From Tim Brown’s blog …

A Design Lens on Education

November 13, 2012

 

“Education provides the foundation of our global possibilities. We design this well, and the whole world changes.”

I agree wholeheartedly with this statement from Sandy Speicher, one of the few people I know who is well qualified to have a perspective on both design and education. Her journey has taken her from graphic designer to college professor to education designer to education expert. Sandy now leads the education practice at IDEO.

Recently I asked Sandy to share her thoughts on design thinking in education. Here’s an excerpt:

What’s different when you look at the world of education through the lens of design?

Most of us have deeply embedded ideas about what’s “right” for education. But when you look at the world of education through the lens of design, you start to see that there isn’t one right answer, there are many. And when you really examine the world of education, you realize that “the system” is actually an outcome of millions of different solutions, organizations, priorities, and experiences. As designers, our job is to understand the conditions in any given situation deeply enough to be able to find new, relevant solutions for a particular context, need, or challenge—whether it’s about interactions in the classroom or the structures that drive our system.

What are some of the big questions in education that design is helping to address?

Some of my favorites we’ve been working on at IDEO include:
How might we create a digital learning platform that helps adult learners succeed through college completion?
How might we develop a network of schools that are of international quality, affordable (under $100/month tuition), and can be scaled to serve hundreds of thousands of children in the rising middle class of Peru?
How might we engage parents in understanding national trends and topics in education?
How might we design a comprehensive learning environment that seamlessly connects the classroom with the opportunities of the digital world for middle-school students?
How might we create system-level solutions that help more students gain access to college?

I’d love to see design address challenges of the financial models that underlie education institutions, ecosystem development for continuous innovation in education, and ways we can increase access to quality education around the globe.

What are some ways we are seeing the application of design thinking within education?

We’re seeing people use design thinking to create change at multiple levels—from national education reform to individual classroom needs. Teachers find it to be an engaging pedagogical approach, because in order to create new solutions, you cannot help but learn about people and their interests, about business or math or science or engineering. Plus, while students are learning the specific knowledge set required to develop a relevant and buildable solution, they’re also developing highly valuable skills such as empathy, the ability to collaborate, to deal with ambiguity, and of course, to create.

We’re also seeing teachers use design thinking to redesign the curriculum around experiences that engage students, and shift their physical classrooms based on feedback from students. We’re seeing school leaders engage faculty to develop a shared philosophy on teaching and learning; district administration using design to reimagine tools they create to help teachers be successful. We’re even seeing community volunteer groups engage in a process to help redesign schools that are less successful within their state system. Each of these stories alone is not the answer to whole-scale education reform—but if you multiply these activities by three million teachers across this country, and magnify that by the organizations that are creating new, human-centered tools and services to support our students—it can add up to a big impact on the system.

What was the path you took to becoming a designer of educational systems and tools?

My background is in visual communications. I began my career by creating brand identity systems, signage systems, and interactive systems for organizations. While I was working, I volunteered to teach design to 5th graders in San Francisco for about 6 years. (I probably learned the most about my own work and beliefs about how design can impact the world by having to essentialize it and create projects that would be clear and engaging for 10-year-olds!)

I then spent a couple of years teaching design at Washington University in St. Louis. In one deeply meaningful discussion with a group of students, I had the realization that our system needs the type of thinking that we designers bring to the table—being aware of the world around you, the knowledge that you have a role in shaping that world, and a belief that a new future is possible. We desperately need this next generation to address the giant challenges our world faces. Our current system, it seemed, wasn’t really preparing them for this future. I decided to go back to school to study education, to learn about the ways we can design for learning, and to help me reimagine what my role in the world could be.

Now, educators from all over the world email me asking how they can apply design to their work, and designers email me asking for advice on how they can help education. This shift is very exciting to me, because there is perhaps nothing more important for us to design well in this world than our systems of education. Education provides the foundation of our global possibilities. We design this well, and the whole world changes.

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