States Opinion

The Case for Human-Centered Systems Design

By Jal Mehta — January 06, 2016 7 min read
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I have been doing some research with doctoral colleague Renee Rinehart on how people at different levels of the education system understand the same policies. We have been interviewing teachers, principals, districts, and state officials about two policies--teacher evaluation and Response to Intervention--to see how they make sense of the policy, as well as how they understand the roles that each other play in the system.

Not surprisingly, from the teachers in particular, we have found absolute puzzlement and/or outright hostility about the ideas and even motives of those further up the chain. I will save the quotes for the article we are writing on the subject, but state officials were compared to “the IRS” and there was significant sentiment that district and state officials should spend some time in their shoes if they wanted to develop policies that would work on the ground. Few of the teachers we have interviewed thus far were ever actually consulted by anyone higher up about a policy.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the state and district officials were quite aware of how they were perceived by the teachers. Many of them had been teachers at earlier stages in life, and knew that they were seen by teachers as sitting in the “ivory tower,” pushing paper and making rules while teachers did the “real work” with students. Because their job was to create change at the system level, they had thought about the teachers’ reactions to them--changing the teachers’ behaviors was a critical step in what they were trying to accomplish. (In contrast, teachers seem to have spent very little time thinking about state and district officials, likely because they are not salient to their immediate responsibilities.) But despite the fact that the higher-ups had thought, and even strategized, about getting teachers to “buy in” to their policy shifts, the teacher interviews suggested that they had made little progress on this front.

There are at least two ways to get around this longstanding dilemma. One is to move to a more portfolio type structure, where more and more decisions are made at the school level, which lessens the need to coordinate between district officials and those on the ground. There is a lot to be said for this strategy, in large part because it promotes significant ownership by students, teachers, and principals of what is happening in their building. Almost every really good school I have ever visited has been convinced that they are the ones who know best for their students, and that what happens in the broader policy environment is basically a distraction from the relationships, expectations, culture, and climate they are trying to create at a school level. It also puts things at a more manageable scale--it is much easier to make decisions that make sense for a given context when the decision-makers (administrators and teachers) actually know the students that they are making the decisions for.

A second approach is what I’m calling “human-centered systems design.” The idea here is that if we want to design policies and systems that work we need to flip the top-down assumptions and begin with the needs of teachers and students and design accordingly. For example, a typical policy question might be: “How do we close achievement gaps in our district?” In contrast, a human-centered design question might be: “I’m Mrs. Johnson, a 9th grade history teacher. I teach 120 students a day, half of them are reading at a 6th grade level or below, all of them need to pass Regents in a few years, the district and principal have expectations about coverage, students are struggling with Common Core assessments, I have two young kids of my own that need considerable attention, and my husband travels two days a week. How can I meet the many expectations that are being placed on me within the time I have?”

My argument is that this second question is a much more promising starting point for efficacious policy-making than the first. It brings into view things that are largely invisible from the 10,000-foot level, in particular the range of competing demands facing real teachers, and the absence of any sort of systematic plan to help them meet those expectations. Those of you familiar with design thinking will see the influence of that approach here; design thinking begins with empathy with a real “user” and then moves through a series of stages--defining the problem, brainstorming, prototyping, and finally testing back with that user--to try to develop something that would actually work from the perspective of the ground. So, in one well-known example, the industrial design firm IDEO redesigned the shopping cart for ABC’s Nightline about a dozen years ago. Their designers went to the local supermarket to do empathy interviews and observations; they discovered that people frequently shopped for the produce first and then found it crushed under the meat they picked up later, that they had trouble turning the carts around the corners of the aisles, and that they wanted to know how much they were spending as they shopped. The redesigned cart was smaller, had hooks for bags that people would drop food into as they shopped, and had a scanner that enabled people to check out items as they shopped.

Part of what is particularly appealing about the design perspective is its emphasis on simplicity and alignment--as Apple’s popularity indicates, the best designs are simple; rather than overloading with stuff you might need, they focus on the few things you actually do need. Since a big part of the problem, from the perspective of the teacher, is that they are being asked to integrate a blizzard of conflicting imperatives (each of which may have made sense at the time it was issued, but cumulatively are a nightmare), design promises to work from the other end of the telescope and create a coherent approach that is asking the teacher to meet a limited number of objectives and providing the support to enable them to do so.

The key difference is that design thinking comes out of a tradition of industrial design; what is being made here is often a physical (or virtual) product that will solve the problem of the “user.” Transposing this approach to public education has some limits: 1) teachers and students generally do not think of themselves as “users"; 2) these are not problems that likely can be resolved with either a physical object or an app; 3) as public institutions, who decides what happens to them are political questions, something which design thinking is silent about; and 4) because schools are complex interacting social institutions, piece-meal solutions to individual problems won’t work unless they are integrated into the overall fabric of those schools.

Hence, I have become interested in what I’m calling “human-centered systems design"--marrying the ideas of bottom-up design from design thinking with the idea that improvement at scale requires the development of good systems. Presumably key to this process would be co-design, involving the various stakeholders who would be affected by a given policy, with really careful attention paid to the voices of those who would be most affected by it. As Tony Bryk and his colleagues urge, there should be small trials of different possible ideas before a larger rollout, as even our best guesses about what will work often fail at initial contact with reality. And, once something works in one place at one time, there similarly should be no expectation that it will work in the next place at the next time; every context is different and thus will likely require considerable refinement as it grows.

Part of what is most attractive about this vision of co-design is that it has the potential to fundamentally change the dynamic that Renee and I observed in our interviews. By bringing people at different levels of the system into a much more collaborative relationship focused on solving problems, they would build trust and gradually begin to see the world a bit more from each other’s worldviews. The whole notion of “buy-in” assumes that the people “on the top” have the wisdom and the problem is that people “on the bottom” won’t do what they want. A better world would recognize that wisdom is hard to come by but can be found in lots of places, that creating good education is a hard and humbling enterprise, and that our best chance is collaboration that privileges the perspectives of those closest to teaching and learning.

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