Stoking a child's imagination: a 12-year-old's vision of a medieval war.

Unpredictable, inconsistent, and designed to be wildly relevant for learners, their engagement, and their development.

Sandy Speicher leads IDEO’s Design for Learning domain, which brings human-centered thinking to systemic challenges in education. Her work helps educators use design tools and methods to work in new ways, to prepare for future challenges, and to transform their organizations and communities.

By Sandy Speicher

Some children will be reading in comfortable chairs. Some will be digging into a scientific research question by conducting readings on a nearby pond. Some will be working on computers refining their skills in math while others are sequencing DNA. Some will be collaborating around a design challenge with new friends across the globe. One group will reenact a battle from medieval times, while others are learning on site, at jobs. Building, making, imagining, interacting, investigating, reflecting, connecting, shaping, participating. There will be challenge. There will be high expectations. And there will be tons of variation. With all of its possibility, the school day of the future will be one thing: it will be designed.

Elliot Eisner, one of my favorite education professors, often asked the question, “If aliens landed on our planet and walked into our schools, what would they think the school is meant for?” We’d brainstorm: Learning to sit in rows? Learning to get up and move en masse at the sound of a bell? Learning to stay in place for 40-minute increments? Learning to override your bodily functions? Learning to answer the questions that the person standing in front of the room already knows the answer to? It’s hard not to realize that a school, upon pure observation, looks like a training ground for behavioral management.

In the end, it’s not that much different than the design of most of our industrial work environments – time, constraints, structures, tasks, a consistent and organized system. It’s what we adults tend to design without really thinking.

But when you watch children – undeniable natural learners – they create different solutions: play, discovery, interaction. They observe the world, they stick things in their mouth, they touch things. They connect with the world to learn it. They experience it through their senses. And in discussions with the people around them, they create language and meaning and amazing new ideas and interpretations that the rest of us get the benefit of learning from.

It’s not too big of a leap to want the school day designed around these notions of how we naturally, and individually, learn. Designing the day around discovery of information, connections to real world challenges, discussions digging into our experiences with the world.

One thing to keep in mind, of course, is that not every child is starting in the same place, and not every child is headed toward the same place. Some need freedom in order to learn. Some need structure. Some need a mix. But all need respect for their individuality, trust in their abilities to succeed, and adults who have the foresight to design experience to bring out individual greatness.

A 10-year-old illustrates "genetical engineering."

The School of One in New York City, for instance, is creating an exciting model of individualized learning that integrates technology and personal attention. Their school day revolves around formative assessments which technology helps capture, so that the teachers can look at the data at the end of the day. The teachers discuss – together – how each student is doing, and develop a strategy for the following day which can include any number of formats for what the student needs – teacher-led instruction, one-on-one tutoring, self-learning, or virtual tutoring. They’ve broken the model of one class with one teacher and created a network of learning toward specific goals.

Then there are Leadership Public Schools, whose students have unique needs of their own. The majority of their students are performing at an elementary level when they enter in the ninth grade. They have created a portfolio of adaptive learning technologies which allow students to access ninth-grade content while learning basic skills. It’s not “Drill and Kill” — they’ve integrated technology into the daily experience by helping students learn to create with it. This is putting them on the track not just for incredible academic gains, but also for immediate relevance in the job market – an important need for their students.

Students at schools in the New Tech Network are learning in related ways, but with a different design. They use projects to inspire new understandings. They’re also using technology to capture learnings – building videos and slideshow presentations – and they’re most often working in teams, learning different subject-matter content through real world challenges.

Teachers at Ormondale Elementary School in California build their curriculum from student passions. They have a range of approaches – inspiring children through teacher-defined projects, allowing them to define the end goals of any given exploration, capturing a student’s passion toward a particular topic and using that as the vehicle for exploration through teacher- or student-defined assignments. Their school day allows for this range of experience, and the “investigations” happening throughout the day vary greatly class by class, child by child.

All of these innovative models are showing us that incredible results, and experiences are possible when we design the school day with the needs of the student in mind. The historic “one-size-fits-all” model of set periods of time with groups of somewhere between 20-30 kids lined up in rows and one teacher in the front of the room orchestrating the conversation…. well, Sage on Stage, Chalk and Talk, and Spray and Pray might just have met their match.

The school day of the future will be unpredictable, inconsistent, and designed to be wildly relevant for the learner, their engagement, and their development.

Read more in the School Day of the Future series.
The School Day of the Future is DESIGNED 1 October,2012Tina Barseghian

  • susie

    Amen. Love this piece! Following student interests and giving them time to work deeply is so important. The teacher’s role becomes creative guide, not task master – liberating both teachers and students.

    The first paragraph could be a description of a new school paradigm our team in Oakland is designing called Urban Montessori. We are hoping that Alameda County Board of Education will approve the charter on March 8th! Feel free to check it out at:

  • Rackerly

    brilliant and most helpful. Thank you. I am spreading it as fast as I can.

    • What have you discovered…or is it too long ago???

  • Brenda

    So close to home it makes me swell with excitement for the possibilities. Our philosophy and our practice has always been (more or less successfully) that if you have 25 students, you have 25 curriculums. It is challenging to think about…but so much easier to feel good about in practice. Importantly, it is about the student…not the teacher. It really works!

  • Rackerly

    Yes, Brenda. I had a teacher who said to her new parents every year: “I have a 150% of a curriculum?” It is a subtle change, but I would like to see us help the student focus what the student is learning rather than focus the student on the student. Mel Levine, expert on learning disorders kept reminding us that the most important thing to do is to have the child become an expert on something. I really like your vision of having 25 experts in your class.

  • Berickson

    Rick, the difficulty is in finding teachers that can recognize the greater power in facilitation. Teachers want to do a really good job…they care about doing the best they can; yet they are torn between the definition of best…what the student demonstrates he or she needs or what the system states is required. It takes time and patience to see the results of such an environment…but the approach bears tremendous fruit. The harvest: a substantial creative base in kids who feel self aware and capable.

    The most important ingredients are intellectual space to be who you are, followed by a respect for the way you are different.

  • Rackerly

    “The most important ingredients are intellectual space to be who you are, followed by a respect for the way you are different.” Can’t seem to say it better, myself. Though God knows I try at

  • Michaelmaser

    No argument from me about the validity of this approach. I am co-founder and director of an innovative personalized learning program (k-12 + Special Ed) in British Columbia called ‘SelfDesign Learning’ ( and the sentiment of this article reflects our philosophy and methodology to a “T”.
    – Michael Maser
    SelfDesign Learning

  • A terrific piece. Imagine a culture, organization and environment that supports these interactions and the individual’s voice. Systemic design.

  • Future? WHAT future?

  • Great article Tina! thanks a lot. When I share this kind of ideas about education with current education professionals like teachers or school management, a few are interest and most get scared or just dont understand, but when I share this with my friends or just people not related to education they get inspired. I think part of the challenge is to involve current teachers in the process of designing education. We will see more entrepreneurs trying to follow different approaches to education.

  • Has it always been a “one size fits all” model? It seems that since the dawn of public education there have been a lot of methodologies tried, and today particularly with the proliferation of charter schools there is an acceptance of creative pedagogy. Granted I was lucky enough to go to an alternative high school where students had a great deal of freedom to  choose learning methods so perhaps I’m on the optimistic side. But I think a lot of the problems that we see in education stem more from financial constraints than a methodological decision to rule the classroom with an iron fist.

  • Viteznik

    The type of learning environment you are describing already exists in Montessori classrooms.

  • julie

    “Building, making, imagining, interacting, investigating, reflecting, connecting, shaping, participating.”

  • Peekay72

    This is not realistic.  You are assuming student motivation.  That is not a given.  And what about Special Education and federal mandates.  This is great for some but will not work for all. 

    • Montessori 101

      Student motivation is not a given, that is true. But students can be
      extremely motivation by freedom of choice, freedom to self-direct,
      freedom to make mistakes which are the natural order of any learning
      process – think about it…what if our parents told us we had failed the
      mobility test because when we first tried to walk we fell down ,
      freedom to try again from a new angle, freedom to learn at their own
      level – and the list goes on. This “classroom of the future” has
      existed for well over 100 years in Montessori schools worldwide.
      Montessori is the method that gave the founders of Google, Wikipedia,
      Amazon, etc the freedom to follow their instincts and create some of the
      most used tools of the 21st century. I’m not sure how the authors of
      this article do not know that this new wave they are riding is already
      tried and true, alive and well, and educating thousands of very
      motivated students using the methods of Dr. Maria Montessori.

  • Learning is all about personal attention – forever – that’s what we all need to discover!!!

  • Katie

    As an Early Childhood Educator, I try to advocate for a “pushed-up” curriculum model instead of a “pushed-down” one. Great preschools and infant-toddler programs look very much like the school of the future you have described.

  • Elizabeth Rubenstein

    Children are neither Standard,nor Common.

    School districts need the freedom to create creative unique programs that meet the needs of their specific population!

  • Zosia

    interesting. I read quite similar stuff written hundred years ago (Celestin Freinet)

  • San Juan

    Excellent article!

    All of the methods you describe in your first paragraph & throughout the article are exactly the same methods that were used in public schools back in the 1950’s, at least where I went to school! This critical basic education has served me well through five very successful high tech careers.

    Beginning in the 1960’s, these proven positive results methods were quickly abandoned or discarded in favor of the current “Dumb Down” methods so widely used now in the public education arena (first started at the college level). It seems some educators (unfortunately not many) are now rediscovering what originally worked well & was the key to America’s great success for 200+ years.

    China & other nations are now incorporating, with great success, the same educational methods that once made America great. However, because most educators in America are so over influenced by the “Socialist Elitist” mentality, it is now “too little too late” to effect lasting positive changes. It pains me greatly that America has become a “has been” country with NO future!

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor