School by Design

Inspiring student-centered, intentionally designed schools

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3 Amazing Schools Re-imagining Education | What, How and Why they do it!

In my endeavor to find and learn from school models that work, I started The Amazing School Tour. I visit schools, speak to their staff and students and attend their classes, then document their inspiring practices. Here are three of these amazing schools!

Want to jump to a school? Epic Middle School. Design Tech High School. The Clearwater School.

Epic Middle School

Epic Middle School. Oakland, CA.
Based in one of Oakland CA’s poorest and highest crime neighborhoods, Epic School re-imagines middle school, making classes into magical worlds and lessons heroic quests, “gamifying” learning and creating a narrative around school more compelling than the neighborhood’s prevalent gang narrative.

1. An EPIC Hero’s Quest

Epic School emphasizes students’ identities as Heroes, who not only have ownership over their journey, but who also have the tools to embark on their quests. There’s a constant “quest” that runs parallel to the daily learning, where students engage in problem solving, teamwork and use of content knowledge to progress in their adventure. They may find hints in their English reading or in a messy corner in their classroom which means they’re constantly engaged, looking for the next hidden quest to solve or a tool that can help them. For example, this is all they got on their first day of school – can you figure it out?

A Hero's Journey

2. Badges
Gamification is integral to the school culture, and is used to encourage and acknowledge skills that are not content-focused. Students wear their badges in pride, and strive to get more! The main badges are: Catalyst, Engineer and Advocate. Combinations of these badges develop your identity further: Catalyst + Advocate = Activist. I think the biggest value of this badging system is the potential it holds in helping students see themselves through a lens beyond grades, and feel appreciated for the skills they bring to the school that usually go unacknowledged. Another amazing advantage is that you “earn” these badges – you start from zero and work your way up, unlike grades where it’s always a deficit model: every mistake is punished by a decreased grade. Little wins = higher engagement. Go badges!

3. Houses
a. Students often have a strong commitment to their peers, many times even stronger than the commitment to adults in school. Epic capitalizes on this by developing a sense of shared responsibility in students through grouping them in houses, where they sometimes engage in quests together and individual wins benefit the whole house. If a student in a house helps a friend, the whole house gets points that go towards an end reward. JK Rowling got it right 🙂 10 points for Gryffindor!


4. Scaffolding Innovation
Epic integrates aspects of the design process in their design and engineering lab. I was extremely impressed by how they thought about scaffolding innovation. Often times, schools adopt the design process and expect students to magically thrive, innovate and develop self-directed abilities. But Epic knows better: they have developed curriculum that scaffolds this process, developing students’ abilities as they increase their autonomy. In a nutshell, the approach is: 1. Start with a Directed Project and Directed Process, 2. Directed Process and Undirected Project, 3. Undirected Process and Undirected Project.

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Epic Middle School

Design Tech High School. Milbrae, CA.

Design Tech High School aims to develop innovation-ready students who hold skills critical to success in the 21st century.The two principles that guide Design Tech High School are extreme personalization and putting knowledge in action. Extreme personalization through self-paced learning, and knowledge in action through teaching students to solve real-world problems using Design Thinking.

1. D.lab: Design, every day!

Design Thinking is a human-centered, creative problem solving approach that is used in some of the most innovative organizations around the world. Every day, d.Tech students spend time using the Design Thinking process to solve a real-world problem: they interview people, they collaborate to identify needs, generate ideas for solutions and prototype them. Their ‘Design Challenges” range from “Making Halloween more safe” to “Designing the Milbrae Morning”. Design Thinking holds a lot of potential in developing students’ empathy, self-efficacy, problem-solving and creative confidence. As one student put it – “I found my inner creative person and I realized I can have great ideas”. Another student said “I am now better at going up to strangers and interviewing them; I used to just hide behind my friends, but I’m getting better”. It was amazingly inspiring to attend students’ end-of-course presentations because they were NOT demonstrating content mastery, instead they were reflecting on their growth as individuals.


From Flickr feed. Photo credit: Kerry Bitner

2. Community, every day!
Students’ social and emotional development is often overshadowed by high stakes testing and SAT scores in High School – but not at! Every day, students meet with their group and advisor to explore their emotional, social and physical needs. One session a week (Group Therapy, as students affectionately call it) is dedicated to an open discussion of issues that students contribute anonymously. The advisor steps back as students offer advice, support and strategies to cope with the issue being discussed. Issues range from Finding motivation to do school work to Resolving issues with friends. Another session is dedicated to physical wellness – like sleep or healthy eating habits. This time not only builds community among students, but also develops strong bonds with their advisor, who often develops into their mentor.


From Flickr feed. Photo credit: Kerry Bitner

3. Flex Schedule
Stemming from its commitment to extreme personalization, ditched the school schedule. Every week, students receive a new schedule of classes that was developed specifically for them. Why? Because students progress differently, their needs for 1)length of instruction time, 2)type of instruction, and 3)independent learning time vary. So, rather than treat all students the same, takes on the operational nightmare of creating an individualized schedule every week! How? Teachers spend half of their Friday analyzing student performance and developing a personalized plan for their week: a period of group instruction to review some material they’re struggling with, a number of Learning Hubs where they can independently work and a check-in with the teacher to discuss their performance.

