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The School Day of the Future is DESIGNED

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Stoking a child's imagination: a 12-year-old's vision of a medieval war.

Unpredictable, inconsistent, and designed to be wildly relevant for learners, their engagement, and their development.

Sandy Speicher leads IDEO’s Design for Learning domain, which brings human-centered thinking to systemic challenges in education. Her work helps educators use design tools and methods to work in new ways, to prepare for future challenges, and to transform their organizations and communities.

By Sandy Speicher

Some children will be reading in comfortable chairs. Some will be digging into a scientific research question by conducting readings on a nearby pond. Some will be working on computers refining their skills in math while others are sequencing DNA. Some will be collaborating around a design challenge with new friends across the globe. One group will reenact a battle from medieval times, while others are learning on site, at jobs. Building, making, imagining, interacting, investigating, reflecting, connecting, shaping, participating. There will be challenge. There will be high expectations. And there will be tons of variation. With all of its possibility, the school day of the future will be one thing: it will be designed.

Elliot Eisner, one of my favorite education professors, often asked the question, “If aliens landed on our planet and walked into our schools, what would they think the school is meant for?” We’d brainstorm: Learning to sit in rows? Learning to get up and move en masse at the sound of a bell? Learning to stay in place for 40-minute increments? Learning to override your bodily functions? Learning to answer the questions that the person standing in front of the room already knows the answer to? It’s hard not to realize that a school, upon pure observation, looks like a training ground for behavioral management.

In the end, it’s not that much different than the design of most of our industrial work environments – time, constraints, structures, tasks, a consistent and organized system. It’s what we adults tend to design without really thinking.


But when you watch children – undeniable natural learners – they create different solutions: play, discovery, interaction. They observe the world, they stick things in their mouth, they touch things. They connect with the world to learn it. They experience it through their senses. And in discussions with the people around them, they create language and meaning and amazing new ideas and interpretations that the rest of us get the benefit of learning from.

It’s not too big of a leap to want the school day designed around these notions of how we naturally, and individually, learn. Designing the day around discovery of information, connections to real world challenges, discussions digging into our experiences with the world.

One thing to keep in mind, of course, is that not every child is starting in the same place, and not every child is headed toward the same place. Some need freedom in order to learn. Some need structure. Some need a mix. But all need respect for their individuality, trust in their abilities to succeed, and adults who have the foresight to design experience to bring out individual greatness.

A 10-year-old illustrates "genetical engineering."

The School of One in New York City, for instance, is creating an exciting model of individualized learning that integrates technology and personal attention. Their school day revolves around formative assessments which technology helps capture, so that the teachers can look at the data at the end of the day. The teachers discuss – together – how each student is doing, and develop a strategy for the following day which can include any number of formats for what the student needs – teacher-led instruction, one-on-one tutoring, self-learning, or virtual tutoring. They’ve broken the model of one class with one teacher and created a network of learning toward specific goals.

Then there are Leadership Public Schools, whose students have unique needs of their own. The majority of their students are performing at an elementary level when they enter in the ninth grade. They have created a portfolio of adaptive learning technologies which allow students to access ninth-grade content while learning basic skills. It’s not "Drill and Kill" -- they’ve integrated technology into the daily experience by helping students learn to create with it. This is putting them on the track not just for incredible academic gains, but also for immediate relevance in the job market – an important need for their students.

Students at schools in the New Tech Network are learning in related ways, but with a different design. They use projects to inspire new understandings. They’re also using technology to capture learnings – building videos and slideshow presentations – and they’re most often working in teams, learning different subject-matter content through real world challenges.

Teachers at Ormondale Elementary School in California build their curriculum from student passions. They have a range of approaches – inspiring children through teacher-defined projects, allowing them to define the end goals of any given exploration, capturing a student's passion toward a particular topic and using that as the vehicle for exploration through teacher- or student-defined assignments. Their school day allows for this range of experience, and the “investigations” happening throughout the day vary greatly class by class, child by child.

All of these innovative models are showing us that incredible results, and experiences are possible when we design the school day with the needs of the student in mind. The historic “one-size-fits-all” model of set periods of time with groups of somewhere between 20-30 kids lined up in rows and one teacher in the front of the room orchestrating the conversation…. well, Sage on Stage, Chalk and Talk, and Spray and Pray might just have met their match.

The school day of the future will be unpredictable, inconsistent, and designed to be wildly relevant for the learner, their engagement, and their development.


Read more in the School Day of the Future series.

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