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Viewpoints: September 2022

Each month, we connect with change-makers, thought leaders, practitioners, and artists to get their takes on three key questions. We’re excited to connect with: Susie Wise, Mario Echeverria, and Amy Anderson.

Viewpoints: September 2022
What about people-centered design is so powerful for you in the context of education?

If we’re going to design for public education, the most important part of that whole system, especially in terms of outcomes, is people. Education is designed to grow people. The power of people-centered design is the constant focus on building experiences for real people to learn. And every time we say people, I mean students, but also parents, caregivers, extended family, community members, who are all learning. That’s what humans do. If we switch from looking at the concrete offerings of a system to the experiences that people are having, it really helps us to stay grounded in the purpose of creating education systems to begin with.

We can easily get caught up in, “Oh, we’re going to do this program. We’re going to do this curriculum, build this building.” We get caught up in the “stuff,” and we lose sight of the people. So I think it’s that continual return [of focus on people] that is needed. Throughout history, there are moments where we re-ground, and hopefully this is another moment where we’re re-grounding by asking: what do people need? That gets us to some real fundamentals. What do people need? They need safety. They need belonging. They need opportunities to express themselves and be whole people.

Ceding (and seeding) power and authority through co-creation, co-design

I think of co-design as … imagining together, because we need multiple perspectives just to stimulate our imagination. And then we need those multiple perspectives, those different points of view, those really diverse ideas and ways of being, to bring anything that we design alive. I think it’s the only way to work.

[Typically,] we come up with some good ideas, and then we “roll them out,” and I’m using air quotes here. Rollouts are a fantasy. Even if you went away and had a good idea, you’re going to bring it back to a super specific context. And the reality of that context is mostly about the humans that are there. And so that’s why non-co-design doesn’t work. It’s because you actually haven’t considered the most important parts of the system.

For me, it’s fundamental to say it explicitly, out loud, [that we are] co-creating with students. That when we’re talking about student-centered learning, it’s not just about adults on the side thinking about the students and calling it student-centered. It’s really digging in and working closely with students to understand what their needs are, what their experience is, what they’re bringing in terms of desires around learning. How does a co-creative orientation help us lift up the voices and the needs of students?

Designing for individual and collective experience vs designing for “the middle”

We know belonging is fundamental to being able to learn. If we don’t feel like we’re a part of something, at whatever stage in our experience, it’s very hard for us to identify as a learner. We know that from Camille Farrington’s work, David Yeager’s work, all the work on growth mindset, etc. We also know it in our bones and hearts and bodies … that if we don’t feel like we belong, it doesn’t feel good. We don’t want to show up. There are parts of ourselves that we can’t show, [which] makes learning really hard.

So belonging is fundamentally important. And while it is a feeling, it can be designed for. We can’t design it, but we can design for it. That creates this really interesting opportunity to expand what we think of as design. So in addition to expanding and thinking about co-design — who are all the designers? — we can also push ourselves to get much more nuanced, fluid, creative about all the things that we can design into our schools, our systems, our experiences that help support belonging, particularly for students furthest from opportunity, and for all students.

There is actually no middle person. There are just people.

Relationships, context, and community — spaces where learning happens

I think what happens when we operate only in a consultative model and not in a co-creative model is we’re not deep enough in relationship. We’re not actually understanding people and their needs in context. And remembering that if we’re talking about education, and we’re talking about learning, that is happening in real time in relationships. In my worldview, there is no learning that isn’t relational. And so you can’t design a system without those relationships being deeply present from the get-go.

The best learning is actually, in my view, learning through co-design, [where you are] actually building the community that you want to be a part of, and you’re understanding who you are as a learner and what you need to learn. The depth of the work is to create learning communities where that is happening in a fluid way. And we’re always operating in some kind of a local context. I’m very interested in how you take big ideas, wherever they come from, and work with them in a really local way.

For more, see Susie’s new book and website Designing for Belonging for additional tools.

Viewpoints: September 2022
What about people-centered design is so powerful for you in the context of education?

I think about entire structures, and when I see marginalized folks struggling, when do those groups get an opportunity to say, “Yo, this isn’t working for us.” It’s really difficult, given the historical context of a lot of these structures. It feels like it’s intentional to keep Black and Brown folks down, to keep them struggling.

