School & District Management Opinion

Do Good Schools Follow Rules or Break Them?

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — May 24, 2016 6 min read
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One of the most fascinating aspects of design juxtaposes the designer and the constraints of the existing system. Both in the physical world and in the organizational one, rules are necessary to define a working system. But relaxing those constraints is also key to the process of invention of new working arrangements, such as multi-age classrooms, or using choice rather than geographic assignment as a way of sending students to different schools. In the first column of my interview with Tim Brown, the CEO of the design firm IDEO, he talked about the basics of design thinking, the value of rapid prototyping, and why “many times little equals big.” In this column, we talk about using the rules and breaking them. Then we talk about billionaires and unwarranted hubris.

Charles Taylor Kerchner: Let’s talk about designing with rules. In an interview you did some years ago you talked about how changing the rules in Formula One racing fundamentally changed the nature of the sport.

: It’s very interesting. Formula One racing, like any sport, is a very constrained activity. And so in constrained activity you change the rules, the game changes.

As designers you’re always working with constraints and therefore you often try to be most creative with constraints. In product design: how could we twist or push or tweak the manufacturing to do something that had never been done before to something that we really wanted to have be done? “This is how the physics of an injection molding machine works,” and that kind of stuff. So as designers, one of the places we like to be creative is within the rules, within the constraints that we’re working with.

But the same is true with things like policy, right? So you go back to the school lunchroom example from San Francisco (discussed in yesterday’s column). The requirement for kids to have multiple vegetables in their lunch has resulted in the assembly line process for kids getting their lunch, but it actually isn’t the policy to use the assembly line. The policy is to end up with the vegetables, right? One of the things that happens in systems often is that is the artifact is assumed to be the policy. And so one of the things we love to do when we’re working with systems is go and figure out what the policy is really is, because don’t assume it’s the artifact.

It’s like: “Oh, the policy is the fact that kids have to put their food on trays this way.” No, that’s not what the policy said. The policy says they have to end up with three fruit and vegetables on their plate. Well, there might be other ways of achieving that.

I think a lot of the kind of whole Silicon Valley thing is you just break the rules, right? The only way to innovate is to ignore the rules. It’s the kind of Über approach to things. If you get big enough and you act boldly enough, I suppose, you can get away with it for a while. Sometimes even then it doesn’t work, as they’re finding out in a few places.

I think often a more effective approach is not just to break the rules; it’s to understand what the rules really are and understand what creativity they actually afford you. And that can take a bit of study, and it can take a willingness to work with the rule makers, consider them to be one of the stakeholders.

Another thing that I’ve learned is essentially our rulemaking processes are pretty archaic, right? And so our rulemaking processes—and this is everywhere; not just education—is we think our way to what the policy should be and then we enact it, right? Sometimes people pilot it to make sure, but often not. Often policies never actually become tangible and concrete till somebody actually tries to follow the rules, and I don’t think that’s a very clever way of creating policy. I think it would actually be a lot more effective if policymakers used some of the same approaches that we use as designers, which is to be willing to prototype much earlier on.

CTK: Well, that’s one of my goals in meeting you, trying to think about how to put design and policy together.

TB: It is hard with education. I’ll be the first to admit, because the feedback loops can be very long. I mean, it’s one thing when you’re trying to make policy for traffic in downtown L.A. where the you can get feedback pretty fast, whereas with the education system, it might be decades before you know whether you did the right thing when you were teaching a kid.

But I still think attitudinally we should be a little bit more humble about our policy-making skills and try and design them to evolve. There was a big movement in the standards world a couple of decades ago. In Europe particularly, [they] dictated how you were allowed to design things. You were designing a crash helmet for a motorcyclist, and it used to be the standards said you had to use this material and it had to be this thick and all these other things, but ultimately the sort of standard was a specification for the product, right? The trouble with that is that completely kills innovation, because you’re locked in to using that material and that thick, and whatever.

And so they started to switch to performance standards where they said, “You can design it and build it however you like, but it has to perform in this way. It has to not dent when it hits a wall at 60 miles an hour,” or whatever the performance standard might be. And as soon as you switch to a performance standard, then you leave the space open for creativity. People can figure out an infinite number of ways perhaps of achieving that performance, and you achieve the standard by achieving the performance, not by following a spec. And I think we still have a spec-based approach to policy-making in a lot of places.

CTK: Given a choice between whether you put rules on the outcomes or on the process, educators will typically say, both.

TB: Right. Right. Right. Right, right, right.

CTK: One last question. So your favorite billionaire, whoever it is, calls you on the phone and says, “Tim, I want to put some money into education. How should I do in order to get leverage on the system?”

TB: It turns out a billion doesn’t go very far. I think my first piece of advice would be is: let’s work hard to pick the right problem. No billionaire is going to solve the education problem, even though many of them have the hubris to think they can, because they’ve done that with their own businesses, right? And so pick the problem.

Interestingly, it was a billionaire that supported the project we did with the school lunch problem in San Francisco, and that was not the obvious problem to pick, right? But he and his wife happened to be pretty passionate about health as well as education, and it just seemed like it was one where there was a little bit more opportunity in the system.

If he’d gone right into the core curriculum in some way, he’d have been fighting with Washington, the state, and everywhere else.

We focus so much when we talk about creative problem-solving on the solving bit, on the actual solution, but often the most creative thing is what question you ask in the first place, because that frames the direction of inquiry. That can either propel you towards something that’s very unproductive, or it can propel you towards something that’s very productive.

So, I would tend to encourage anybody wanting to invest their resources in helping the education system is to work hard with people to figure out what the right questions are, that might be worth asking, before deciding that it’s all about technology or that it’s all about blended learning or it’s all about something else, which is what tends to happen, right? I mean, right now it tends to be, “Oh, we have this great idea. We just want to apply it to the school system,” and I think unfortunately the results too often speak for themselves when you take that approach.

Photo: Claremont Graduate University via Getty Images

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