On Education

There’s a great new article by Dennis Littky in interactions magazine that describes his model for the future of education – one that he started focused on K-12 education, but has now extended into the college world as well. This makes a nice parallel to both Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on education, and Anya Kamenetz’s Fast Company cover article.

I’ve also contributed my own thoughts to the mix, which you can read here or below:


On EducationRecently, an article by Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, in which she paints a picture of how much education has changed, was featured on the cover of Fast Company. First graders use proprietary software and hardware; curricula self-adjust to the pace of the students; and the massive amounts of content presented on the Internet have democratized – at least on the surface – the challenge of access.

Large companies like HP are offering integrated packages like TeachNOW (designed in cooperation with frog design), which gives teachers a bird’s-eye view of the classroom and allows them to directly connect to packaged content sources. Connexions offers a similar content repository, in open-source fashion, of more than 16,000 reusable models with names like “serial port communication,” “the biopsychosocial model of health and illness,” and “Indian classical music: tuning and ragas.”

We are seeing a fundamental restructuring of delivery mechanisms, and a similarly rich restructuring of content (along with a healthy rejection of the age-old autocratic state content mandates). Yet until quite recently, we hadn’t seen the same scale of change in the pedagogy—the instructional styles used to impart knowledge and utilize the delivery mechanisms. And while study after study has rejected rote memorization and the homogenized learning encouraged by No Child Left Behind, alternative models of education are still characterized as “fringe.”

In this issue, Dennis Littky offers a provocative new model of K–12 education, one that emphasizes learning by doing, realizes individual differences in learning styles and approaches, and encourages apprenticeship learning over textbook learning. Fundamentally, Littky is arguing for the experiential learning promoted by John Dewey—and this is nearly identical to the process of design research and synthesis described in this issue by Katie Minardo Scott.

Designers use synthesis to quickly learn new things and integrate new perspectives with their existing worldview. They are, to some degree, experts in learning, and the critical ingredients seem to translate to a strong pedagogy of education. These ingredients include primary and generative research, active participation, critique and coaching, and the ability to take risks (and potentially be wrong) without negative consequences.

The similarities between the process of design and the process of learning in Littky’s school are striking, and he’s not alone in pursuing a new, designerly approach. His educational model is one of several, which may form a zeitgeist: We may, in fact, be perched on the brink of an educational revolution. And so, I offer a series of predictive recommendations about the evolving nature of education and how to best structure both pedagogy and content to succeed in the coming educational shift:

  1. Assume that anything is possible. As an educator you quickly become aware of the relative boundaries of your students, and it’s easy to set expectations based on these perceived limitations. Traditional teaching models are quick to group students by these segments—usually defined by socio-economic boundaries—and these segments have unusual staying power. The educational revolution to come will operate with the assumption of adequation, where students are empowered to try.
  2. Understand the “whole student.” At all levels of education, the homogenous body of knowledge that is taught en masse has come to mirror the assembly line, with teachers focused on their own tasks with no awareness of the larger  context. The educational revolution will empower teachers to support a whole student, realizing that any factual content needs to be positioned in a much larger and broader context.
  3. Leverage the content democratization afforded by technology. It’s almost colloquial to espouse the rich benefits of Internet content, yet in many educational settings, this repository is ignored. Traditional, and highly conservative, textbooks are used, which are neither engaging nor as broad in focus. During the educational revolution, educators will be empowered to draw from a wide assortment of content repositories, sources, and mediums.
  4. Reject the delivery limitations prescribed by technology. The majority of software intended to support online learning is abysmal. Blackboard, one of the most popular tools for online delivery, is described as a “horrendous monstrosity and the people who created it should be ashamed” [1]. As a result, the experiential qualities of online delivery may suffer for reasons entirely out of the educator’s control. During the educational revolution, we’ll see educators actively refuse to use subpar products, and we’ll witness an increase in hybrid approaches to teaching—models that combine a digital component with in-person, collaborative sessions augmented by traditional tools like whiteboards and Post-it notes.
  5. Create a safe environment for learning experiences. Perhaps the most important aspect of successful education is the idea of empowerment: creating an environment where failure can be explored, instead of simply trivialized, and where students can learn to be more effective learners. The educational revolution will bring a change of project-based learning, where the cycle of rote memorization, test, and pass/fail is replaced by an iterative approach of informed trial and error.

I’ve started Austin Center for Design to help drive this revolution; similar programs are creeping up all over the country and the world. Technology is enabling a number of these ideas, but they are fundamentally human. It is interaction design, and behavior, that will act as the driving force behind the educational revolution of the next century.

5 thoughts on “On Education”

Hey Jon – great article. This reminds me of a TED talk by Ken Robinson, a rather old one about schools killing creativity.


You are right. Technology enables schools to be more creative. Reg. your recommendations, I think the fifth one – where failure is explored rather than rejected, will create the biggest impact.

love this article and would like to suggest a look at the work being done at http://www.sandboxnetwork.org : a model for an NCAA-like model of engaged, intercollegiate, competitive scholarship.

It turns on service learning and academic technology married as Engaged Technology. see also the wiki at http://dmscgovchal.pbworks.com/ . using higher ed as hubs, engagement with local k-12 schools is networked through technology tools. P-20 Pathways to lifelong learning result.

Education seems to be leaving behind a predominant linear way of thinking and embracing complexity. Ideas of thinkers as Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari (their idea of the rhizome as a model of knowledge is central to this argument), Edgar Morin (for instance with his book Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future) and many others are gaining momentum.

In the realm of Design, I think that one of the institution working already for many years on this frontier is the KISD (Köln International School of Design). They are having a program for Design Education, running since 1991, which could be considered truly innovative and pushing these boundaries.

Hey Jon,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and these links. This greatly interests me because I am a designer at Teach For America. A nonprofit whose mission is to build and support a movement to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting.

In my travels doing research I have seen successful and struggling classrooms. Some of the attributes I seen that contribute to success are the very ones you mention. Hence we are rethinking a website we have that supports the teachers. Before it was mostly providing teaching resources and tips. Now we are thinking of how can we do that better (through interactive engagement, video, hands-on activities, ect…), as well as inspire them, and provide them a way to connect and collaborate (think social interactions).

Another attribute that seemed to be a contributor to success was the teacher’s ability to act as a leader.

I will be passing these links on to the people work with our teachers on the ground as well as to the people who work on the materials that support them.


Some of these same ideas are certainly espoused in teacher education programs through theoretical best practices, although the language is slightly different. Current trends include “active project-based learning,” “differentiated instruction,” “teaching the whole student,” and “creating a supportive learning environment.” However, having taken some teacher-ed classes myself, there was always a tension between their talk and their walk. Especially once students are funneled into student-teaching in more traditional programs or thrown into the fire in alternative-certification programs, new teachers can easily be subsumed into the structure (and habits and existing systems) of education as it stands now complete with the pressures of being a noob, classroom management, and standardized testing.

Questions:- revolution vs. evolution?- barriers to innovation in current public ed system? barriers to change in general?- how can we align the different language used in each field?- what factors are necessary to support innovation/revolution?- how to make it sustainable? (i’ve read many stories of new teachers, esp. with alternative-cert programs, putting in above-and-beyond time and energy to help their students succeed, but that’s a start-up business model that is sure to burn out sooner or later if it’s all on the teacher’s shoulders and the system remains unchanged.)

Comments are closed.