bad ballot design, Florida voters of Palm Beach County, a heavily Democratic population of Jewish elders overwhelmingly voted for ultraconservative candidate Pat Buchanan with 3,407 votes, three times as many votes he received in other counties in the state.

Further, 5,237 Palm Beach County voters marked ballots for both Buchanan and Al Gore, therefore making their ballots invalid. George Bush carried the state by only 537 votes. Had the butterfly ballots been designed well, the very course of history would be different (Pink, p84). Good design is not just about creating the best new products. Design thinking is about changing the world (Pink, p70).

Everything is designed around us. Culture is designed consciously or not. From symbols to objects, behaviors to systems, ideologies to monuments, humans have designed culture to either make meaning of their world or maintain their status within it (Taylor, 1996). Social systems are designed by a collection of behaviors motivated by values and beliefs within various cultures sometimes with the purpose of including or excluding other cultural beliefs. The dominant beliefs become the norm. Often these behaviors of power and oppression are reproduced through institutions. Education is a designed institution within modern society. In the United Sates, schools tend to reproduce the norm rather than change it through inequitable funding patterns, low expectations through tracking, and differing curricula due to social-class level (Harry & Klinger, 2006, p23, Howard, 2008, p18).

This paper is organized according to the process and parameters of Tim Brown’s design thinking and Stanford’s Bootcamp Bootleg, a free online resource on design thinking. Again, this paper is merely a primer as a means to set the stage for my doctoral thesis. Where this structure may seem rudimentary, I find it necessary to tackle, what I believe, is an innovative approach to redesigning the inequities, exclusivity, and regenerative perpetuation of power and privilege of even the most progressive private schools. I am strategic in the use of progressive private schools because many of these private schools are committed to access and diversity, where traditional private schools pride (conscious or not) themselves in their elite and exclusive “academically rigorous” climate and can’t be bothered by such notions as inclusivity. This paper seeks to explore the designed inequities of private schools as these schools act as agents of the larger societal norms of protecting class and race privileges.

The Inspiration

While reading Tim Brown’s Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, I began to wonder: if design thinking can be used to influence human behavior by studying and empathizing with the behaviors and identities of a society’s people so businesses can make more money, why can’t it be used to guide human behavior to become “less racist” (Trepagnier, 2006) and therefore design more equitable institutions like schools. With this idea or inspiration I began to wonder:

  1. Are race and racism designed social constructs and therefore able to be redesigned?
  2. Is the institution of education a business and therefore worth investing in a radical change?
  3. Is there a link between racism and education and the United States’ educational system’s inability to develop human capital (Ravitch, 2010, p223) and therefore racial inequities in education is bad for business?

The Ideation

Race as a designed social construct

“The ‘social construction’ thesis holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient” (Delgado & Stefanic, 2001).

According to Critical Race theorists, race has no objective biological meaning and is therefore an ever-shifting social construct (Gillborn). What it means to be a particular race depends on the context and story of history and those experiencing the repercussions of racism. Ideas of racism are different based on the location of the individual or peoples within culture. People of color see racism as permeating the institutions of society, and producing racial inequality in employment, education, housing, and justice (Trepagnier). Whites, on the other hand, see race, yet choose not to see racism. Should Whites choose to see it, Whiteness is perceived as normal, normative, and what all is judged upon.

In the late 17th century, European settlers did not regard themselves as White, but merely from the country from which they came, what trade or social class they resided, and not a native. It wasn’t until Bacon’s rebellion that the distinction of Whiteness and race became prevalent. At this time, despite their visible differences, settlers did not see themselves as White or therefore socially superior to African laborers. They were more concerned with divisions of economic privilege and religion. These unified Europeans and African laborers fought side by side for the abolition of slavery from the English plantation elite. Theodore Allen states, “In so doing they provided the supreme proof that the white race did not exist” (MacMullan, 2009, p29).

Although race and racism were not yet designed at this stage, countless laws were written in colonial Virginia that would set the framework for race and, particularly, Whiteness for the remaining three hundred and twenty years. These laws were created to define exactly what White was not, therefore systematically removing privileges and rights from those not of European descent. These nascent laws would forever become engrained in the behavior and actions of Americans, making the Civil Rights laws of the 1960’s, nearly three hundred years later, simple rules to be broken and not lived behaviors. In the words of Edmund Morgan, the design to the problem of solidarity against the rich in the colony “was racism, to separate free whites from dangerous slave blacks by a screen of racial contempt” (MacMullan, p29). Racism, and particularly, Whiteness was good for businesses that served the upper class.

As I look into the exclusionary nature of private schools later, it is noteworthy to point out the similar nature of the laws that arose from Bacon’s Rebellion that defined someone based on what MacMullan calls “definition of negation”; that is, the defining of what someone is or can be based on what they are not: White. These laws can be translated today in the exclusionary high tuition and rigorous academic standards to even gain admittance into a private school. The rigorous academic standards are founded in the White’s idea of what intellectual is (Robinson, 2001, p58).

