Summary: Design thinking arrives in a big way at IBM to empower employees to work closely with customers to design the next wave of IBM products. Might the same process illuminate the real needs of at risk, under performing kids, which precede their readiness for reading, writing, ‘rithmetic?
Maybe I’ve been brainwashed, or perhaps we all have; somehow the private sector is perceived as superior to the public sector in a variety of ways, from efficiency, to fiscal discipline, to consistency and quality of product. Perhaps the difference originates in the death of the many companies which do not muster to the marketplace, while it is in the nature of public agencies to continue regardless of deficiency. The remaining businesses by definition are successful; the public agencies must reform short of their demise.
We can do without Lehman Brothers though investors suffer; we cannot allow our energy grid to fail, nor Social Security, no matter their inadequacies.
As we have seen in Newark, public schools can be replaced by charters, which tend to have a private sector imprimatur, but the process can be bloody and damaging to the prospects of many students the changes are designed to rescue, and still not find the sought after higher ground.
We do not grieve for Lehman Brothers; we do grieve when students are submerged in the prop-wash of changes with uncertain outcome.
Nevertheless, I find myself looking to the private sector for ideas that may transplant productively to schools, though the two are different in important ways, not the least of which is that one institutionalizes failure while the other is generally too important to fail.
My latest find appeared in the New York Times about a relatively ancient company and its efforts to reinvent itself — International Business Machines.
In its effort to speed up the pace of adaptation to a continuously mutating sales environment, and remain viable as its historic sources of revenue decline, IBM has committed significant resources to a process called “design thinking,” which is not a new concept in the corporate world, where it has been applied in different guises but mostly in limited ways.
Adapted as might be expected from the worlds of art and technology, design thinking is a creative process that looks deeply at the ecology of a problem, brainstorms potential solutions in a divergent manner, then settles on a best strategy as culled from the resulting ideas.
In IBM’s case, the activity shifts planning for new products from within the isolated corporate walls to the field, in close consultation with customers. Rather than products that result from interior deliberation of what the customer may need, which then have to be sold, design thinking works with customers to clarify their emerging needs, engages in a process of imagining what physical products or services might answer those needs, and then finally narrows the design to something that will turn around and enter the market as ready-made for a specific purpose for a specific set of customers.
IBM seems well on the way to betting the corporate viability on this profound cultural change.
Yeah, I know, sounds obvious. With money to be made, it is perhaps more the wonder such a process hasn’t been going on regularly for a long time. Maybe the private sector isn’t quite as advanced as we have been led to think.
We slow old albatrosses of schools in fact conduct a less elaborate version of the same process with formative testing, which identifies weaknesses in our students’ understanding, the better to craft lessons that address the deficiencies.
Yet. What if a school community were to dive more deeply through an IBM like design strategy below specific skill deficits? In fact, take a foundational look at those kids at risk, the low income, the children of poverty, those whom we know are the most challenged, those whose skills and test scores remain the most stagnant? What are their fundamental needs? What if for the moment we suspend boundaries on our thinking?
We want our students to learn, to prosper in school, to expand their life prospects. Our charge is to teach them reading, writing, arithmetic. What are the necessary conditions for their optimum learning?
These conditions are no secret — prenatal health care, parenting help for parents, quality nutrition, quality preschool, adequate family income, peaceful and stable communities, a sense of agency and self-worth, a sense of hope itself. Those thinking about progress in schools strangely have blinders on when plotting strategy, as though limited to thinking just within the schoolhouse hours and walls.
Divergent thinking can get one in trouble.
While so much of the attention of the power structure and of the educational establishment is focused on curriculum and instruction, these kids labor in an underbelly in which the well-intentioned efforts of their schools pass above their heads, and miss what they really need to engage at the level we currently offer. Feed them stability, self-confidence, nourishment beginning at inception, and then ask them to be virtuous students of our cultural tools.
Yes, such a commitment would require a sea change in our politics, and in our culture, though the irony is that taking care of our students ultimately benefits all. Neglect for the moment the heavy price tag of eyeball squarely on the effects of poverty. Now ask,
why is it that after fifteen or so years of school reform, the net product is so little? Maybe because we ask the wrong questions.