4. Constant Prototype
Perhaps the most inspiring part of is the prevalent culture of prototyping. I remember Ken Montgomery, the principal, saying “Design Tech should not look the same in 5 years. It should be completely different; constantly evolving to meet student needs”. Teachers and administrators constantly experiment with processes, assessment, engagement methods, and even space. One of the great lessons I learnt from staff is the importance of building room for experimentation upfront: their furniture is modular and provides flexibility, so they can try different classroom setups when they need to. If the furniture was bolted to the ground, it would have been much harder to prototype solutions. Same with teacher time: although the teaching staff is a small team, they’ve considered administrators and volunteers as additional resources from day one, which means they can get that extra hand when they need it to try something new.

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The Clearwater School

The Clearwater School. Bothel, WA.

The Clearwater School is part of an international network based on the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. Sudbury schools are run democratically, ensuring that each student’s voice is heard and valued. Children are trusted with the freedom and responsibility to direct their own education.

1. Student-Run – really!
What happens when a student violates school rules? How does a school examine a proposal for a new program? How does a new policy get developed? Answers to these questions will almost always include School leadership, parents and teachers, but in Clearwater the answer is always STUDENTS. Clearwater, like all Sudbury schools, is run by the student body through two entities: the Judicial Committee and School Meetings – both run by a constantly rotating body of students, with one staff advisor. The Judicial Committee reviews complaints, submitted by any person in the school, listens to both parties, reviews the school rule book, and decides what actions to take. The School Meeting is where proposals for policies or decisions are discussed: students review the budget, the rule book, assess the proposal and make a decision. This setup develops students’ ability to problem solve, think critically, speak publicly and most importantly become active, responsible citizens who have a strong sense of ownership towards their community (aka school). Let this sink in: STUDENTS run the school.

From Clearwater School blog.

From Clearwater School blog.

2. Room for Passion
The Sudbury model (on which Clearwater School is based) is definitely very “radical” when compared to most schools. There are no classes, and students decide what to do with their time – no caveats or exceptions. Staff may decide to run a workshop or start a discussion on a subject interesting to them (drumming, fishing, democracy, quadratic equations), but it’s up to the students to participate or not. Regardless of different opinions about the model, one thing remains true: it leaves room for students to develop and explore their passions. During my visit, I passed by a group of three teenage girls who had a camera setup and were experimenting with their first video podcast. “What’s it about?” I asked, “We don’t know”, they said, “We’ll start and see what happens. Probably about things we care about”. Then they told Stephanie – the co-founder, staff member and my amazing host for the day – that they’ll use the School Meeting to ask the community to allow them to reserve the room weekly, since no one did that before and they wanted to make sure it’s their right to do so. They may end up experimenting with the podcasts for months, or stop next week, but it’s up to them. They have the time and space to explore this potential passion, and the freedom to decide whether or not it’s for them.

3. Earning Autonomy
Clearwater School provide students with a lot of autonomy, but they have to earn it. And earning it involves clear steps and bars that you have to pass. Initially, you ask permission before using the art room, until you demonstrate that you consistently clean up after you are done, and keep the tools in good shape. Afterwards, you can use it freely. Younger students initially have to be accompanied by an older student/adult when they’re outside. When they learn the guidelines of outside play, they can go outside after letting an older student/adult know. When they do this consistently enough, and demonstrate that they stay within the “outside play guidelines”, it means that they’re ready to take on more responsibility and move freely in the outside area. The school maintains its safety procedures, but it makes sure that the need for safety doesn’t interfere with students’ autonomy and growth. Super student-centered, right? Not a surprise, since all these policies were developed and constantly improved by students during School Meetings.

4. Purpose-driven Learning
Of course, the ultimate question is: “How do they learn anything?” One thing is definitely true about Clearwater: their students take more responsibility for their learning than students in traditional schools. Why? Because it’s always their decision to learn. Stephanie told me about her son, a graduate of the school, who decided to start an SAT class when he decided he wants to go to college. It was hard, but it was purposeful, so he did it. Students practice purpose-driven learning everyday: if they’re fascinated by a topic or they want to build or make something, they figure out the resources they need to do it, which almost always include learning something. They build a habit of turning a “need-to-know” into knowledge. They see this behavior constantly modeled by other students and school staff, they ask for help from those role-models if they need to figure out a path to achieve their goal, and they are motivated to learn, so they do it. They learn.

Purpose-driven learning

From Clearwater School blog.

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Inspired? Inspire!

These are three of the amazing schools I’m inspired by in my Amazing School Tour. If you found inspiration in their practices, LET ME KNOW! Leave a comment here or @EmanAbouelatta on twitter. 

Also, I’m sure there are practices that inspire you in a school – tell me about them! The Amazing School Tour would love to have more destinations!

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Why We Should Design The School

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?