Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Breaking the Bonds of the Past to Envision a New Future through Human Centered Design

Everyday we hear someone lamenting the alleged poor quality and outcomes of our public schools, particularly those serving low-income areas often with high concentrations of minorities, immigrant families and English language learners. Then in the next breath, one hears someone else touting a public school – traditional, community-based or charter – they deem is the absolute model of perfection kicking out high concentrations of college-and/or-career ready students.

The puzzling part of all this is there really is no set of perfect performance standards to which one can measure either type of school. It’s just assumed that schools in more affluent suburban areas produce better results while those in urban poor areas are lacking.  But no one can point to a definitive waypoint to which we can draw valid comparisons. It’s as if we’re simply supposed to accept that the schools on the top of the top-to-bottom lists are what every school should aspire to.

But I say that’s not good enough. What if the school that produces the best results and sits atop the list of all other schools still isn’t as good – or great – as it can be? What if it’s only an illusion that the top schools are performing at their best? And what if the one thing that’s holding ALL schools back – low or high performing – is the very structure of K-12 school itself?

To put it another way, what if we were to completely re-invent our traditional, industrial assembly-line model of education and remove the constraining shackles of clocks, calendars, and age-based grade-levels? Now some parents, community members, politicians, education reformers and even teachers will ask why since they feel there are many districts and schools that are “successful” under that model. But how do they know if those schools are performing as high as they possibly can since they don’t have anything but our antiquated structure of schooling to measure it by? What they are really thinking even if they are not saying it is that our schools are “good enough.” They were good enough for me, and they’re still good enough for our kids.

And that shortchanges the potential possibilities our students of today will never get to experience. It also means that for schools on the bottom of the list to get better, they have to do more of what is working for schools on the top, independent of the factors outside of school that create barriers to learning and regardless of the fact they have the same number of days and hours, and the same constraining grade-based promotion system as those schools achieving at higher levels. Logically speaking, this means the same thing as saying if a school with a preponderance of students achieving at one, two or more grade levels behind should be expected within the same structure of schooling to be achieving at high levels and graduating all students college-and-career ready, then schools already achieving at high levels each year should be able to graduate their students by age twelve! In other words, if a low-achieving student is expected to learn two or three years of content in one year to get caught up, then a high-achieving student can also be expected to learn two or three years of content in that same year and graduate early. My, what an efficient and economical system!

But we know that little of what I just said is practical in real world terms and my point isn’t about contracting the K-12 system, it’s about completely changing it. Not just throwing out politically-driven ideas such as charters or cyber schools which are structurally not any different than our current public school system and generally produce the same or worse results, but literally inventing a new idea that breaks through the artificial barriers of our outmoded factory model.

To begin with, this would have to be a model that is constructed around the needs and desires of children, not simply the wishes and hopes of adults. Today’s schools continue to be adult-driven enterprises that incorporate a variety of features and processes designed to mold and shape the child into the student we want, with efficiencies and economies-of-scale that meet our adult needs. Nothing about schools today provides personalization so that no matter where a five year-old (or older) is at on the day he or she walks through the door, and no matter how fast or slow that child develops and learns over time, in the end success will be measured based chiefly on how effectively the school and its teachers helped that child achieve his or her dreams regardless of how long the journey took.

What would this school look like? How will all of this work and still keep our educational system as the core process of preparing children to be contributors to society both socially and economically? I have no idea and that’s what excites me the most. The very fact I can’t envision this type of learning institution means that I’m not falling into the trap of simply reinventing or transforming the current system with the same or at least similar existing constraints. The system that worked when we needed it to simply pump out a massive number of industrial workers speaking fluent English and becoming the core of the consumer class, which following World War II became known as the middle class, no longer works for a 21st century world. That’s why any real attempt to fix our K-12 educational system will only be successful once we virtually abandon the model that holds us back.

Our district is developing a core team of dreamers and thinkers who are learning how to use human centered design as a vehicle for completely reimagining a whole knew structure for our school system. We are a relatively small school district with the highest concentration of children living in low-income households within the surrounding area. Coupled with the second highest percentage of limited English-speaking students, we are severely limited by the current structure to meet their needs and provide each with the same educational outcomes as other schools in more affluent areas. To think we can keep doing what we’ve always done – even if it were “better sameness” – and produce substantially higher results is foolhardy and gambling with the lives and future fortunes of our children. Using an HCD model to identify, test, and produce a better system through inspiration, ideation and implementation is the least we owe our kids regardless of how long the process takes, how many roadblocks we run into, and how tedious it might be as we learn through a system of test-fail-reflect-learn-change.

Looking back over the past several decades, we have to wonder why much of the change that’s occurred throughout the world has been more of a system of replacing an existing mode with a completely different one, while education has stuck to a process of refining the existing structure and relying on better-sameness?  I think it was Henry Ford that said something to the tune of, “If I had listened to the people, they’d want faster horses.” Can you imagine what life would be like right now if instead of the computer, we’d have been satisfied with a more souped up version of the slide rule? Or abacus? What if the Bissell company had decided we didn’t need a newfangled sweeper or vacuum cleaner, just better brooms? And our varied types of transportation systems were not always designed based on existing methods at the time. If that were the case, instead of flying to cross an ocean we'd simply have invented a way of building a long floating version of existing road bridges and driven there. Flying is not a better-sameness method of transportation than automobiles. It's completely different.

These are just a few of examples of how often we’ve invented a new model rather than refine an existing one because it became clear the new was far better than the old and ultimately better served the needs of the user. Isn’t it time we did the same with education?

In our district, that's precisely the direction we're headed.