And we never really let [kids] decide: What do I really love? How do I really get support in order to realize my dreams? The more I reflect on it, there’s just a lack of creativity and collectivity for doing things together. We are so conditioned to believe that individuals have a choice and that it is up to them. In reality, the environment should be fostering a collective opportunity for young people to thrive. So how can we be a part of the re-imagination, the deconstruction, the co-creation, because we’re seeing too many folks struggling within educational systems. And if we’re truly a society that benefits everybody, then we really have to elevate those voices and experiences [to see] what it can truly evolve into.

Ceding (and seeding) power and authority through co-creation, co-design

It makes me really think about all the folks that school didn’t work for, right? We have so much insight and research on how it [is an] oppressive structure for certain groups, currently and in the past. I feel like co-design is a pause where we’re like, “Hey, we’re resetting, and we’re gathering folks within certain representative groups, and we’re going to start to rethink if there’s something better. Can we re-imagine a different structure?” Pausing and looking in the mirror is an act of resistance in a structure that wants us to continue the inequity. Co-designing with and for all folks should be the foundation, not a one-day professional development training.

But we don’t actually know what each community, each individual, actually needs, unless we actually give them the power and autonomy to say, “Let’s co-create something else, and let’s see how it goes.”
I worry that as we continuously listen to adults in power that we are further away from the proximity of our communities and youth. And I’m curious if we gave power to people who have had the lived experiences [of school] what actually could manifest from that…. It’s just a whole mindset shift that you have to really dive into for a good amount of time. I think we miss our opportunities. If we said, “We’re going to focus on these. These are our values,” and continue growing and iterating and getting better at those, rather than, “Here’s a new curriculum. Here’s the new ed tech tool. Here’s the new this.” The new thing is just the old thing with a different name. I want to see a whole new reality.

Designing for individual and collective experience vs designing for “the middle”

I think if we were a society that really embraced diversity, we would have multiple language opportunities for young people. Practices of culture would be a part of schooling, not just events but actually embedded in curriculum. Students and family members [would be] creating events together, bringing in stories as narratives to enhance [learners’] purpose and belonging. Having our families have input in our curriculum as to what we’re teaching, how we’re teaching it. Even when curriculum companies try to be equitable, you’re still leaving out, not intentionally sometimes, a lot of folks who could give input and insight. Ultimately, there is no standardization in diverse human minds and bodies. It makes you think, who decided what is the norm?

You need to unpack what we’ve been conditioned to say is the norm, the standard, the foundation, and really start to deconstruct and redefine, “Actually, community is this.” It’s an opportunity to build leadership skills and capacity, because a true community lets others be the voice, steps back, [becomes] part of the group. Adrienne Maree Brown talks a lot about flocking, how birds just instinctively know to migrate. They’re conditioned to be a certain space from each other. They’re not on top of each other. They take turns leading the flock and [dropping] back if somebody needs help. We don’t function in that way because the institutions in this country have been conditioned to [prioritize] only one group with a certain amount of power and everybody else? “You’re on your own.” So how do we [create] space to learn from each other, with each other, setting our own collective vision and really feeling like we’re a part of something that we’re constantly moving towards.

Relationships, context, and community — spaces where learning happens

How do you build that as a value? of co-creation design spaces? It’s hard work. It’s a lot of emotional human work. Why can’t we pause and be human collectively and talk through what we’re seeing? Why is that not the norm? No one knows how to do that work of “Wait, let’s come back together. We’re all in this together. Here’s our collective vision. Here’s what we promised. Here’s what we’re doing.” It’s really just redefining how we interact every single day.
You have to support the growth of that mindset in educators because their teacher prep programs didn’t prepare them that way. How are you actually supporting that tension of “Wait, I actually don’t know how to do this, because I’ve actually never been taught.” And learners have never been conditioned to think in that way either. Kids actually [have to shift] their thinking from “Wait, I don’t have to just sit here and comply and receive information? You actually want me to talk, and you want my ideas, and you want my thinking?” Leaders I [work] with always mention, “I don’t have time to pause.” [What] we’re saying is, “It’s okay to dialogue, to sit in conflict, to live in messiness…. We’re actually going to take time to do this.” And resetting and reflection and feedback is necessary to evolve and grow. Being in conflict creates stronger relationships when we get the opportunity to learn, unlearn, and heal together.

