IDEO’s Sandy Speicher on 7 Ways Design Can Change Learning

IDEO’s Sandy Speicher predicts seven fundamental changes that will transform education.

Courtesy Nicholas Calcott

Sandy Speicher, the managing director of IDEO’s education practice, predicts seven fundamental changes in design for education, including the future of personalized learning, teacher training, smart evaluation, and the reintegration of sports and arts with academics.

1. One-Size-Fits all to Personalization 

I believe that personalized learning is the future: Center on each child and his or her needs. Sometimes this concept is also referred to as blended or individualized learning. “Blended” sounds like what matters is teachers plus technology, but when we talk of personalized learning, what we’re talking about is the individual’s learning journey.

The terminology will change, of course, as we get used to the idea that learning happens through many channels. It’s just what people do these days—they navigate between tools, physical and digital, for a comprehensive experience. Soon we’ll just call it “learning.”

One of the best ways that we can help schools become more student-centered is by supporting teachers with resources that help them individualize learning, from textbooks to technology platforms. We also need to create schools with structures that make it easier for teachers to individualize learning—shaking up assumptions about how we group kids around age to grouping them around “stage,” for instance.

Because of these shifts to focus on the needs of each learner, continuing education for teachers needs to shift too. Usually an expert comes in and tells them about new developments in their field, and teachers say, “Well, this is inspiring, but I’m exhausted and I don’t quite know how to incorporate this in the classroom.” We need to look at how we personalize learning for teachers as well.

At the Innova schools [where IDEO designed the education system] in Peru we are making sure we’re teaching teachers in the way that we’re asking them to teach. We call it “model the model.” No teachers have been educated in this way, so their continued development should help them have empathy for what it’s like to be a student in a personalized learning journey.

2. Testing Knowledge to Tracking Progress 

Eventually we’ll see teachers and school systems getting savvier about data. Technological tools allow us to track progress more easily, so evaluation will begin to focus less on performance on a test and more on ongoing development and progress. We’ll get much more mature about seeing patterns of how learners develop. But perhaps most importantly, students will become aware of their own progress.

There are some wonderful solutions in this area, such as Khan Academy and the dashboard they created, which is a game-changing tool. I spoke to a fifth-grade student who was using Khan Academy in her classroom. She showed me the competency map for math. Along the way she had touched some courses lightly—and they were PhD-level math, not fifth-grade math! I asked her, “What happened there?” and she said, “I just wanted to know where this was all going.” She was able to recognize when something was too advanced for her, but it made the work she was doing at the current moment more meaningful because she knew it had applications in the future.

3. Clients to Collaborators 

It’s important to recognize that teachers are designers. They are designing curricula, interactions, spaces, and much more. Their work is centered on the design of an experience so that a student has a particular “aha.” There’s an art to what teachers do.

Of course, interaction designers, architects, and graphic designers create experiences too. While teachers tend to measure outcomes, we designers tend to look at engagement. If we can pair those things, we have a great combination.

At the Summit Public Schools in the Bay Area, teachers thought about how they needed to design experiences so that students took more ownership of their own learning and set self-determined goals for both their academic progress and personal character development. They’ve created the PLP, a personalized learning platform, which is beautiful in its integrity. But it doesn’t have the sophistication that a team of interaction designers could bring to it. Now they are collaborating with Facebook, so interaction and systems designers can take all the intelligence that teachers put into the PLP and turn it into a compelling experience that others can use.

Students at one of the Innova Schools in Peru, where the IDEO–developed curriculum emphasizes new teaching strategies such as personalized learning.

Courtesy IDEO

4. Classrooms to Communal Rooms 

I’d love to see someone reprogram a school building without changing anything in the structure. On the one hand, there are a lot of existing spaces that people say they can’t change because it would be too expensive. But on the other hand, there are all these big spaces like cafeterias, libraries, and auditoriums that sit idle a lot of the time. What if we switch that? What if we use the big spaces as flexible learning environments and the small spaces for social activities? If we could let go of the idea of a classroom and think about the spaces that we need for learning, existing buildings might have a lot of the answers already.

5. Credit Hours to Competency 

One of the most exciting shifts in higher education is toward competency-based learning programs. Instead of having large lecture halls where you have to sit through a course for every hour—even if you know the content—colleges are starting to say that if you can demonstrate the knowledge and pass the test, then you can pass the course. There’s also an exciting shift in the focus of postsecondary education in general, recognizing that career training and liberal arts education are equally valid—and necessary—pathways. I believe we’ll see more of that in K–12 as teachers become more comfortable with the tools, and as the system gets smarter about what assessing competency really looks like.

6. Budget Cuts to Prioritizing Costs 

At IDEO, when we work deeply with clients or partners like Innova Schools or the San Francisco Unified School District, we are looking at questions at a systemic level, not just a programmatic one. In order to create new ways of “doing school,” you have to look at the entirety of your system in order to understand what you need to rebalance in terms of organizational priorities, and often in terms of the budget. We put some of the world’s smartest business designers on challenges of school-model design, because the financial model is often where our priorities get reflected. Some of the hardest business-design questions exist in the education sector. There are obvious roles for interaction designers or graphic designers to create products, and architects supporting how the space brings out the pedagogy, and there are great roles for other types of designers with business expertise as well.

7. Staying on Track to Finding Purpose 

I was really struck by a dialogue that I had recently with a student who had gotten into college, but chose to drop out. She pointed out that she had gone through K–12 being told that she had to go to a top-tier college. But once she got there she didn’t quite know why she was in it, so she felt it was irresponsible to be investing money in college.

We often hear that youth feel disconnected from their sense of purpose. It’s typically in the “extracurricular”—art, music, sports—that people identify their passions and develop confidence in their creativity, and in their ability to lead or be part of a team. What if schools flipped to have the “extracurricular” as core? Youth need to be reflective so that they are making informed choices. Academics play a role in that, but we shouldn’t believe it’s the only thing that matters.

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