If race is a socially designed construct can it be undesigned? Undesigning racism begins with redesigning how we talk, think about race, and to recognize and respect racialized identities. Today, Whites refer to themselves as either racist or not racist (Trepagnier). This could be changed by looking at racism as a continuum of more or less racist much like American truck lovers identify themselves as either Ford or Chevy people, to use a design metaphor. The ownership of a truck is implied as a right much like racism is implied as a social given. How one chooses to identify could say everything about who they were, not a Rolls Royce owner.

If race and the inherent oppression of racism are designed ways of being whether overt or silent themselves, what if racism was seen as un-American since it diminished the productivity of its workforce? Paulo Friere (1970) writes that the oppressors dehumanize the oppressed, in turn, dehumanizing themselves. If we look at racism, particularly racist acts from well-intentioned Whites, as a form of ignorance, a lack of education from which we were born and fed unconsciously over generations (Wise, 2005), then I argue that Whites are oppressed by the very dominant paradigm that serves them. This oppression of mind and action could be viewed as an illness costing the United States’ GDP billions of dollars. Further, racial oppression could be seen as costing the nation trillions of dollars because of lost work hours due to riots, uprisings, strikes, murder, imprisonment, legislation, legal fees, and health issues as a result of the generations of traumatic social stress of racism.

If race was designed by the economic elite of the U.S. through the implementation of laws to protect the power class and the businesses that fed that power, can race and racism be undesigned making racial oppression null and void therefore creating a more equal distribution of wealth and health? I now look to the Great Equalizer, education.

Education as a business

Education in the United States has always been seen as the “Great Equalizer” towards attaining the American Dream and yet it is founded in competition (Johnson, 2006). For Horace Mann (1848), a good school common to all people is one that is moralistic and that educates its citizens to be literate in a democratic society. He considered school the great equalizer of the conditions of men. Taking into consideration the time and context within which Mann wrote, one can only infer this great equalizing of man only pertained to white men and the things to be attained by equalizing were capital, property, and labor. Historically, schools were set up in service of the dominant group to control the lives and ideas of the dominated class (Howard, A., p19). In the modern capitalist U.S., schools act as nurseries to cultivate the hegemony of the ruling class (Feinberg & Soltis, 2004, p57).

Where the ideals of early compensatory schools were well-intentioned to educate a citizenry to be fully democratic, these ideals were designed according to Thomas Jefferson and Mann first to maintain autonomy from colonialist England, and second, to ensure this new democracy would survive. As this system was originally designed to serve those who would eventually vote (white men), schooling did very little to educate all men and women, and I would argue it continues to perform this function poorly today.

Ken Robinson (2001) wrote, “All national systems of education are based on two underlying models. There is always an economic model and the intellectual model…In western systems of education…the underlying economic model is industrialism; and the intellectual model that supports it is academicism” (p23). According to the functionalists’ view of education, if we are to understand the role that compulsory education serves society, we would have to explore the social needs schooling serves and the ways it works to meet those needs (Feinberg & Soltis, 2004, p15). To understand the needs for schooling we should look at the corporate goals to meet those needs.

There have been four major design examples illustrating the implementation of schooling to maintain U.S. global competitiveness: the inception of the country and the call for common schooling, the Industrial Revolution, Russia’s launching of Sputnik, and the Reagan era’s A Nation at Risk (1983).

Democracy is the very core of our country’s identity. This ideology set us apart from all other nations during our inception as nation. To protect democracy and the power of capitalism its citizens must be educated. The educational model to attain this was meritocratic. Meritocracies create hierarchies that sort out winners and losers based on achievement from a given standard. As we have seen before, these standards were designed to reward only a narrow idea of intellect (Robinson, p59) and a narrow idea of who has this intellect.

Where there is capitalism and meritocracy there is competition and inevitably a loser. In our country’s story, the losers are predominantly poor, Black and Latino. Again, although the ideals of common education were well intentioned, they were created with the sole purpose of serving White men, as these were the only citizens allowed to vote. Voting rights were withheld to Blacks because they threatened the power of White men. This White power was attained through the dehumanizing practices of slavery that fed the U.S. economy and Whites for which it was created (Zinn, 2003), the theft of land from Native Americans to serve as John L. O’Sullivan called Manifest Destiny, and later the institutionally racist housing practices, legislation, and unequal education practices.

Despite the United States growing quite wealthy from the labor of slaves, the power class was leery of the technological advances of Europe during the Industrial Revolution. Because of the expansion of industry, there was a large influx of immigrants from Europe particularly to the coastal cities. As global competition loomed public school and its reformers called for the need to teach the populace both American culture and how to be an industrial worker within it (Robinson, Tyack). The ideas of Jefferson and Mann were now called upon to create supervised public schools. Joel Spring, in his book Education and the Rise of the Corporate State (1973) says: “The development of a factory-like system in the nineteenth century schoolroom was not an accident” (Zinn). Functionalists believed that education is closely related to the requirements of industrial society and that it assures that older, dysfunctional cultural habits and beliefs are to be replaced by newer more functional ones (Feinberg & Soltis).

