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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Practitioner's Guide to Next Gen Learning

This edition of the NGLC Practitioner's Guide to Next Gen Learning describes how teams engage students in the work of redesigning their schools.

Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.
–Donald Norman, director of The Design Lab, University of California, San Diego

The practice of designing products and services to meet human needs is certainly not new. In the late 1800's, for example, thoughtful consideration of patients' digestive health led to the invention of a new breakfast food, cereal, a product now virtually synonymous with the first meal of the day. In contrast, at around the same time, Thomas Edison chose not to take users into account when designing his new invention, the phonograph. Without asking potential customers, Edison decided that people would rather listen to bulky cylinder recordings of unknown artists than pay a little more for discs ("records") of world-famous singers. This avoidable misstep gave his competition, Berliner's Gramophone, the market advantage for the next 35 years.

Stories like Edison's cause us to shake our heads knowingly and wonder where his focus group was. Today, terms like intuitive, human-centered, and user experience are ubiquitous when discussing product design. Yet a nearly universal experience—going to school—is a latecomer to this human-centered get-together. More and more educators, however, are starting to gatecrash the party.

This edition of Friday Focus: Practitioner's Guide to Next Gen Learning takes another look at the School Design Institutes (SDIs) that were featured in a story earlier this month. Mass IDEAS (Innovating Design in Education for All Students), a Massachusetts-based initiative of Next Generation Learning Challenges, with funding from the Barr Foundation and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, hosted SDIs in February and March in partnership with 2Revolutions. To learn more about the student-centered learning component of the SDIs, I spoke to participants and organizers to find out:

  • Why do you want to engage students in your school design/redesign work?
  • What does this look like at your school?
  • What are you learning from this co-design work?

A Natural Step from Empathy to Empowerment and Equity

Empathy requires us to put aside our learning, culture, knowledge, opinions, and worldview purposefully in order to understand other people's experiences of things deeply and meaningfully. It requires a strong sense of imagination for us to be able to see through another person's eyes. It requires humility so we can seek to abandon our preconceived ideas and biases.
–Rikke Dam and Teo Siang
School design institute, used with permission

Participants demonstrate their empathy skills with user-defined prototypes at the Mass IDEAS School Design Institute in Norwood, MA.
(Paul Schnaittacher for Mass IDEAS)

Inspired by the design thinking process, the Mass IDEAS SDIs devoted considerable time to the empathy phase, in order to build a deep understanding of why incorporating students' needs into school design is so important. In fact, the empathy work began before participants even arrived. Teams were assigned pre-work like interviewing students, staff, parents, and community members to get their perspectives about both what is great about school and what they'd like to see that is not currently happening.

During the weekend, participating school teams were challenged to build on their pre-work and see their schools through users' eyes. Holyoke STEM Academy, for example, oriented the design work for their new middle school around a "Day in the Life" of student and teacher personas. Other schools, like Brighton High School in Boston and Peck Full Service Community School in Holyoke, included students as part of their SDI team. Other teams reported that they wished they had and recommended on exit surveys that Mass IDEAS "have more students attend and create sessions with them in mind" so that teams' " focus is more in line to what their students need."

This focus on integrating student perspectives in school design continued beyond the SDI weekends, as teams applied for grants to fund follow-up work in their home communities. For instance, Wildflower Schools is partnering with students to develop a community asset map that will inform the design of a new Montessori middle school. At Ralph C. Mahar Regional School, students will capture school redesign changes and artifacts of community engagement efforts through a student video contest. Student perspectives will also inform the design of advisory at two of the participating Holyoke middle schools, Peck Full Service Community School and Holyoke STEM Academy.

Still others created plans to train all students to become learning designers themselves. One group that aspired to this level of student engagement was the middle school design team from TechBoston Academy in Dorchester, MA. TechBoston is a middle and high school of about 1,000 students. As a pilot school in the Boston Public Schools system, TechBoston has been granted additional autonomy in designing its school to best serve its diverse students.

According to one member of the TechBoston team, math teacher Emily Griggs, "We have a deeply held belief that students are at the center of the work. It seems only natural that teachers—the people who are closest to the students—are at the forefront of bringing this to life." Throughout the SDI weekend, Emily recalls, team members kept thinking about students "as users and co-creators of learning, not just participants, who could help facilitate the redesign process as well as the execution."

Their ultimate goal, Emily says, is to "empower and engage students in the design process and broader school redesign work," including elective course offerings, use of physical space and aesthetics, and curriculum materials and resources. One of Emily's teammates from the weekend, Jennifer Nicol, TechBoston's director of innovation, echoes this idea of empowerment: "It is an equity issue. We welcome students from throughout Boston who have had a wide variety of experiences. Students come to us with their own power and social capital. We see this less often in schools with a lot of high needs students, [but] it is empowering when students are at the center."

TechBoston Academy, used with permission

The middle school redesign team from TechBoston Academy at the SDI in eastern MA.
(Paul Schnaittacher for Mass IDEAS)

A Small Step with High Impact

Returning from their experience at the SDI, the TechBoston team, along with colleagues inspired by their stories about the weekend, wanted to take action right away, so that students could see some change immediately. At the same time, both students and their teachers had to learn how to use the design thinking process. What they needed, according to Jennifer, was the school equivalent of a design sprint, an opportunity for educators and students to pilot and practice the design process on a small scale—but with an outcome students cared about.

In keeping with their commitment to student-centered design, Emily reports, the TechBoston team sent out a survey to "find out what projects students would be interested in—to put students in the process and embed them in the work" from the start.

As their design thinking test case, the middle school students chose to design recess, something that currently is not part of their schedule. The design process was planned to begin right after spring break, which meant that staff had to act quickly to be ready. Fortunately, Emily reports, her fellow teachers "jumped in feet first," participating in an all-day professional development experience that recreated many of the elements and activities of the SDI weekend.

Over the course of that day of professional learning, teacher teams planned out every Wednesday until the end of the year as a "design day." Starting this week, TechBoston Academy middle school students will spend every Wednesday learning the design process, creating proposals for the new recess, and testing out a prototype before launching into the broader program redesign work.

Support to "Lean into the Messiness"

Teacher enthusiasm for this student-centered design project remains high, even after the week-long break. Jennifer describes the response to the design thinking professional learning experience this way: "In the last day and a half, it has been unusual for me to go an hour without hearing from someone about how great that Friday was, how it was the best, most empowering learning experience" they can recall.

The middle school design sprint has just begun at TechBoston Academy, and Emily acknowledges that, "This design experience might be a little messy, but that's OK. Our administrators, teachers, and staff are supportive. We are leaning into the fact that it's messy. We can still engage because we have the support of each other."

TechBoston Academy has a track record of strong academic performance and high scores on standardized tests. However, as Jennifer explains, "Standardized testing is only one piece of the puzzle, one perspective. As we look at other schools doing this work, we realize that schools that are doing deep school redesign—learner-centered and personalized—will graduate highly empowered, actualized students who can be successful and make a change in their world. We as a community want to grow how we are serving our students."


Amanda Avallone headshot

Amanda Avallone (she/her/hers)

Learning Officer (ret.), Next Generation Learning Challenges

Amanda retired from Next Generation Learning Challenges in 2022. As a Learning Officer for NGLC, she collaborated with pioneering educators and their communities to design authentic, powerful learning experiences for young people. She created educator professional learning experiences that exemplify the kind of learning we want for our students and she supported, connected, and celebrated, through storytelling, the educators who are already doing the challenging work of transforming learning every day.