School & District Management Opinion

How ‘Design Thinking’ Can Change Education

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — May 23, 2016 13 min read
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Tim Brown speaking at the Claremont Graduate University’s 89th annual commencement ceremony.

Tim Brown is the CEO of the design firm IDEO and an indefatigable missionary for the idea that ordinary people can become “design thinkers” and thus increase the range of attractive futures for themselves and society. This month, he received an honorary doctorate from Claremont Graduate University, and we talked before he gave the commencement address. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

Charles Taylor Kerchner: Tim, first I want to orient our readers to your ideas about moving from designing “stuff” to designing systems.

Tim Brown: Herbert Simon, the great computer scientist, created the best definition of design that I can think of. He said, “Whenever we intentionally shape our world to suit ourselves, we’re designing.” Right? Whenever we’re not doing that, the world is happening to us.

When somebody 100,000 years ago picked up a stone and a flint and started hacking away at it to make something that could cut hide better, they were designing because they were intentionally shaping the world. So at some level, we have always done it.

The Shakers were great designers because they wanted to make the world that they lived in more efficient, and somehow for them beauty was efficiency, and so we tend to think of chairs or spinning wheels or farm implements or flatware as the things that we shape in the world around us.

But the fact is that our systems are the same, or can be the same. When we start to connect all these things up together in healthcare or education we are beginning to design a system. So we can do it; it’s just that sometimes we don’t think to do it.

CTK: We’re at Peter Drucker’s Claremont Graduate University. You quote him a lot. Why would you think to reach back decades to Peter’s writing in order to suggest that now is a particularly good time in history to think about innovation in big things?

TB: He described business as an act of humanity, a human-centered thing, and I think of design as a human-centered thing; so that’s one connection. The other connection is in why the moment is right. So many of our systems were designed for and in the Industrial Revolution with an industrial, mechanical mindset, and as we’ve refined those systems they’ve gotten more and more mechanistic and in general less and less human-centered. And here we find ourselves at a point when nearly every one of those systems is no longer fit our purpose.

So now’s the time to go back to the core, which is how do we design systems that are fit for our purpose, and the planet’s purpose, in a way that they leverage and exploit the potential of today, not of 150 years ago? That’s why I think the time is right now.

CTK: Give me a concrete example, drawn from your practice.

TB: Well, we’re interested in the topic of education today. Our education system, both here and most other countries in the world, is essentially designed as a machine, right? We have a mechanistic concept of what a cohort of kids looks like and what the curriculum is, and we sort of force kids through it. And it works to some degree, although we’re not necessarily seeing the results that we would like.

A few years ago we found ourselves in a very different set of circumstances. We were asked by this very brilliant business leader in Peru by the name of Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor to help him design a low-cost, scalable, high-quality school system. By low cost, it had to cost $100 a month per student, which is a lot less than we pay per student in our American system. He said, “You can design everything.”

So we got to design the curriculum, the campuses, the teacher training methods, the technology that was going to be used in the school, how the technology fitted into the curriculum, the business model for the schools—everything. We got to design the whole system.

And some of the constraints were different than they are here, which turned out to be good news, actually, rather than bad news. So, one of the constraints is there are really very few highly qualified teachers in Peru; very hard to find. At the time, Peru was at the bottom of the PISA rankings—75 out of 75, I think, something like that—but it was very hard to find high-quality teachers. So what the team did, working with Carlos and the team at what became Innova schools, was to rethink what the relationship between the teacher, the kids, technology, and the curriculum could be. So these classes have 60 kids in them, which is huge compared to what you would imagine in American system. They used a blended learning approach, and they use flexible classrooms that flex in scale from 60 kids at some times of the day when they might be using the technology to 15 kids when a teacher is actually coaching the kids.

They’ve introduced things like design thinking as part of the curriculum, so creative problem solving is part of the curriculum. And so by accepting some of the constraints of the system, we ended up taking a different approach and tripled the attainment schools in maths and language, since the schools have opened. They’ve gone from one school to 34 schools, thousands of kids going through. Every school [they are private] is sold out before it’s built. So for me, that’s an example of the ability we have to redesign these systems to work, when we’re willing to look at the whole thing.

