Jal David Mehta, Associate Professor of Education, directs students to use design thinking and interact with real-world stakeholders when making proposals to improve educational systems in his course Deeper Learning for All: Designing a 21st-Century School System. At the end of the semester, students present final projects to panels of educational experts ranging from superintendents to K-12 teachers to Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty.
The benefits: This combination of approaches “really focuses people’s attention,” says Mehta. Working with the field in an extended way creates opportunities for lessons not present within the classroom: “If your goal is to change schools, when you work with a team within a school to try to do so, you learn deep lessons about the importance of building trust, listening, and how culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
The challenges: Mehta and his teaching team face significant logistical complexity in arranging multiple panels and presentation sessions. Moreover, the design model he uses was originally aimed at product development, so some elements don’t apply to educational systems reform: “Students were trying to make physical prototypes, which doesn’t really work for designing a process, curriculum, or new school model.” Instead, students can submit PowerPoint presentations or other documents to represent their “prototype.”
Takeaways and best practices
- Start broad, then go deep. Mehta employs a “T-shaped” approach, with students first developing broad understanding of learning organizations, schools, and educational systems, and then diving deeply into one aspect. Through systems mapping, logic models, and other tools, students outline what good learning looks like and identify “the forces that may hold us back from equitability of learning.” By analyzing videos of compelling teachers, interrogating school leaders, and developing their own projects, students realize there are opportunities for progress even within a system not oriented towards powerful learning: “It’s an optimistic course about a pessimistic state of affairs.”
- Grant flexibility but stick to small teams. Students may choose topics they hope to pursue after leaving HGSE and are invested in receiving a serious examination of their work. In the third week of the course, students share their interests and form small groups. “Four is the magic number: large enough to have a variety of perspectives and mount a significant project, small enough to function as an effective team,” says Mehta. Groups are allowed to disassemble if or as individual emphases change. “We encourage them to stay together through the empathy interview stage, but if they want to split off on a deliverable, that’s fine so long as they aren’t working alone.”
- Provide an opportunity to apply feedback. Getting formative feedback on their developing projects early and often is encouraged, both from their partners in the field and from their classmates at a designated “prototype day.” On exhibition day, leading real-world panelists draw on criteria in a rubric to conduct twenty minutes of Q&A with students after presentations; then each audience member (classmates and other colleagues) completes a feedback form recording what they “like,” “wish,” and “wonder” about the presentation. Final submissions are due a few days after presentations, so that “if someone raises a concern, students can make alterations to the project.”
Bottom line: Providing opportunities for students to receive and act on feedback from experts in a field they wish to pursue is a compelling incentive, deepening their learning and allowing them to explore professional passions they can leverage in future careers.