At a recent professional development training, I was told to imagine what kind of school I would design if I had five million dollars. I scribbled down a few ideas, shared them with the group, and was then asked to consider how I could implement them now, without the money.
The point was this: forget the cash. Forget that American teachers spend an average of $500 a year supplying their classrooms with materials. Anything is possible, if you put your mind to it.
Similarly, Design Thinking for Educators, the eighty-one page “design toolkit” made available to teachers as a free download by New York City-based firm IDEO — which has designed cafeterias for the San Francisco Unified School District, turned libraries into “learning labs” for the Gates Foundation, and developed a marketing plan for the for-profit online Capella University — contains no physical tools. Problems ranging from “I just can’t get my students to pay attention” to “Students come to school hungry and can’t focus on work” are defined by the organization as opportunities for design in disguise.
Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO and a regular at Davos and TED talks, has described design thinking as a way to inject “local, collaborative, participatory” planning into the development of products, organizational processes, and now schools.
Design Thinking for Educators is full of strikingly drawn graphic organizers and questions like, “How might we create a twenty-first century learning experience at school?” with single paragraph answers. “Responsibility” is used three times in the text, always in reference to teachers’ need to brainstorm fixes for problems together and develop “an evolved perspective.” (The word “funding” is not used at all — nor is the word “demand.”)
We’re told faculty at one school embarked on a “design journey” and came to an approach they call “Investigative Learning,” which addresses students “not as receivers of information, but as shapers of knowledge,” without further detail on how exactly this was accomplished.
Of course, the idea of engaging students as experienced co-teachers in their own education isn’t novel, nor is it an innovation that sprang forth from a single group of teachers using graphic organizers to brainstorm and chart solutions.
Marxist educator Paulo Freire developed his critique of the “banking model” of education — in which students’ minds are regarded as passive receptacles for teachers to toss facts into like coins — while teaching poor Brazilian adults how to read in the 1960s and ’70s. His book Pedagogy of the Oppressed helped reignite the progressive education movement during that era, and his collaborative approach to learning remains influential in American schools of education today.
Peter McLaren, who taught elementary and middle school in a public housing complex for five years before becoming a professor of education, has since further developed Freire’s ideas into an extensive body of revolutionary critical pedagogy, which I was assigned in my first class as a master’s student in education. The Radical Mathproject, launched a decade ago by a Brooklyn high school teacher whose school was located within a thousand feet of a toxic waste facility, draws heavily on Freire’s perspective in its curriculum for integrating social and economic justice into mathematics.
Yet, here we are, a “nation at risk,” with lower test scores than our international peers and children still arriving at school every day without breakfast.
Like all modern managerial philosophies that stake their name on innovation, “design thinking” has been framed by creative-class acolytes as a new way to solve old, persistent challenges — but its ideas are not actually new.
According to Tim Brown, design thinkers start with human need and move on to learning by making, “instead of thinking about what to build, building in order to think.” Their prototypes, he says, “speed up the process of innovation, because it is only when we put our ideas out into the world that we really start to understand their strengths and weakness. And the faster we do that, the faster our ideas evolve.”
What design thinking ultimately offers is not evolution, but the look and feel of progress — great graphics, aesthetically interesting configurations of furniture and space — paired with the familiar, gratifying illusion of efficiency. If structural and institutional problems can be solved through nothing more than brainstorming, then it’s possible for macro-level inputs (textbooks, teacher salaries) to remain the same, while outputs (test scores, customer service) improve. From the perspective of capitalism, this is the only alchemy that matters.
Design Thinking for Educators urges teachers to be optimistic without saying why, and to simply believe the future will be better. The toolkit instructs teachers to have an “abundance mentality,” as if problem-solving is a habit of mind. “Why not start with ‘What if?’ instead of ‘What’s wrong?’” they ask.
There are many reasons to start with “What’s wrong?” That question is, after all, the basis of critical thought. Belief in a better future feels wonderful if you can swing it, but it is passive, irrelevant, and inert without analysis about how to get there. The only people who benefit from the “build now, think later” strategy are those who are empowered by the social relations of the present.
The same people benefit when analysis is abandoned in favor of technical solutions — when the long history of education for liberation, from Freire to the SNCC Freedom Schools to Black Panther schools to today’s Radical Math and Algebra projects (none of them perfect, all of them instructive) is ignored.
It’s not surprising, then, that when Carlos Rodríguez-Pastor Persivale, the billionaire son of an elite Peruvian banking family, decided to expand his empire of restaurants and movie theaters by buying up a chain of for-profit English-language elementary schools, his first step was to contact IDEO and commission them to design everything: the buildings, the budget, the curriculum, professional development opportunities for teachers. The network is calledInnova, and it’s on its way to becoming the largest private school system in Peru.
According to “ed tech community” edSurge, Innova is “more than just an example of how first-world ideas about blended learning and design thinking can be adapted in a developing country.” It aims to close the achievement gap, build Peru’s next generation of leaders, “and make a profit while doing so.”
Innova students use computer tutoring programs designed by Pearson and Sal Khan, a Gates Foundation protégé. (By now, Khan’s story is canonical among readers of the Harvard Business Review: in 2005, the former hedge-fund analyst created a simple computer program for practicing math problems and some instructional videos to help tutor his cousins remotely. These went viral on YouTube among parents looking for after-school enrichment activities for their children, including Bill Gates.)
In a photograph of one location posted to IDEO’s website, students sit in groups of six, each absorbed in his or her laptop. The school’s modular walls collapse to allow classes of thirty to be joined together into one large group of sixty students at various times throughout the day.
After a visit, Khan remarked, “I was blown away when I visited Innova. It was beautiful, open, and modern. It was inspiring to see an affordable school deliver an education that would rival schools in the richest countries.” The question is, affordable for whom?
Tuition at an Innova school is $130 a month, which is considerably less than the cost of your average American private school, but would require shelling out over a quarter of the monthly income of a family Edutopia | Jacobin: