IDEO Designs Network of Schools in Peru

Adobe wall in Cusco by McKay Savage

Yesterday we examined designing schools for safety and aesthetics. Continuing on the theme of school design, here’s an interesting article in the NY Times, “Shaping a School System, From the Ground Up” by Claire Martin, about design company IDEO’s network of schools in Peru, Innova schools. IDEO designed the schools from the ground up, starting with mission all the way to teacher professional development.

After putting aside my extreme jealousy at such a great opportunity (if Mr. Rodriguez-Pastor needs any more school designers, Will and I are totally down for this), I enjoyed reading about how IDEO took an open ended design process and applied it to the complex challenge of designing multiple schools. Let’s take a closer look at what they did:

They began their work together by developing what Ms. Speicher called a “core mission,” around which each design decision would revolve.

It’s been said enough by various leadership gurus that this should now be ingrained: lead with your values and mission. IDEO knows what they are doing.

One challenge in systems design is that it doesn’t work unless the individual components connect. “You want to dive deep into the curriculum and dive deep into the spaces,” she said. “But in order to have a system, they have to actually integrate.”

This is what we mean when we talk about recognizing a school as an ecosystem. The whole is more than the sum of its parts–it’s about the relationships, the network, how everything does—or doesn’t—work together.

The team designed classrooms with sliding walls so that two smaller classrooms could be transformed into a large one, allowing one teacher to supervise two classes during independent learning sessions.

Funny that I just mentioned this in yesterday’s post! This flexibility not only provides for greater control of variable learning spaces, but could also be considered a safety feature, depending on whether it’s also designed with potential intruders in mind.

Another potential pitfall of systems design is that it can’t factor in the quirks of human existence. The assumption that “we as human beings should behave as simple agents to produce complex outputs” is flawed, as Mr. Sharma of the Rhode Island School of Design put it. “Humans are much more complicated agents and can produce independent thoughts, good and bad.”

As Mr. Soros also put it, humans can act both as particles and as waves, and it is this uncertainty and complexity that makes prediction of human interaction difficult. That IDEO incorporates this understanding into their design process is smart. So how do they deal with this uncertainty in moving forward?

To help manage any problems that arose once its designs were used in Peru, the Innova administrators and the Ideo team held periodic follow-up meetings.

Continuous improvement through feedback. Stir, iterate, and repeat.

If you start with the right principles and processes and view a school as a complex adaptive system, you can create great schools.

By the way, IDEO has a free design thinking toolkit for educators. Check it out.