How might we redesign school culture to support deep, meaningful student learning?
Peter Worth has spent his career in education. Beginning as a middle school teacher, he went on to focus on education research and instructional design for Ed-tech and professional learning. It was the School Retool project, jointly designed by Stanford d. school’s K12 Lab and IDEO, that helped bring these strands together. Today, he is an education consultant working with school leaders in shifting school culture through human-centred design.
When asked about creating a school where equitable deeper learning occurs, and where essential skills like collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving and metacognitive skills are developed in the context of core academic content, Peter spoke of the importance of school culture. Peter thinks part of the answer for creating such a culture lies in designing learning experiences for school leaders themselves that will help them experience the type of learning they seek for their students and keep students at the centre. He reflected these four key elements:
Key Element 1: Aim to include
“Under our current education system, although there are examples of schools and classes where students can learn and practice essential skills, they aren’t universally available and may be exclusive to certain types of schools, classes or students,” Peter said.
But a human-centred design thinking process can help leaders take first steps toward increasing opportunities for students to gain such skills, with a focus on who is not being served under existing practices.
“We encourage school leaders to look for those students who may have been marginalised in their schools, whose voices and needs are seldom heard, or needs are not being met. School leaders can listen to their needs and ensure the school policies, guidance and atmosphere are inclusive, and create a culture where every child receives what they need to succeed.”
Key Element 2: Simply listen
To do the above, according to Peter, will require taking time to understand the student experience, and empathy, at the heart of design thinking, is a great place to start. “Although it can be a challenge given the number of responsibilities in a school leader’s day, I have heard many principals describe time listening to students as the most impactful part of their day and a way to reconnect with why they got started in teaching.”
Besides, Peter points out listening has other benefits too, as many educational studies also reveal the importance of belonging to learning. “Given what we know about the links between a sense of belonging, engagement, and motivation to learn, it is crucial that students feel a part of the school.” Listening, according to Peter, is one method to build students’ sense of belonging. “By asking students, families, or teachers questions and really listening to their sharing of their observations and life experiences, we show respect, grow relationships, and build belonging.”
Key Element 3: Build your design-led team
That said, leaders themselves need to be able to inspire a range of people among their school management team, students, and stakeholders so that they can push for reforms. So, what does it take to be a design-thinking-driven school leader?
From his experience working with deeper learning and design thinking-focused leaders, Peter has seen some commonalities, such as:
- Deep knowledge and professional experience in running a school
- Empathy and willingness to understand students’ needs
- Great communication skills, especially dealing with families and students
- Being a humble learner, willing to try, learn from experiences, adapt and progress
- Collaborative and sees value in teamwork
- An equity lens in how they view their work and lead their school
Key Elements 4: Collaborate and Share
“Almost every school leader that I have worked with has emphasised that they are not in this alone, but part of a broader team.” In addition to that, there should be a continuous drive to encourage students to learn and share. “Leaders can empower their teams by understanding the needs and strengths of their team members and creating opportunities for them to share.”
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the education sector hard, created new problems, and shone a light on existing problems. This has also fuelled new opportunities for unexpected collaboration, and encouraged educators from Hong Kong and overseas to exchange more about their professional knowledge, teaching tools and experiences. “I have been inspired how, during an incredibly challenging time, school leaders and other educators have, come together locally and globally, formally and informally, to share and support one another in the service of student safety and learning.”
Conclusion: How could we equip students with adaptability to changes?
“So much of our focus today is on being able to adapt and respond to new circumstances. The pandemic has required all of us to adapt and innovate daily. Educators have always done this, but the stakes and pace seem much higher now—not just designing classes to support both in-person and distance learning, but ensuring the physical and social-emotional safety and development of students. I have so much respect for school leaders leading their schools under such circumstances,” Peter said. But he also couldn’t help thinking about the post-COVID scenarios for schools.
For this, he takes a high-level humanitarian approach – “As educators, we must not forget the social-emotional development of our students. We are setting a real-world example for students in real-time about what it means to adapt and collaborate in times of change. In the face of challenges coming from climate change, COVID-19 and social inequality, I have been encouraged by educators who are working together to help our students develop the skills and mindsets they will need to address these challenges now and in the future.” said Peter.
Peter Worth is an educator and learning designer working at the intersection of school leadership, design thinking, professional learning, and school culture change.
Now based in Northern Ireland, Peter provides expertise and training with a range of clients in the post-primary and tertiary education and corporate sectors, all focused on practices and tools that can support a culture of human-centred innovation and deep, relevant learning.
As a member of the design team and former co-director of School Retool—a project of the Stanford d.school’s K12 Lab and IDEO—he helped school leaders apply their hacking mindset to build an equitable school culture of deeper learning that prepares all students for post-secondary education, career, and civic life.
If you’re interested in learning more about creating equitable change in school, Peter suggests you check out the Co-Designing Schools Toolkit.