School by Design

Inspiring student-centered, intentionally designed schools

Why We Should Design The School

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Last year I helped a start-up school design its first two weeks of school. Our initial problem statement was: How Might We reflect the school values in these two weeks? We talked to organizations that have strong cultures and asked them: what was your orientation like? We came up with awesome activities, and went on to prototype them. However, the moment we actually spoke to the students, we realized we were totally off.

Emma, a quirky, social eighth grader, came into the prototyping room. We started with a ‘stoke’ activity where we all yell our name with an accompanying dance move (part of our prototype, and a way to set the energy in the room), but she wouldn’t participate. I noticed her looking over her shoulder; glancing at the corridor filling up with students going to lunch. I walked up to the door and closed it. “Thank you!” she said, letting go a sigh of relief. And in my head I thought “Duh!”. We’ve all been there; a teenager, self-conscious about what she does in fear of being labeled uncool. We took a detour from our prototype, and spoke to Emma about how she would feel if she had to do that activity in the beginning of the first day of school, and more importantly: how she feels about starting high school. She said she was anxious about finding the right friends, and was going to miss her middle school friends. She was scared of the notion of high school – the amount of work, and the stakes.

We hadn’t considered her needs.

I went on to ask people: “What aspects of your school experience do you most remember?” Academics always come up, usually spurring a wave of emotions “I always felt validated” was something I recently heard, when another person jumped in and said “I felt exactly the opposite of that”. But academics aren’t the only thing people recall- in fact, most people will emphasize extracurricular activities, life-time friendships, navigating the social network, testing notions of authority, finding their interests, discovering themselves, or not being able to be themselves.

School is not just the academics.

In most schools, most of the design work goes into the curriculum. Teachers are by definition designers: they are focused on the students’ needs, they differentiate and personalize instruction, they continuously seek ways of engaging their students. In a way, teachers are designers of the academic learning experience. However, this is usually the only part of the school experience that is intentionally designed. But the School is ripe with experiences and processes waiting to be designed. For example, the parent-teacher conference. What’s the impact it has on the students? Is its format the best way to discuss student progress? Can we leverage technology to deepen the communication channels between teachers and families? Another example is space: How can we leverage it to drive behavior? Even the core of learning can be designed: Does our current model of assessment align with our values?

Even when the school is designed to encourage certain values (like creativity or a growth mindset), we often don’t consider how the whole school will be designed to reflect, encourage, and scaffold these values. If the school wants to nurture self direction in students, how will it design the roles of teachers, parents and staff to best align with this goal? If the school encourages innovation, how will it continuously innovate? What’s the system/process it will put in place for innovation? If the school aspires to have students who feel deep belonging to the school, how will it achieve so?

There is a great opportunity to Design the School.

It is not so much about drastically redesigning the school, but rather, it’s about intentionally designing the different parts that make a school so that they can address the needs of the users in the school, leverage the technologies and possibilities of today and the future, and therefore help the school succeed.

In a nutshell, these are my design principals:

  • The dynamics of the School Experience (and therefore the user needs) are about much more than the academics or even school values. We should design for these dynamics.
  • School Values should be evident and nurtured through every part of the school, not just the curriculum.
  • The School should be an ultimately user-centered experience. It should seek to identify unmet needs and continuously innovate to meet them.
  • The design challenge can be sparked by User Needs, School Values, School Strategy and/or School Activities – explicit and implicit.

My answer to this need? I became a School Experience Designer. I help schools develop and perfect their user experiences, build innovation capacity and culture, and develop systems for continuous need-finding and innovation. I use an array of tools: design thinking, qualitative/quantitative research, user-centered design, organizational theory, research in education, my MA in Education Leadership, my background in program management and strategy, and good old research.

What is your answer?


Author: schoolbydesign

I’m Eman, the founder of School By Design. I created this blog to inspire schools and educators to use Design in their everyday work. I’m a School Experience Designer. What it means? I help schools perfect their user experiences, build innovation capacity and culture, and develop systems for continuous need finding and innovation. I use an array of tools: design thinking, qualitative/quantitative research, user-centered design, organizational theory, research in education, my MA in Education Leadership (Stanford, '14), my background in program management and strategy (Microsoft Program Manager), and good old research.

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