Science Opinion

What’s Up With All the Design-Focused Schools?

By Tom Vander Ark — June 19, 2018 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Design--it’s what’s new. It’s the haute denim, the macrome, the mixed print of 2018 edu-fashion.

We’ve visited a lot of schools lately and design is a common theme. Kids everywhere are sketching, sewing, and solving big problems.

Take SAMI (above, where we hosted a Learner Experience Summit recently), a high school at the zoo in Tacoma for example. The building looks like a big makerspace with labs and garage doors everywhere. Students conduct hands-on projects with community connections.

So is the focus on design a fad, a trend, or something important? We think it’s a big deal--an important mindset and a priority skill.

Why Design?

In the old days, most of the problems professionals addressed (from engineering to public policy) where technical. Many of us were trained in pattern recognition and solution application. Each profession had a cannon of best practices. What’s different now is that we’re all facing more new and complex problems, what 10 years ago Ron Heifetz called adaptive problems.

To address new and complex problems, we all need a flexible growth mindset and a structured problem-solving methodology. It’s what Google’s Jonathan Rochelle called “confidence in the face of complexity.”

Design thinking, a mindset and methodology popularized by Stanford’s d.School, starts with understanding the problem, that includes building empathy and understanding of the people involved --a combination of research skills and a way of thinking. Once the problem is identified, an iterative approach to solution development follows; prototypes are tested and refined.

One Stone, a high school and after-school program in Boise has a well-developed methodology for design thinking (below) that is used across the curriculum.

Schools that embrace design as a core aspect of their model are finding success not only in student outcomes but also in recruiting and keeping exceptional educators. Why? Because design unleashes the creative potential in each student and taps into the passions of educators they may or may not even realize they have.

Building on design skills, young people need initiative in the face of opportunity: learning to take initiative, to shape impact opportunities including projects, campaigns, and startup organizations (i.e., entrepreneurship). They also need self-awareness in the face of diversity: becoming self-aware, learning to read social situations and build relationships, collaborating through difficult situations.

Trends in Design-Focused Schools

In this podcast, we discuss some of the best examples of design-focused schools. Leading southern California district schools include Design39 in Poway, Del Lago, Escondido, and VIDA in Vista.

California charter schools leading on design thinking include High Tech High, where Director Kaleb Rashad sees design as focus on equity. And Design Tech High on the Oracle campus. Freshman at d.Tech take a prototyping class to learn how to represent their ideas physically and digitally.

In the Eastern Standard Time Zone, there is Purdue Polytechnic in Indianapolis and Albemarle County Public Schools in Charlottesville. In Pittsburgh, the Remake Learning Initiative has helped to activate districts including South Fayette and Montour.

The growing number of design-based schools exhibit three trends:

  • Integration over isolation. Not limited to a makerspace, leading schools incorporate design thinking across the curriculum.
  • Extended challenges around big issues. Students work in extended challenges that address global goals. Teachers ask students to work on problems with no answers.
  • Supported by skill building. Leading schools support design by teaching research strategies, prototyping skills, and project management (see HQPBL).

It’s time to make design thinking central to elementary and secondary learning. Leading schools are designing the way.

Key Takeaways from the Podcast

[:14] This week, Tom is talking to Emily Liebtag to discuss all of the amazing, innovative design-focused schools they have had the pleasure of visiting in the last several weeks.
[:31] Emily’s favorite school from the last several weeks: Agnor-Hurt Elementary.
[3:40] About Tom’s recent visit to Tacoma Public Schools’ Science and Math Institute.
[4:46] Why The Getting Smart team thinks design focus is so important in today’s education.
[6:50] How design-thinking has changed in education from years ago to now.
[8:47] One of Getting Smart’s favorite schools is One Stone, that is a great example of well-structured design-thinking methodology.
[10:09] An example of a successful project by a student, that came out of a design-thinking school.
[11:51] Positive trends taking over schools across the country.
[14:28] All about D39 -- a school that embodies these new, innovative trends.
[15:36] What Emily loves about Del Lago Academy.
[16:47] About VIDA school -- a school that was going to shut down but reinvented themselves as a design-thinking school.
[17:38] What Emily and Tom love about High Tech High in San Diego.
[19:55] Tom’s thoughts on Purdue Polytechnic Institute.
[21:18] How the design-thinking frame helps students to incorporate different skills.
[23:26] Some elements of design-thinking in Albemarle County Public Schools that have really stood out to Tom and Emily.
[27:27] SAMI and other schools in the Pacific Northwest that Tom would like to shed a light on.
[29:30] Recapping this week’s episode.
[31:25] Where to learn more about school visits.

Mentioned in This Episode

Agnor-Hurt Elementary School
Albemarle County Public Schools
Tacoma Public Schools: Science and Math Institute (SAMI)
One Stone
Design39 (D39)
Del Lago Academy
High Tech High
High Tech High International
El Paso School District
Purdue Polytechnic Institute
Carnegie Mellon
University of Pittsburgh
Grable Foundation
Woodbrook Elementary School
Design Tech High School

For more see:

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update.
The photos above were taken by Tom Vander Ark. The graphics are used with permission from One Stone and VIDA

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation 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.