A Design Lens on Education

November 13, 2012 — 12 Comments

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“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.

(posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

Tim Brown


12 responses to A Design Lens on Education

  1. Thanks for posting. As an architect and educator, I realized a few years back that practicing design and teaching at the university level were not enough. You might be interested in taking a look at our online free design resource, NEXT.cc, (www.NEXT.cc) created to encourage design thinking and making through informal learning. NEXT.cc introduces journeys (TOOLS, LANGUAGES, DISCOVERY and DESIGN) that encourage place based projects in the classroom and out in communities. Journeys are linked to virtual field trips, museum interactives and contemporary art, design and environmental practices. Initiated in 2007, NEXT.cc is now being accessed in 47 states and 97 countries.

    Recently presented at the IDSA K12 Design Education Symposium at the Henry Ford Academy, it is recognized as a 2012 Green STEM Innovator by the National Environmental Education Foundation and as 2011 Built Environment Media Education by the Union of International Architects and American Architecture Foundation. Designers and educators this weekend commented on the IDSA Linked in group…”have you seen Linda and Mark Keane’s next.cc ? I was introduced to it at the Michigan Symposium Doris organized. It just might be something we can all agree is a step in the right direction. After Linda presented it…actually while she was presenting, I was getting lost in the website. Afterwards, I commented that I was speechless (not something I am very often). I could see myself getting lost in the website for days. As succinctly as i could put it, I told her it was “brilliant.”

    Arnold Wasserman, The Idea Factory, was sitting behind me and he noted that he has gotten lost in it for weeks and that it was absolutely brilliant.

    I write, lecture and publish about the Necessity of Design Education and Designing K12 Education in keynotes and workshops. Creativity knows no barrier except exclusion. Change requires access to new ways of thinking and making.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful article! I just finished a design thinking project with my fifth graders and they can’t wait to do more.

  3. Wonderful article, articulating the opportunities that are just ahead of us, at the reach of our finger tips, tapping into the global brain, and across boundaries action.

    Mental models, societal assumptions, and behaviors trained over decades, and encoded in our cultures around the world (even within one country such as Germany for example, where I moved from the Western part to the Eastern part, and experience a very different kind of individual, and group behavior on upcoming challenges).

    Role models for me on what the education institution of the future will look like are:

    Team Academy, Finland – http://www.tiimiakatemia.fi/en/
    Singularity University, USA – http://singularityu.org
    Khan Academy, USA – http://www.khanacademy.org/
    High Tech High, USA – http://vimeo.com/10000408

    My own dream on how it will be look like in the future, reusing old industrial heritage buildings:

  4. I am flabergasted at what I didn’t know until I started this program. With young children who enjoy a school which is quite contempory in it’s approach to teaching & learning, I am excited with the prospect that they will benefit from the likes of this information. Thanks, Louise

  5. Thanks for the informative article. The schools as we know today is a 200 years old concept probably not as relevant as it was earlier. Getting children from the age group of 5 to 16yrs year after year for 10 years in physical class rooms , grouping them based only on age and teaching all the same curriculum in the same way does not seem to be appropriate in today’s world. What most of us trying is to improve the existing system which itself is faulty.
    I suppose time has come to redesign and reengineer the schools. For me DNLE is a pointer in that direction.

  6. Elynn Vazquez Wong November 28, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    I like the article a lot, I didn´t know about design thinking until last summer when I went to the future of learning course at Harvard and I went to the process of being in a pilot group using design thinking, I loved the experience and did try a project with high school students to design a poster for a FAO contest, results were just amazing…. thank you for opening my eyes! and also thank you Linda and Ralf for the links!

  7. Application of design thinking in education is really interesting. This should certainly help in revamping our educational system which is archaic. In India, ‘Right to education’ has been mandated by law, but it is not, ‘Right to Quality education’. The cut-throat competition for admission to institutes of higher education has robbed the fun of learning. It is time that our education system is redesigned.
    Thanks for the great article..

  8. Great post. What do I need to be successful in life? This is the question I think education should start with. For everyone the answer will be different, so after a certain age I think education will be very modular, and instead of 3 year courses it will be 3 month modules, and that module may have only existed for a year, and may only be relevant for 2 (but will be available to take on YouTube for 3, at no cost at all!).

    Before a certain age I think the fundamentals will remain the same, reading, writing, etc. However we should start to include (in a measured and systematic way) behaviours like collaboration, skills such as debate, storytelling, how you can have more fun eating nutritious food because you’ll have more energy, these are also pretty foundational. Design too!

  9. will attend college in Fall 2013, what colleges have design-thinking programs?
    U Michigan

  10. Nice Posting. Thanks for sharing. WLCI is one of the best Graphic Design Schools in Delhi , it offers best graphic design course which are designed to build up designing skills for students so they can face the challenge in Designing field

  11. I would like to know if you do have some operatio, office or contact in Lima- Peru.
    We at the Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología UTEC are interested in design a innovation course for engineers.
    Best regards,

  12. Kentucky Indiana Web Group handles Louisville web design, web
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