How might we use design to shape education for humans?

My talk from Snook’s DOTI (Design on the Inside) event on Fri 29th June, 2018

I’m co-founder of an indie consultancy called Flux. That’s me and my pal Jon on the day we founded the company. Right now he’s running a design sprint in Portugal to develop a mini-school inside a co-working space where adults and children co-work together. Pretty cool.

Flux helps people to redesign organisations. By making the complex simple. By combining the most progressive organisational methods, and applying them in a human way. Without the jargon and the bullshit that consultants often bring.

Education is no different to other organisations. And we reckon you can redesign and reshape education, with enough applied intelligence and imagination.

I’ve spent a lot of the last 12 years trying to do that. Designing, building, and selling learning experiences.

Education systems are human inventions. And like all human inventions they have been through some kind of design process. Sometimes with user needs in mind. Sometimes with power, control, and oppression in mind. But always there was some kind of brief, designer, user, and product or service that came out of the end.

A lot of people talk about the education system as being broken. In the UK it seems that way. The curriculum isn’t fit for the 21st Century. Teachers don’t have enough freedom to do a good job. Etc.

I reckon that the architects of these broken education systems know exactly what they’re doing. That these designed systems aren’t broken at all. It’s just that people fundamentally disagree with the brief and design principles that led to them.

This is my parents’ kitchen. On the left is the jug for their coffee machine. It’s cheap and it does the job. But every time you try to pour coffee out of it, a little bit spills. Not enough to justify buying a different one, but enough to piss me off every time I use it.

On the right is the classic 1985 Alessi whistling bird kettle. I bought it for them a few years ago and it cost over £100. It’s beautiful. It sits low and solid on the stovetop. It’s beautifully balanced in the hand. And the water pours out in such a satisfying arc that I genuinely smile a little bit every time I use it.

The coffee pot isn’t a ‘broken design’. It’s just been designed for a certain price and profit margin, and to be unremarkable. It fulfils the brief perfectly.

The Alessi has been designed for delight. From the tone of the whistling bird to the angle of the handle. That’s why the design hasn’t changed for 33 years.

At Flux we work to redesign businesses, education, and sometimes, in very small ways, democracy. Very few things in these three fields have been designed with humans at the centre.

Most business have been perfectly designed to make as much profit as possible, instead of making life better for as many humans as possible.

Most democracies have been designed to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of very few people, instead of enacting the will of the people.

The UK education system has been perfectly designed to create a population that follows strict procedures, sits down a lot, has a narrow view of history, philosophy, and non-Western thought.

It’s so perfectly designed to force teachers to focus on tests and data and exams, instead of inspiring kids to ‘do stuff’ and reshape their world.

It’s perfectly designed to keep kids in giant buildings for 40 hrs a week whilst their parents get on with their jobs.

Which is fine. As long as it’s a choice. Which it currently isn’t. It’s the default. If you’re lucky you’ll get a teacher who opens your mind to something outside of this. Not only does this sound dark and sinister. It also sounds pretty boring. With no consideration for the humans at the centre of it.

We can redesign these systems for humans.

But is it possible?

It’s easy to say that we’re never going to change something huge like education, or the corporate greed culture, or unfair voting systems. But I don’t think that’s good enough. We love to complain. It’s cathartic and it feels good.

But complaining isn’t particularly useful. I think we need to shut up, or doing something about it.

We need to work to redesign education. Just as we would with any other designed system or product or service. We can pick it apart, examine the elements, and change the ones we want to change. Maybe we can only redesign a tiny part of it. Maybe we can redesign a massive part of it.

If your kettle breaks and you want a cup of tea, you don’t just wait for “someone to do something about it.” You get a new kettle.

I’ve been trying to do something about this for the last 12 years. Sometimes inside the formal education system, but often outside it. I had a great time at school, but lots of people didn’t. And that’s infuriating. How can something be so right for one person and so wrong for another?

It’s one thing to sit in a room and devise a whole curriculum for someone to follow. It’s much harder, I think, to create a space where people can learn for themselves. A space that enhances their ability to learn and adapt and explore.

For me, education has always been about ‘helping someone to learn something’. Ideally something that they want to learn. I’ve tried to design experiences and environments that are optimised for learning.

After 4 years running my own education businesses I joined a small, startup-y team at Hyper Island. A tech, design, and business school from Sweden with an outpost in Manchester. There I learned the art of facilitation and coaching, and it was there that I first called myself a Learning Designer.

Hyper Island separated the ‘content’ of learning from the ‘process’. My job was to create the most amazing space for learning, and fill it with people. I didn’t need to know anything about the subject or industry or projects. Only how to support people to learn.

This is Learning Design.

To me it doesn’t mean designing curriculums and writing learning outcomes and devising tests. The Learning Design I love is messier than that.

It’s designing a space and time where learning will hopefully take place. Sometimes I have an idea about what that will be, but often I’m wrong.

Learning is complex and nonlinear. As learning designers we can help people to learn and push them and find experts and give some structure. But we have to do that with the individual humans in mind.

Think about the National Curriculum. How can a few documents, designed by a working group in a windowless room in Whitehall, attend to the complexity of the 8 million children in the UK studying right now?

I’d love to help design ‘less’ curriculums, and to design ‘more’ spaces where people can learn and do awesome stuff.

In our work with companies we see similar problems. They are complex systems designed for profit and growth. Not for humans and happiness.

We work all kinds of companies. Always on redesigning ‘how’ they work, communicate, and organise. To make people happier and more free.

Jack Hubbard, whose garden we stood in when we founded our company, is a pretty wise man. There’s a line in the book we’re writing with him that goes:

“Life didn’t evolve over 6 billion years for you to chase numbers across spreadsheets.”

I think, nor did it evolve for you to sit in classrooms and spend weeks learning about coastal erosion (unless you want to) or King Henry II (unless you want to) or differential equations (unless you want to).

§Whether you’re working in a business, or a school, or a government, or anywhere else: think about the experience that your system provides. Is it one that’s been designed for human freedom, happiness, and flourishing? Or is it one that’s been designed for profit, control, and oppression?

If things are great and people are pretty happy, then crack on.

If things aren’t so great and people are discontent, then I’d love you to approach your organisation with a learning designer’s eye. How might you redesign the space and time to make life better for the humans in it? And embrace a little chaos.