Ways Design Can Help Educators Create Change

“In order to design for the the future, you have to believe that future is possible.”
—Sandy Speicher, Managing Director of IDEO’s Education practice

Teachers are the innovators education has been waiting for, and design thinking can help them activate their own creativity and solve the biggest challenges in education today. In our most recent Creative Confidence Series chat, Coe sat down with with Sandy Speicher, Managing Director of IDEO’s education practice and a strategic adviser to the K-12 Lab Network at the Stanford d.school, to discuss design thinking in education and how teachers can be powerful change agents for schools and education as a whole.

Before joining IDEO, while working as a teacher, Sandy discovered that there was a gap between how the world had changed, and how teachers were preparing students to navigate that world. “I thought design could help with this gap,” she says. “So I decided to work at the intersection of design and education.”

For the last ten years, she’s been building IDEO’s education practice, and discovering what design can do to advance education—in schools and school systems, as well as by helping educators build their own design capabilities. “One of the things I think about a lot is how important it is to have imagination,” she says. “If we want things to be different, we have to believe a better future is possible. But we have to be able to move past what we’ve experienced. At the same time, imagination absent reality doesn’t really advance us.“

The key is having practical imagination, and recognizing that change in education is about bringing all the pieces together. Parents, teachers, and students should have a role in designing our schools, but so should government, foundations, and even businesses. “One of the things that is so tricky in education innovation is that everyone thinks they own it,” Sandy says.

The ideal solution is to create processes where everyone can be included in finding solutions. One way to do that? By discovering what life at school is really like.


“If we want things to be different, we have to believe a better future is possible. But we have to be able to imagine past what we’ve experienced. At the same time, imagination absent reality doesn’t advance us. There is something about practical imagination. How do we make sure we manage both sides at once?”
Sandy Speicher


Activity: Shadow a Student

Teachers are already designers—they’re solving problems all the time. But this activity from School Retool, a professional development fellowship that helps school leaders redesign their school cultures, can help teachers, parents, and administrators get past what they already know and discover more about the people they’re designing for (students).

Step 1

Figure out which student you want to shadow.

Step 2

Spend the entire day in their shoes, from the moment they get on the school bus (or carpool or walk to school) through their classes, and even lunch.

Step 3

Reflect on your observations. What were you assumptions going in, and how did they shift throughout the experience?

Step 4

Use what you learned as fuel to make action plans.

At this point, Sandy says, a few thousand school leaders have shadowed students, and discovered insights about how terrible cafeteria food can be, the mortifications of gym class, how many logins today’s students have to memorize, and how little time there is to get between classes. It’s spurred school leaders to make real change, and started ongoing dialogues about how we can better serve our students.


“Parents, teachers, and students themselves should have a voice in designing our schools, but that doesn’t mean that government doesn’t have a role, or that foundations or businesses don’t have a role. It’s all connected, and all about how we’re living together as a society.”
Sandy Speicher


Why Education Design Matters Now

It’s always mattered. But as Sandy points out, it feels particularly important right now, as many of our systems are being challenged or breaking down. Now more than ever, we need to train our youth to be creative problem solvers.

Design thinking can help us in three specific ways:

1. By empowering students

Teaching design thinking can help young people learn to be agents of change. Globally, the Design for Change Challenge is asking 11-14 year-olds to identify problems in their community and propose challenges. So far, students around the world have taken on problems like literacy, learning, and homelessness. The design process, as laid out by a school leader at Riverside in India, is simple: Feel. Imagine. Do. Share.

2. By helping us address problems in schools

In a recent project, IDEO helped develop a new, scalable private school system in Peru. One of the first things the team discovered was that teachers wanted to be a part of the solution. So they created the Teacher Resource Center, and asked 54 teachers to create 50,000 sharable lesson plans. Now, any teacher who wants to can share their curriculum, and discover what others have created. Teachers have both a scaffolding to support them, and a place where they have permission to be creative. The IDEO team also used specific, isolated experiments to help integrate tools like Khan Academy into the school’s curriculum. “Prototyping in education is really hard,” Sandy says. “There’s generally a consistent attitude of, ‘Don’t experiment on my child,’ which is completely understandable. But at the same time, it’s hard for people to recognize that the current system is an experiment, which may or may not be working.”

3. By helping us design work cultures in education

It’s important that we build systems to enable teachers to pool their skills. At the Teachers Guild, local chapters choose problems to solve collectively, so they can go about solving problems together. Instead of innovating alone in a classroom, we should be working to create more collaborative cultures that focus on doing and trying. It’s all about a shared optimism. Because, as Sandy says, “In order to create for the future, you have to believe that future is possible.”


“How do we in education adopt a mindset of continuous design, not to prove or disprove an idea. How do we try it in a way that helps us learn?”
Sandy Speicher


Creating change in education is hard, and it’s important to start small. Asking yourself, “How might we redesign our school,” is overwhelming. One first grade teacher Sandy worked with decided instead to think about his classroom space. So he asked his students what they thought. It turned out, he was spending a lot of time putting together thoughtful bulletin boards, but they were so high, the students couldn’t see them. So he gave them bulletin boards that were their height, and empowered his class to decorate them. In the process, he reduced his own workload, and gave his students something they could have ownership over. When you can, invite students to be problem solvers with you, and engage larger communities at key moments. And keep asking questions. “The real big thing is to just believe unrelentingly and to keep trying. Keep doing it,” Sandy says.

IDEO Recommended Resources for Educators

The Teachers GuildDesign Thinking for Educators ToolkitShadow a Student ChallengeOpen IDEO

Resources Recommended by the IDEO U Community

Story Map KnightlabTeach DesignMatch FishtankEngageNYLearning.comPlayFuturesPechaKuchaCreyaDiscover DesignDesign for Change WorldGamelab.berlinEducation Innovation Lab (In German)Pedagogias Invisibles (In Spanish)Zoem (In Spanish)

Are you passionate about innovation in education? Join the Educators Learning Community within the August run of From Ideas to Action online course.

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