New School Model that Will Transform Education: Student as Designer & Community Partner as Client

<Previously posted on MVIFI.org>

Using design briefs as a primary means of project curation is still new to iDiploma. Last year we launched our first, full-scale design brief (you can read about it here), and this year, we have quadrupled the number of design briefs just for the fall. It’s exciting. It’s overwhelming. And it is so incredibly empowering to our students. The fact that they had clear, measurable success with their first brief has them fired up to do more of this real work. And as facilitators, we believe in providing every opportunity possible to place our student learners in the midst of complex problems, that has them not just simulating what it might be like to create an innovative solution, but to actually create one, pitch it to the right group of people and bring that idea to life.

So what’s a design brief? Essentially, a design brief is an attempt to close the gap between school and the world outside school. Rather than a teacher creating a project, building in parameters and constraints, deciding on a deliverable and then seeking the appropriate public audience to either receive the product or provide feedback – or ideally both – we have community members and business leaders submit design briefs to our students. While we don’t have a huge demand for briefs – yet, and the student learners are not yet at the point where they are the ones to seek out this new business development, I dream of a near future where that is happening. I dream of a time when nationally, our start-up is known for their innovative solutions and design thinking facilitation…where they are turning away multiple design briefs because they can’t handle anymore, and where they are actually generating revenue because they are in such high demand.  

I dream of a day where, beyond iDiploma groups of teachers across multiple disciplines come together regularly to identify “just the right” client and design brief to not only to help students meet certain learning outcomes, but to solve a real problem. Through this work, teachers will get to explicitly teach and nurture life-worthy skills like collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity because the project demands it and the client deserves it. It will force the community to wrestle with what is life-worthy learning and what is “nice to have.” Design briefs will compel us to have conversations about what knowledge, skills and habits we need to be explicitly teaching and cultivating in light of the real-world work our students are and will be engaging in. Design briefs require teachers to act as business developers, entrepreneurs, saleswomen, innovators and creative problem solvers, making us even more qualified to facilitate learning not to teach a subject or a set of content standards. We will move beyond content delivery and begin to truly blur the lines between school and the world beyond the classroom.

I am thrilled to be at a point where I get to pioneer that work alongside the iDiploma faculty and students. And we’re ready to publicly announce the design briefs we’ve committed to solve for:

City of Sandy Springs – Traffic has long plagued the city and will continue to do so as the plans for a new city center are becoming a reality. How might we reduce traffic by 10% in our city? This is the heart of the challenge given to our students, and as we worked with our clients to nail down a more reasonable scope and a concrete deliverable, we landed on this: Create an implementable Travel Demand Management (TDM) program for the Mount Vernon Presbyterian School Campus in Sandy Springs, Georgia. This program, if successful, could then be one that other schools in the area adopt, which in a city that boasts over 30 schools, could be incredibly impactful. The team will present their data and the TDM to City Council in December, 2016.

ATT Foundry – Last year, AT&T acquired DIRECTV, which opens up new possibilities for video entertainment to integrate with mobile and high-speed Internet service.  What unique opportunities exist around context-based consumption? What do users actually want and need? This is the primary work our students will do: conduct ethnographic and empathy-based experiments and interviews to glean what potential pathway AT&T could take in order to uniquely position themselves. Because the Foundry is used to working on 90 day design sprints in order to put a larger quantity of low resolution prototypes in front of AT&T, they have an openness to explore new, innovative ideas that may or may not go to market.

Company Name Withheld* – An international luxury brand company is interested in tapping into a new demographic. After a one-day design thinking sprint within their organization, they’ve landed on a low resolution prototype that they have handed over to our iDiploma team for more testing and iterating. This is a unique opportunity for our students to truly practice the messiness of design thinking – and the fact that all design thinking does not have to begin with a user, but maybe it begins with a prototype. 

*Because of an NDA we signed, we are not able to disclose more details at this time.

Mount Vernon Presbyterian School + Nonprofit partner* – Continuing the work the team has already done internally to help Mount Vernon Presbyterian School faculty and students see more value in taking learning outside, this group is doing work to reimagine our outdoor classroom and learning spaces. From there, we will partner with a nonprofit in the Atlanta area to help them with similar work to develop a space that is welcoming and accessible to those with all levels of ability and disability.

*Because we have not mutually signed off on the particulars of the design brief scope and expectations, I am withholding the name of the nonprofit.

As we move forward with our work, we will be faced with a lot of unknowns. Inevitably, as facilitators, we will need to call on outside experts to help students with their work because we are not experts in city planning, context-based consumption or marketing and branding. We’ll need to constantly respond to immediate and unexpected needs, and we’ll need to remain flexible learners alongside our cohort of students. As for the students, I can say definitively that they will grow immeasurably in their ability to act as resilient problem seekers and solvers committed to leaving the world better than they found it, not just for a class credit but because they care enough to engage in work that matters.

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