CTK: You had a relatively unconstrained rule field when you went down to Peru. At the end of the day, how were those schools different?

TB: We fully implemented a blended learning approach. We took the Khan Academy down there, and we did one of the first South American implementations. And we built new kinds of classrooms, which were flexible; so literally they were dividable and adjustable so that the class could literally go from 60 to 15 in the same space so that you could have different modes of teaching over the day. I’m sure it’s been experimented with elsewhere, but we implemented it quite successfully. Other than that that core classroom design, the classrooms are not significantly different. They’re very simple because there’s not much money to spend on the schools. Interestingly enough, the company behind the Innova school system also has a lot of other businesses, including shopping malls, and the schools are so popular now that they actually make the schools the anchor tenants of shopping malls when they open. That’s a concept. Can’t see that happening in America, can you? I mean, imagine, instead of Macy’s or Nordstrom, it’s a school that’s the anchor tenant, because the community loves them so much.

CTK: Who goes to those schools? Are they middle-class kids?

TB: The emerging middle class. A hundred bucks doesn’t seem much to us. It’s quite a lot down there. But that’s Carlos’ whole purpose: to support the growth of the middle class in Peru. So all of his businesses are businesses aimed at the middle class, including the school system.

CTK: Let’s take the jump from this marvelous school in Peru to something big and chunky, like California’s education system. We’ve got six million kids. It’s in the process of trying to rethink some pretty radical things. It’s proving very difficult to do. Are there points of entry for an outfit like the Department of Education where people are so deep in the silos that it’s hard for them to think across them?

TB: I don’t pretend to be anything close to being an expert, either on education or on the California education system. So, I wouldn’t presume to have solutions. But what we often find is that, when we’re working with institutions—and this is true in the business world too—is how little the organization really knows about the experiences of the people that they’re serving within the system, the customer, if you like.

We’ve been doing a program called School Retool, a nationwide program helping school principals think creatively about their own institutions. One of the first things we had them do was to go out and trail students; go spend a day with a student. We got back things like, “Man, how do they do it? How do they get through a day? I had no idea that it was such hard work to be [a student].”

This is true in every system. The first step is building empathy for the stakeholders in the system. Obviously, a school system is very complex and there are a lot of different stakeholders, but our approach is generally you start with the core and work out. So in a school system, it’s pretty safe to say that the kids you’re trying to educate are at the core. Then you can start to work out.

Increasing the level of empathy and understanding is always the first step to having ideas that are relevant. Because it’s not the question of can you have ideas or not. I believe that understanding the lives, frustrations, and aspirations of people actually helps you have better ideas. It certainly causes the ideas you have to be more relevant to them. I would hypothesize that the education system, like other systems, has suffered a little bit from an awful lot of creative thinking going on in back rooms—perhaps academic environments—not closely with the core customer.

CTK: On behalf of my profession, I plead guilty.

TB: I’d love parents all to go and shadow their students. I think parents put all of these pressures on teachers to do things without having any idea what the classroom is really like.

CTK: One of the things that you talk about in the design process is tinkering. What does this sort of purposeful messing about add to the process?

TB: It’s how you make progress with ideas. I mean, ideas, in order to have impact, have to have presence in the world. You have to act on them, and the sooner you act on them, the sooner you learn how good or bad they are, the better.

System-level ideas can be sometimes quite hard to act on, although we now have tools to do that we didn’t used to have. Computers help us do simulations and things like that.

But for me, it’s all about learning. The act of prototyping or tinkering is all about learning through doing, learning through making your ideas come alive in the world in some ways so that you can reflect on them and others can reflect on them. Because when they’re in our heads, we can imagine all kinds of things about them, and often we imagine how wonderful they’re going to be, without realizing all the things that we haven’t even thought of until we actually try to make them real.

We do a lot of tinkering with services. When we’re designing services, we do it by having people act. We teach a lot of our people improv acting skills so that they can act out service interactions in real-time and discover what feels right, what’s the relationship between people, what’s going to feel smooth, whether that’s in a pharmacy or a classroom.

CTK: So you actually do this?

