Sunday, October 16, 2016

Visit to Design39Campus

Over the holidays, I was fortunate enough to visit Design39Campus, an incredible school in San Diego California. On their website, Design39Campus describes itself as:
"At Design39Campus, learning experiences are designed with the individual learner in mind. As a collaborative community, we nurture creative confidence, practice design thinking, learn through inquiry, connect globally, use technology and real world tools, and promote the courage and growth mindset necessary to change the world." - source

There are many great things that happen in a great many schools and classrooms around the world. There are a great number of people who are experimenting with rethinking education and schools and who are having, or starting to have great success at doing so. However, every now and then, a school comes along that not only rethinks and experiments with new ideas of school, but who are truly revolutionary. Although I only visited for a few hours, I suspect Design39 is more than just another school rethinking education. I think there might be something truly revolutionary taking place.

I took eleven pages of notes and many photographs, I have pages of questions and have wondered aloud about much of what I saw at this school. The following are a few of the key things that really stood out for me from my visit.

One of the things that I genuinely believe is critical to the future success of both our education systems and of society is an increased need for collaboration. If we are unable to truly collaborate, if we are unable to learn and think together, our impact will always be limited. If we are not collaborative, we will always be limited to our own perspectives, trapped in our own eco-chambers, and we will be unable to use the diversity in our teams to solve complex problems.

Many schools make claims to being collaborative. Many schools are genuinely collaborative, where teams work together to solve problems. However, in many other schools, we often talk about how we need more collaboration. The question then becomes, why don't we see more collaboration in schools? What stops us?

One of the things that made Design39 so revolutionary in my opinion, is their attitude towards collaboration between their teachers. The school recognises that collaboration is not easy, that it takes time. However, not only do they value collaboration and recognise its challenges, but they have made significant commitments towards ensuring that it can happen. Design39 have been bold enough and committed enough to create the space and time for collaboration. Teachers at Design39 meet every morning before school for an hour to collaborate in various teams. Additionally, the teachers in the school are also relieved every few weeks for entire days to work collaboratively.

How many of us are willing to really commit to collaboration? Are we really willing to accept how much time it takes and how challenging it can be? How many of our schools are willing to make this much of a commitment towards collaboration. And if more of our schools did, how would education be different?

Refusing to accept the status quo
I bet as some of you read about the extra time commitment towards collaboration, you already started thinking that it's just not possible in your context.

One of the major aspects about why I feel that Design39 is not just innovative, but revolutionary, are the barriers that they have overcome in realising their vision. For many of us, we encounter obstacles and might find ways to work around them. Sometimes, we even let obstacles stop us. As you can imagine, the enormous commitment towards collaboration from the school has encountered a number of obstacles. One of those, is the teacher union. However, after years of negotiation, the school now have a memorandum of understanding with the teacher union that allows for their collaborative vision.

I feel this memorandum of understanding is hugely significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, how many of us are willing to defy the status quo when it might involve taking on a teacher union? What about a government organisation? The Design39 story suggests that if we want to see genuine shift in education, then we will need to take on more that just our parent communities and our professional learning structures. We will need to take on the institutions and systems that might contribute towards keep our education systems stagnant and slow to adapt.

I also want to emphasise the 'understanding' part of the above. I believe this memorandum of understanding is significant because it shows not just a school that was willing to challenge the status quo, but rather, it shows a school and union who found a new way to define their relationship and conditions. If a collective agreement from the union, standardised rules and even the way stipends are paid does not allow enough flexibility to reimagine school, perhaps they need to be renegotiated? I commend both the school and union for taking on this challenge!

Elephants in the room
One of the elements that also appears to be key in what makes Design39 so special is their approach to mistakes, failures and uncertainty. On the tour, principal Joe Erpelding was unbelievable frank about what the school is still struggling with. This frankness seems to permeate the school in many of the systems and structures in the school including the use of Design Thinking to problem solve, action learning groups and even the use of elements such as the Brain Trust.

Action Research from Joe Erpelding on Vimeo.

Public acknowledgement of our mistakes and our failures is in my opinion one of the most fundamental things that we must do if we hope to redefine schools and our classrooms. Unless we are able to identify those elephants in the room, we are unable to address them. And education is full of elephants that need addressing.

Of course there is a whole host of other things I enjoyed about the school. The enormously respectful way the students and teachers spoke to each other, the clear presence of some of Jo Boaler's mathematical mindsets thinking, the students sitting in small groups have discussions and recording the video for their teachers to monitor the discussion and more. I also genuinely love (and I use the word love very deliberately here), that their school vision is not just about the individual, but also focussed on how they might enable their students to make the world a better place. Over the next few weeks as I settle in back home I will make sure to share some of what I saw at this incredible school. In the meantime, make sure you follow the great stories, thinking and people from Design39campus and also the great collection of videos about the school.

Finally, a huge thank you to principal Joe Erpelding for hosting me and Grant Lichtman for recommending the school and helping me set up the visit. A massive thank you to all the team at Design39 too, for their hospitality, but more importantly, for their bravery, hard work and collaboration in rethinking education.