New Designs for School
New Designs for School

We’ve all had the experience of truly purposeful, authentic learning and know how valuable it is. Educators are taking the best of what we know about learning, student support, effective instruction, and interpersonal skill-building to completely reimagine schools so that students experience that kind of purposeful learning all day, every day.

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Principles of adult learning design—learner agency, goal-orientation, relevance, connecting prior knowledge and experiences to new learning, promoting collaboration—are identical to the principles of student-centered learning design.

Last week when speaking on an education and technology panel at General Assembly, a tech career skills and credentials provider, I was struck by the approaches to learning design used in the adult and lifelong learning sector. These approaches may be valuable to us in K-12 education as we move away from textbook-based classroom design to student-centered learning design—in a world where information is readily accessible and simultaneously constantly changing.

General Assembly prides itself in being “the solution to the global skills gap,” more agile than universities in responding to the rapidly changing world in which we live. The event I joined was a free, open-to-all learning event providing a range of perspectives for a range of audience members from teachers to entrepreneurs. One of my co-panelists had managed product development for HBX, Harvard Business School’s online courses, before she came on board at General Assembly as their Northeast Regional Director. The other was the CEO of Quality Interactions, a company that provides cultural competency training to enable the healthcare sector to meet the needs of culturally diverse populations. I was there to represent K-12.

Like public school districts, the organizations these leaders represented are mission-driven: they seek to democratize access to knowledge. HBX makes its courses virtual and open globally for a tiny fraction of the cost of a face-to-face Harvard Business School education. General Assembly designs a variety of opportunities for entry into high skills, high paying jobs. And Quality Interactions focuses on creating competencies, courses, and certifications that enable a diverse, inclusive, and culturally competent healthcare workforce.

As leaders serving customers who could at anytime vote with their feet and wallets, my co-panelists were intensely focused on ensuring that their organizations designed and delivered learning experiences that met their users’ needs. They assessed these via user feedback and back-end analytics, as well as learner outcomes. This resulted in courses of varying durations from 20-30 minute micro-courses to longer, multi-week pathways.

A K-12 Innovation Pain Point

As the new academic year launches, I’ve been spending time with innovators at Boston Public Schools. These are teachers and school leaders who are also deeply mission-driven and committed to increasing access. They are looking to find new ways to improve learner achievement outcomes, especially given their students’ diverse, broad, and complex range of needs. These educators are passionate about the subject matter they teach, and they want to convey this passion to their students, both for the love of the material itself as well as for its usefulness in enabling students to move successfully through high school to college.

When I ask our educators how they focus their time, the conversation invariably begins with content needs:

  • to create new, different, better curriculum (via trying new online programs, filming flipped classroom videos, building out playlists, designing projects, redesigning syllabi)
  • to customize available curricula to make them more rigorous or culturally responsive
  • to align different curriculum sources and assessments
  • to build curriculum alignment maps and resources banks

Content design takes up a large amount of time. For example, a high school math teacher and a computer science teacher, both entering the second year of their flipped classroom experiment, each spent about an hour videotaping or screencasting each lesson for the flip. If we conservatively estimate 80-100 lessons per course, that’s 80-100 extra hours of work. And in a year or two, some of their lessons will need redoing.

The amount of time and energy educators spend each year redesigning content delivery to incorporate new methods or new source materials is huge. When we multiply that across our district, and then across all the districts in the country, it’s almost incalculable. It’s a pain point—i.e., a problem worth solving—from individual classrooms to national education system, and will increasingly be so as we move from textbook- to curation-based curricula.

Shifting from Content Design to Learner Experience Design

Many of the principles of adult learning design—learner agency, goal-orientation, relevance, connecting prior knowledge and experiences to new learning, promoting collaboration—are identical to the principles of student-centered learning design. Given that the adult learning sector has at least a decade’s head start on K-12, it might be useful for us to learn from them.

As educators we tinker with content, but what of learner needs and goals? How might we think of course design less as content arrangement and rearrangement and more as creating an experience where learners with different goals, backgrounds, prior knowledge, and needs come together to engage with content in a space facilitated by the teacher/learning designer?

My time at General Assembly suggests that the place to start is gathering user experience data. What tools and feedback loops can we develop and implement that bring in our users as voices and data sources supporting our design and redesign work?

In the long run technology—xAPi is one possible example—will increasingly make it possible for us to understand which online resources or learning objects are ‘sticky,’ meaning students stick with them because they find them useful and effective. As we arrive at large data sets, technology will be able to give us insights into the portions of digital programs and digital courses that impact student outcomes for different categories of student learners. It will give students the possibility of self-selecting learning experiences (student agency!) so that each learner can arrive at competency through a different, uniquely interesting and effective pathway.

However, right now, at the level of individual classrooms and schools, we have very little data about user need and experience to guide all that investment into curriculum redesign. At the very least we can take advantage of that good old-fashioned technique, the user survey, both formal and informal, and at different frequency and intensity levels. At the most simple scale, we can piggyback learning design feedback onto the exit tickets many classrooms use to assess student learning. We can use more complex surveys at various inflection points in courses.

These are very basic ideas, but they begin to address the fact that we do most of our redesign of curriculum in the data dark. But when we move toward a data-based approach to curriculum curation and design, we address the pain point and open up new opportunities to improve our students’ learning experiences.

Sujata Bhatt headshot

Sujata Bhatt

Managing Partner, Innovation, Boston Public Schools

Sujata Bhatt is responsible for developing and implementing innovation strategy for Boston Public Schools, a district of 57,000 students, 10,000 employees, and 127 schools.