TB: Oh yeah. We do it all the time. I think tinkering in the playful sense is valuable because it gives people what we call creative confidence, right? It gives them the confidence to act on their ideas, the skills to know that they can grab some materials and make something that is useful to them without it being a huge obstacle, and we’ve found in general that the biggest block on people’s creativity is not their ability to imagine things; it’s their ability to act on their imagination.

CTK: How do you do this with big systems like corporations or countries?

: Our chief creative officer, a guy called Paul Bennett, has this mantra that he talks about all the time, which is, “Many times small equals big.” And so part of the philosophy is that. We just start doing lots of it. And so it’s not necessarily about trying to rapidly prototype a huge, complex system; it’s about trying to rapidly prototype lots of bits of it, and then you figure out how to bring them together. So, for instance, another piece of work we did in the school arena was with the San Francisco school district a few years ago was looking at the experience of kids’ lunch, school lunch.

CTK: Right.

TB: And they had a very real problem. I think of the 55,000 kids in the school system, some very considerable number of them, 20-odd thousand, qualified for free and reduced lunch, but a very small percentage of them actually took it. They all went out and bought Doritos and soda at the corner store instead. And this was a concern, for health reasons, for all kinds of reasons, right? And so the question was: can we redesign the experience of school lunch so that the kids who deserve it and have a right to it actually partake of it, actually experience it. It wasn’t about the food itself. They had already had redone that with a rather interesting company out of Oakland called Revolution Foods.

CTK: Right.

TB: Everything else had been left the same. We were thinking about not only the experience of standing in line or whatever to get the food and eating the food, but where the food was coming from, the commissary system, the business model behind that. We had to think all about all that stuff if we were going to change, do anything interesting. We recruited kids to the team; we recruited some of the attendants who work in the [cafeteria] and a couple of principals, and we starting prototyping things.

We’d do rough-and-ready prototypes in school lunchrooms. One of the ideas, which became part of the final set of recommendations, was that for elementary school, there was a real opportunity to make lunch actually a learning experience for kids.

One of the problems was that these kids had to have a certain amount of fruit and vegetable with their lunch. So they [the schools] used a kind of assembly-line technique. Walk down with the tray; they have to take an apple or something, and there’s somebody at the end of the line checking that the kids have all the right stuff. And, of course, they walk off and dump all that stuff in the trash and then take the hamburger, or whatever, and eat it.

There was a problem that kids just don’t understand the food they’re eating. So, for elementary school kids the proposal was: we’ll go to family style. One of the kids goes and gets the food a course at a time; and they get to explain to the kids, “Well, here’s what the food is today.”

And we just tried it, and we prototyped it and figured out what worked and what didn’t. Did it help to have explanations on the table what food is? What do you have to do differently? How did it have to work in the kitchens differently if you were going to do it family style? We just prototyped our way to the solution, one little contained solution that gets connected to how the space gets worked, and then that’s getting connected to how it might be a bit different when they get to middle school and ultimately to high school, and eventually you have a whole system, and you’ve prototyped all of it. Not necessarily all at once. I’ve always used is this idea of “just enough” prototyping, which is don’t try and do too much at once, and don’t try and make it too finished.

CTK: Not making it too finished?

TB: Because if you make it too finished, you’ve got too much invested in it, and if you’ve got too much invested in it and you get negative feedback, you don’t want to change it. The point of prototyping is to learn what needs to be better, not to prove to yourself you had a good idea. There is a moment at some point along the line when you’re kind of selling your idea to the masses.

You want to do just enough, which I think is actually quite liberating for people who are scared of getting involved in these kind of things because then they realize, “Actually, I don’t have to [make it perfect]. I can make a quick, scrappy thing and try it out, and that’s actually better than trying to make something beautiful, which I don’t have the skills to do anyway.” It’s another part of this creative confidence problem.

Tomorrow: Tim Brown talks about rules: how constraints can help sharpen the design process, and so can breaking some rules. And he has some advice for billionaires.

Going Deeper:

See: Design Thinking for Educators.

Tim Brown writes at Harvard Business Review.

Change by Design

Photo: Claremont Graduate University

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