Design the Revolution! Step 1: Who is the User? Reflections on NAIS Conference


Traditional Classroom (Wikipedia)

Modern American Classroom (Wikipedia)

My Classroom- Video Conferencing in Comparative Government with Wen Ho about his trip to North Korea (a connection made at KSI!) Photo by Emily Magnus

“Education is the only thing a person from 1915 would recognize” serial educational entrepreneur Brian Bordainick said at the annual NAIS conference this past weekend. But ever since I tweeted it I have been wondering about the implications of this statement. My classroom doesn’t look like it did in 1915, and I know this is not just because I work in an independent school (which can actually be more “traditional” at times in classroom architecture but I acknowledge has more room to maneuver). What about the art classroom? The Harkness Table? This critique isn’t entirely original, and has been a common comment of our educational system since, well, forever. I also hesitate at that idea that education is the “only” thing that would be recognized by a 1915 time traveler. What about class divisions? hymns? the recreation of bygone eras for amusement?(see footnote 1 for the digression). One of my favorite time-traveling observers is Simon Rich’s “Herschel” character. While historical fiction and imagining time-travel or subjunctive history it is a great way to test a student’s understanding I wonder at the co opting of the historical narrative for any argument… because often it is portrayed singularly, and there is danger in a single story as Chimamanda Adichie reminded us. The next day at the conference Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc referenced the leveling of the music industry in the 1990’s and the surge of innovation that followed, and noted that the “schools at the bottom” have the gift of “urgency and a sense of crises” that push innovation. However, I think both of these observations fail to recognize that while the goals of the music industry have remained the same (to make music and money), and that innovation seems to start best as a response to failure, the goals of education have fundamentally shifted while at the same time staying very much the same.

This shift/non-shift is in the “user” of education. This is not a simple answer, who are the users of education in America? The variability and complexity of the answer to this question is what makes it so hard to define a solution. Sir Ken Robinson’s comment about needing to move beyond the industrial model of education resonated, because something has changed, and the model needs to adapt, but what precisely has changed? How has it changed? Why has it changed? Should it change?

The theme of the conference was centered around design thinking. I still can not clearly define it, but I did have some experience with this framework at KSI this past summer- see my post about redesigning the first day of school here. If we were to actually “design the revolution” what might it look like? The panel on the future of education in the general session was fascinating (I particularly enjoyed Nannerl Keohane’s citation of Alice Freeman Parker’s Why Go to College? Essay ) but too often it seemed to start not with the first step of design thinking, empathy, but with a definition of problems. This is not to say that the panel hadn’t practice plenty of empathy behind their ideas, but if we, as a society, do not define the user, we have a glaring blind spot in the design process. The definition of the user is, perhaps the hardest part. Liz Davis at EdcampIS last Saturday described it well: “Design thinking doesn’t start with the problem, you have to define user first, empathize and then identify the problem.” Let me restate that: If we define the problem before the user we are working in our blind spot. For example, if I start by asking the questions: what is the problem with education in America? or What is the problem with the schedule at a residential school? There are the initial answers if you don’t employ the empathy step first…Much like trying to define the “user” in a “schools” schedule, the variety and definition of the user for education in America becomes the central issue. The entrepreneur isn’t afraid to try new things, and is an important approach as Brian Bordainick has reminded us, but that step comes after the definition of the user in design thinking (the test stage). John Maeda, another speaker at the conference shared his leadership style as including not only the willingness to fail and try new things, but also the importance of empathy and having office hours and time to listen (first college president on twitter too!)

I am left with many questions. Thank you NAIS for keeping me thinking.

  • Locally what role does design thinking have for Holderness School? For my classroom? [Stay tuned for a post about my experiments with Mastery Based Assessment]
  • What does the “revolution” look like for
    • a residential independent boarding school? How are our traditions, and intentional community counter-cultural? What does this mean for the future?
    • a residential liberal arts college like the one I attended? cost-value of the $60,000/year price tag
    • the economy? Does the educational model drive the economy or does the economy drive the educational model?
    • for society? How does society change through education, or does how education change through society?
Education in America Schedule at a Residential School
Defining the problem pre-empathy….working in the “blind-spot”??? (summary of common statements about the “problem”)

(from my limited teacher perspective)

  • Not enough time in the day
  • We don’t go to school enough
  • Kids and Teachers are over-scheduled
  • Can’t do everything well as a “triple-threat” faculty member
Empathy Who is the user?

  • Teachers (Public, Private, Charter, Independent, Home-school)
  • Students (Public, Private, Charter, Independent, Home-school)
  • Administrators
  • Families
  • The World (via MOOCS?)
  • Employers?
Who is the user?

Faculty Families
The often-small town communities? (remember non-profit tax benefits)

Define How would the definition of the problem be different if there was an empathy step first? How would the definition of the problem be different if there was an empathy step first?

I do not have the answers. Please comment if you are interested in sharing any projects that you know that are in the ideate, prototype or test phase! = any sort of innovation that is trying to solve problems in education, casting a wide-net here. How would you define the user?




1. For example the 18th century costumes in To Catch a Thief  and the modern obsessions with the Gilded Age and the 1920s.

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