SXSWedu - Designing a Next Gen High School from Scratch

I had a blast at the #SXSWedu conference last week in Austin.  A major highlight was meeting friends and colleagues - many of whom I hadn't seen in some time, or who I had met virtually Twitter or Skype in the past year or so - sending a big shout out to the leading work (and great company) of @BoAdams1 @ChristineOrtiz and @LucienVattel :)

I will write a couple of blog posts on the SWSWedu experience and am kicking off with a summary of Alpha public schools session on 'Designing a Next Gen High School from Scratch'. This blog posting is dedicated to the bold and visionary Zach Eikenberry, coordinator for NEXT High School in Greenville, South Carolina.  

Onto the session - it was co-facilitated by Will Eden, Entrepreneur in Residence and Alison Elliott, Board Member.  The session was a two hour hands-on experience of design thinking in action.  Participants divided into teams to work on a specific challenge/opportunity related to building a new High School, framed under the heading of "How Might We...?".  My team and I worked on the question of "How might we engage students who are not interested in High School?" The process we followed is summarized in the below model:

SXSW.DT Model.014-001.jpg


- with specifics of the design thinking process outlined in the slide deck here

Throughout the session and during the debrief, Alison and Will wove their lessons learned and takeaways from facilitating a similar process in their own community in San Jose.  Alpha public schools is planning on opening the doors of its first High School in 2015.

My key takeaways from participating in the process and with my team are as follows:

  • When forming team, ensure diversity of background and expertise - our team was a mixture of educators, technology experts and non-profit and for-profit organizations. It would have been great to have a few students in our group, but they were in short supply.  Note to SXSWedu organizers - it would be great to see many more students participating at next year's conference :)
  • Users are central to the design thinking experience - when designing a new school or program, it's critical to get the students involved as early as possible and throughout the process.  Don't design solutions until you fully understand needs from the users' and stakeholders' perspective.
  • On a related note, it's important to reach **all** your users - it's easy to talk with the the people who show up.  Go out and speak with the users who don't show up to your event and seek their input.
  • Seek stories in user interviews, they bring the data to life and yield a depth of understanding not often discussed in a typical strategic planning event.
  • Balance primary and secondary research.  Too often, my tendency is to go to "what does the research say?" first.  When designing a high school from scratch, reach out to your users, engage a broad cross section of the new school's community and involve a diverse group in this process of discovery, synthesis and ideation and **then** go to the secondary research. This will help to isolate the senses, dig deep in the user interviews and design a school to meet the specifics of your own community's unique needs.  Of course, secondary research has much to add as we seek not to reinvent the wheel, but balance and timing of the use of secondary research are key.
  • Finally, it's an incredibly engaging (and fun!) way to quickly engage diverse users and stakeholders and go deep on the curricular, pedagogical, space and structure for a new school design.

Towards the end of the session, Will and Alison very kindly mentioned they would send out a more detailed guide on their process to the group.  I will upload it here with their permission, once received.  In the meantime, you can download a 'Design Thinking for Educators' toolkit here - and be sure to check out the great work which Susie Wise is leading at the K12 Lab at Stanford.