For additional resources, see The Equity Lab and Critically Educated and YPAR Hub at Berkeley.

Viewpoints: September 2022
What about people-centered design is so powerful for you in the context of education?

We started RESCHOOL Colorado with this intent — that we were going to start with community, parents, and kids and understand the context within which they were navigating education and learning and then build out from there to ensure the system is responsive to the end users.

To do that, we had to learn how to do our work differently. We lived a day in the life of a number of kids and shadowed them through their day — who they were interacting with, where they were going during the day. We had very casual conversations about what was and wasn’t working for them, what the barriers were that they and their parents were facing and where those barriers were being solved for or not. We’ve done that over and over in different ways, put ourselves in very close proximity to the community to build trust, awareness, relationships, either directly or through other partners … to collectively identify either opportunities to pursue or barriers that we need to solve for. That’s where you start, then prototype at a very small level, and iterate.

Ceding (and seeding) power and authority through co-creation, co-design

We’ve come to learn we’re all experts in different ways. We all have different lived experiences, different backgrounds, and different perspectives. And as youth get more mature and develop more autonomy, they’re the biggest experts about who they are and what they want in their life. It’s about uncovering that expertise and figuring out how to leverage it to move the work forward. It’s about radical trust and seeing the expertise in every person, valuing that. And then, for us, stepping in and using our power and privilege or expertise in the ways that make the most sense to advance the ideas the communities in which we work most want.

We are developing a resource called the RESCHOOL Design Lab in response to people who have been coming to us and saying, “How do you do your work? How have you been able to co-design authentically with community? What does that look like? How could we do that in our community?” This resource will offer an opportunity for people to engage with a set of activities, materials, resources, and potentially some coaching and advising with our team, to be able to start to do this kind of work in their own contexts.

Designing for individual and collective experience vs designing for “the middle”

One of the principles of human-centered design we learned early on is finding the positive deviants – those who have figured out how to create new opportunities or solutions or to navigate different experiences, despite the odds. We are very intentional about always designing at the margins. It’s much harder, if not impossible, to design for the “typical” user and then have to later retrofit what you’ve created to work for others.

For example, I spend quite a bit of time talking to ed tech entrepreneurs, trying to find companies that are designing products in partnership with families, families who might not speak English as their first language or who do not have access to the same technology resources as other families, etc., and it’s hard to find entrepreneurs who are designing with and for populations that face greater barriers to access.

So designing for equity and with end users who are not the typical user or the easiest user to design for is a challenging thing to find out there in the world. If more of us committed to designing at the margins and creating products or solutions that work [for them], then it would actually benefit all.

Relationships, context, and community — spaces where learning happens

I think we need a much more expansive vision for an education system. School is super important, and kids are getting a lot of value out of the time they’re in school, but it’s only about 20 percent of the time that they’re awake every year. And then we think about the other 80 percent of time that kids are awake outside of school. We need to have an infrastructure that is thriving and equitable for children across all of these spaces, that ecosystem that sits alongside the school system. The desire for greater access to learning outside of school has surfaced over and over in our interactions with families and community-based organizations.

From the research and programming we’ve done in partnership with community-based organizations, youth, and families, [we’ve learned] when kids have access to joyful, meaningful, and relevant learning experiences, it makes them excited about learning across all spaces. As youth develop new interests and feel successful and engaged in their learning, even if this happens through experiences outside of school, we often see the benefits extend to learning in other places, like school; hence, the strong push by many in the education sector for summer learning to slow down/stop the “summer slide.” Infusing a strong impact strategy within learning ecosystems when you’re following a young person across a variety of learning spaces and places [is important]. You’re seeing what their journey is, you’re seeing what impact it’s having in their lives across these different places, and you begin to open your eyes to the importance of recognizing and validating learning that happens everywhere. RESCHOOL’s game, REVOLVE, was designed with just this in mind — to immerse players in a year in the life of a young person navigating learning and life.

For more, see Amy’s insights on equitable learning ecosystems.