Designing Possibility in Schools

The default culture within most schools today is more transactional than transformational and dehumanizing in that students and teachers do not have the space where they can be successful without sacrificing some part of their identities.


5 min read
Designing Possibility in Schools
Education is not memorization. It is the activation of the imagination and a path towards liberation.”
                                                                    – Dr. Christopher Emdin

Throughout the course of history, perhaps at the intersection of imagination and design, human beings developed ideologies and adopted behaviors that evolved into the world we live in today. The complexity of this world is increasingly difficult to navigate and now requires what F. Scott Fitzgerald once described as first-rate intelligence: “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Unfortunately, developing this type of intelligence is not easy and we have not yet created the systems within education to cultivate it.

Concerns about education often prompt questions about how we might reimagine schools and this has been helpful up to a point in reform efforts. But what if imagination itself is actually the problem in efforts to reform schools? What if the real task of reform is to reset the schema used to imagine school?

We are now inhabitants of a world that scholar Ziauddin Sardar has described as “postnormal” because we live “in an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense.” In this era of ambiguities, schools must play many important, emergent roles and teachers must fulfill those roles if schools are to function on a daily basis. The resulting expectations and constraints placed on teachers are difficult to deal with and often demoralizing.

Today, teachers exist in a state near paralysis between expectations about what should happen in technology-fueled, information-rich classrooms and concerns about student achievement that have resulted in restrictive testing and curriculum requirements. They are under constant pressure to understand and meet the demands of not only their students but also families, communities, and school leaders who each have their own agenda. Add to all of this, the generally lukewarm perceptions of teachers in this country and you have a recipe for burnout and a mass exodus from the profession.

Recent surveys across education report that large numbers of educators are thinking about leaving the profession sooner than they had planned and that teachers in particular feel that the stress and disappointments of their job are not worth the effort. In contrast to teachers, educators further from the classroom – superintendents and principals – feel more satisfied by their work and are not planning to leave their positions. This situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic but it is also likely that we have long needed to imagine new possibilities for teachers and the work they do in schools.

“Queremos un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos // We want a world where many worlds fit.” – Zapatista of Chiapas

The default culture within most schools today is more transactional than transformational and dehumanizing in that students and teachers do not have the space where they can be successful without sacrificing some part of their identities. To remedy this, Dr. Christopher Emdin has argued that schools need to be spaces where people can be “ratchetdemic” – both ratchet and academic – or whole in their identities. This calls for a disruption of the dominant culture in schools that values individuation over standardization and creativity over compliance.

Put another way, schools need to be places where students are known to have “jagged learning profiles” and teachers are known to have “jagged teaching profiles” as defined by Todd Rose, former professor and director of the Laboratory for the Science of Individuality at Harvard. Rose argues that schools are suffering under “the tyranny of the average,” misguided by the notion that instruction should be directed toward an “average student.” The problem with this is that an “average student” is a fiction that only exists when you strip young people of their most human qualities.

Perhaps this is because we have embraced a culture of belonging that comes from compliance and conformity rather than divergence and diversity. Both lead to a sense of belonging but the difference is the cost. This is the paradox of belonging. Perhaps this is the challenge to address in schools. Perhaps this is a challenge best addressed at the intersection of imagination and design for the future of schools.

“Any system produces what it was designed to produce.”                                                                       – The National Equity Project

Given all of the time, energy, and funding that is dedicated to education reform each year, what might we do today to grow education systems that empower teachers and students to be fully human in schools. How might we free ourselves from the pervasive view that education needs to be constantly measured to make us more competitive in the global economy when innovation and imagination would better serve us? How might we reset imagination as a tool that we can use to overcome our biases and blind spots about the schools we need to build for the future? In recent decades, tools from the world of design have been adapted for use in education with the promise of helping us answer these questions.

Design thinking, an iterative process popularized by the Stanford d.school and the design firm IDEO, has proven to be effective in helping educators develop learning experiences that better serve students and their jagged learning profiles. More recently, recognizing the need for greater justice in schools and society, a group of East Bay, California designers collaborated to develop liberatory design, a creative approach to problem-solving that centers equity by helping practitioners cultivate deeper self-awareness. For teachers, this can activate more agency and inspire more possibilities for how students might achieve.

Liberatory design is an emergent process that adds two notable modes to design thinking: notice and reflect. As components of consciousness, intentional work in which educators notice and reflect will result in schools that are more fully human because the faculty is more self-aware in its instructional practices and curriculum design. This suggests the real value of liberatory design, its ability to counter the tendencies in modern life that underlie systemic injustice.

The power of liberatory design lies within the creative agency that it inspires in practitioners. In schools, creative agency can revolutionize the design and build of new systems, pedagogies, and curricula. More importantly, it can create more dynamic possibilities for the human beings that operate within those systems, pedagogies, and curricula.

“Now that we can do anything, what will we do?”
           – Bruce Mau, Institute without Boundaries

We live in an exciting time when there are more possibilities than ever regarding what we can do in classrooms. At the same time, these possibilities for our classrooms are so vast that and potentially overwhelming that we may not know what to do. In either case, liberatory design empowers us to consciously explore what is possible and create the space that young people need to fulfill their potential in the world. Space that manifests as open-ended questions, assignments that integrate student interests and identities, and assessments that have real-world relevance. Beyond that, liberatory design offers an opportunity to responsibly experiment, big and small, as we work to bring more humanity and equity into schools. This might be:

  • assignments that allow for self-directed and self-paced learning
  • grading that is framed as feedback rather than proximity to failure
  • richer, more expansive definitions of success and intelligence
  • learning that is articulated as self-awareness and transformation
  • interactions that are more human and support belonging

In this world of possibility, it is not surprising that a certain amount of life experience is needed to sort through it all. This often comes in middle age when we realize that it would have been helpful to learn more about how to be in the world and how to create the freedom to live a life of our own rather than the one prescribed to us. And this then is yet another possibility in education – liberatory classrooms where teachers are free to restore humanity and agency into their work and thereby help students know how to function while holding two opposing ideas in their mind.

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