These newer functional habits and beliefs, I believe, were the attempt to implement the designed ideals of capitalism. Therefore schools served as the training camps for skilled labor and cultural homogeneity, two requisites for maintaining a healthy and competitive national production. School design went so far as to group students together by age so students of the same peer group’s individual performance could be judged against the other individuals within that group.

The third example of education as means of business competition was in the 1950’s when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, beating the United States into outer space. American public schools became the scapegoats for this failure. In response Congress passed the National Education Defense Act of 1958, which provided federal funding for students and programs in mathematics, science, and foreign language (Tyack). Although the fervor over public education’s responsibility in poorly preparing American citizens to compete with its Cold War enemy died down in the 1960’s due to civil rights issues; the lasting effect of this legislation and the pressure for schools to create competitive citizens would be felt into the twenty-first century with standardized teaching and testing. It is these standardized test scores that were believed to measure the performance of employees in the workplace.

The inherent competition and protection of White power and privileges in education can also be seen in the attempts of corporations to replicate their business model in schools from the efficient governance of school boards, development of vocational programs in schools, and whom and what is rewarded based on what is achieved.

In the 1970’s, as the United States was losing its global market share to Japan and Germany, corporate leaders once again looked to blame public schools. By 1983, a presidential commission created the report A Nation at Risk (1983) drawing a parallel between the poor international economic performance of the United States and the poor performance of the nation’s public school students. The government’s response was to increase graduation requirements, standards, replace vocational programs with more academic rigor (Crawford, 2009), and create competition between public schools to force efficiency much like the corporate model. These standards were designed based on the societal norms and needs. As I have illustrated earlier, if these societal norms are designed to protect the values and beliefs of the dominant White class and diminish those that are not White, wouldn’t these implemented norms (standards) in schools have the same result in the new competitive landscape of educational meritocracy?

If schools are a business training its workforce on archaic models of standards-based education and racial inequities and therefore driving down its global market share, wouldn’t that business want to redesign the process by which it made its products: educated citizens?

Given the complexity of human behavior and identity, this redesigning would have to take the form of a major paradigm shift. This shift would need to change dominant cultural ideologies. Adding to the complexity, these cultural ideologies have now become international due to the globalization of the U.S. economy.

The Implementation: Systemic Problems Need Systemic Solutions

Our lives are shaped by the ideas we have and beliefs we hold.

-Ken Robinson

As observed by Richard Buchanan (Margolin & Buchanan), John Dewey’s early definition of design lied in technology as the art of experimental thinking. This technology, he believed, was the intentional operations themselves carried out in the sciences, the arts of production or social and political action. Here I push using the design thinking framework as a business model towards Dewey’s social and political action. To do so will take years of ideation and implementation to create a new educational prototype. Prototypes are used to test ideas and theories of design. I would like to think of the last two hundred years of U.S. public education as a prototype of the ideas set out by Jefferson, Mann, and Dewey, now ready to be redesigned.

Prior to Gutenberg’s design and invention of the printing press and Aldus Manutius’ portable books, only a few elite had access to literature. Much of that literature was confined to the Church and its beliefs. Mass printing of books created an unprecedented democracy of ideas and unleashed the need for widespread literacy, social and political debate, and gave way to the Renaissance (Robinson, p68).

Design thinking and creativity is as much about problem solving as problem-finding. If design thinking can be used to create anything from the Internet to low-cost health care, eco-friendly business models to the building of municipal bicycle lane infrastructures to help bicycle manufacturers sell more bikes by studying and empathizing with human identities and behaviors, can it be used to design a more equitable institution of education? I believe this is only possible if the ideas and beliefs of a society built on economic values can demand the need for a paradigm shift.

The implementation process will require utilizing tools in the form of Critical Race theories and the countless academic books on education and race coupled with design thinking and creativity to completely rethink the relationship between the culture in which we live and educate. We need to rethink and examine the racial, economic, and intellectual assumptions on which we educate our children, view ourselves, and the people around us (Robinson, p91).

Implementation of design thinking towards a more equitable educational model or prototype will require that I return to the beginning of the process with a team of creative and critical design thinkers. This team could be funded by businesses within the world’s eighth largest economy, California, the state within which I was born and live, to empathize with and redesign the very competitive school culture that breeds oppression and loss of global market share.

Empathizing requires an attachment to people, not a product. People have lived experiences, feelings and story that affect your own. Designing requires the creative ability to see, think, and act beyond the norm. “Our ideas can enslave us or liberate us” (Robinson, p92). Design thinking can lead to an infinite number of insights, ideas and real world solutions that create better systems for the people they serve (Brown & Wyatt, 2010). I believe design thinking can liberate us from the ignorance of racism and the oppressive design of education in the United States.

David Clifford is a Senior Learning Experience designer at the Stanford He is a founding member of the East Bay School for Boys in Berkeley, California and the founder of design school x, which he developed as a 2014–2015 Edu Fellow.


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