School & District Management Opinion

Making Human-Centered Systems Design Work in Education

By Contributing Blogger — February 03, 2016 3 min read
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This post is by Amelia Peterson, Renee Rinehart, Andrew Volkert, and Max Yurkofsky, doctoral students at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Last month, Jal Mehta wrote on this blog about the need for “human-centered systems design” in education. He described discussions we and others have been having about what it would look like to really effectively adapt design thinking for the work of school improvement and innovation.

Design thinking has become a popular idea in public sector reform, the latest in a line of approaches aimed at overcoming the intransigence and complexity of services like public education. Design thinking comes codified in different models--sometimes referred to as human-centered design or service design--with popular ones coming from IDEO, the Stanford d.school, or the UK Design Council. In essence, design thinking is about rethinking a service or experience from a particular perspective--usually that of the service “user"--and creating something that works better. It is distinguished by its emphasis on trying to empathize with the full holistic experience of the user.

In his post, Jal argued that for the purposes of real reform in the U.S., design thinking needs to be complemented by other methodologies that can handle systems: in attempting to solve any given problem in public education, one quickly runs into dysfunctions in the wider environment. This difficulty leads us back to an earlier darling of public sector reform: systems thinking (popularized by Peter Senge at MIT). Systems thinking shares a central tenet with design--the need to understand individual perspectives--but places more emphasis on the interactions between perspectives and how those give rise to outcomes. In other words, where design thinking zooms in on understanding the trees, systems thinking helps us see the forest.

It has taken a long time for systems thinking to move from idealized theory to more practical approaches. There are now several, however, such as the Vanguard method, adapted for the public sector from Toyota’s famous “Total Management” approach. John Seddon describes this method as starting with “understanding customer demand in customer terms.” All the subsequent steps then evolve as a process of “designing against demand.” In design thinking language, this is the equivalent of starting with the user.

Here then is the rub. In education, there never is just one customer, just as there is not one user. Even in private education there is always at the very least two, because the service needs to meet the demands of both the child and parent or caregiver. As students are not seen as fit to exercise their own individual choice this opens up a space where society can bid to shape or question the decisions made on their behalf, and so we introduce a third customer--fellow citizens, taxpayers, and potential employers--who claim a stake in the system design and its outputs.

As a result, education never has just one goal. It is not a system that can be optimized towards one outcome, just as it is not a product that can be designed with a perfect balance of form and function. This is part of what makes teaching so hard, and both an art and science: it is as much about quality of process--the communities and relationships it creates--as it is about quality of outputs. At its core the management of education, then, is about balancing the demands of different stakeholders in the most just ways possible. An added complexity is that those demands will often exist only in the abstract--in a sense of rights or entitlements--as there is little by way of established structure for them to be voiced.

For these reasons, our investigation into a method of human-centered systems design fit for public education has led us to look at institutions and processes that are adept at engaging with the politics of multi-stakeholder decision-making. We are looking at a wide range of examples from urban planning and probation reform, to new political theory and pop-up communities. Our hope is that these examples will reveal additional principles to supplement those of design and systems thinking, and point to new ways of unlocking real progress in education innovation and improvement.

If you have experience of design or systems thinking in education, whether good or bad, we would love to hear from you. Additionally, if there are any other tools or processes you think should be part of this investigation, we are all ears.

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The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.