'A Better Future is Possible': IDEO’s Sandy Speicher on Design Thinking in Schools

By
Project Literacy Lab / Mary Jo Madda

For those who are familiar with the global design firm IDEO, a few words might come to mind. Consulting. Design thinking. K-12 and higher education?

Yes, IDEO has indeed carved out a space for itself in the education market. At the center of it? Sandy Speicher, the Executive Director of the Education practice and a designer by trade. She’s worked with organizations across the public, private, and social sectors. For example, recently, she and her team finished up a project with the San Francisco Unified School District centered around redefining the school lunch program.

Recently, Speicher spoke with EdSurge about the genesis of the Education Studio at IDEO, the role that design thinking plays in improving K-12 education, and where she sees the biggest opportunities for growth and improvement in schools.


EdSurge: Sandy, thanks for joining us. People will ask me what IDEO is, and I find it difficult to describe exactly what it is in 60 seconds. Now, you’ve been here for quite a while, you founded the education strand in 2007, 2008. Why did the Education Studio come to be?

To understand what the education practice is, it helps to understand what IDEO is. Basically, IDEO’s role in the world is to help organizations innovate. Behind that, it’s to help people go on a journey of change, at any organization. We’re pretty big for a design company—600 people in 9 or so offices around the globe. We work across so many different sectors. And to understand why we’re doing work in education, you have to understand the culture of IDEO. If our role is to help identify new solutions that make life better for people, we have to have an environment that doesn’t say, “Be creative here, but not here.”

Way back when I joined, our CEO challenged us all to think about the impact we were having in the world. I raised my hand, and said, “I really care about education, I think it really needs us.” What was amazing and hilarious was that when I brought up this idea, I spent 45 minutes on this thought-out presentation, and it felt like this high-stakes moment. But everyone said, “Cool… makes sense.”

What I learned in that dialogue was that I myself needed to find the role we could play. There’s a bigger question about the role design can play in advancing education.

When you say design, I intrinsically think graphic design. But what’s the kind of “design” you’re thinking about?

That’s an important question, because I often forget to situate that.

At IDEO, we understand that to address larger, complex challenges, you need a whole lot of different perspectives that together, find an answer that’s greater than what any one angle could bring alone. IDEO has always historically put together multidisciplinary teams of different types of designers—people who have a background in architecture, people in graphic design, people who do anthropology and research. We put all those people and skills together in a room with a question, and say, “With your creative genius, find what matters and design a direct response for it.”

How does that work in education? When I was teaching, it was easy to become skeptical of external organizations’ efforts, especially if you felt like no one from that organization had been a teacher or stepped foot in a classroom.

There are two different ways to answer that. One, about ten years ago when we first started asking this question, we were really empathetic outsiders. We have a really special skill around here where instead of assuming we know the answer, we connect with people to either help them find their own answers or inform us to create answers that feel born from what people say they need.

At first, we took more of an approach of interviewing teachers and then recognizing patterns across all of the dialogues we had. Of course, in education, you also get to students, and parents, and administrators—and so, we had to learn how to take all of that diverse input in order to understand the core needs and motivations that underlie what people are wishing for.

Now that’s it’s many years later, we have about 30 people dedicated to the education practice (though the nice thing about IDEO is that we bring in people from other teams for cross-pollination). We’re still empathic outsiders in that we still regard that the people in the system are the wisdom. But we are the design talent, and we bring in people that have been in those systems. Many of the people in our studio have teaching experience or an affinity for teaching. It brings a whole new level of empathy.

The role of “design thinking” has become a much more popular term in education over the past few years. You’ve probably seen both proper and poor examples of implementing design thinking, as a result. What exactly is “design thinking,” in your opinion? There are a lot of different definitions out there.

YES. That is the existential question that defines my days. When I first started focusing on this work, I felt like that all I did was announce to the education sector at various conferences, “Hey! There’s this thing called design thinking.” And because we didn’t have a lot of experience working in education, we said, “Here how it applies to healthcare.” People seemed to feel that it wouldn’t work in education. But I see it as a creative approach to problem solving. At its core, it’s often talked about as a set of methods—you go out, talk to people, and then imagine things, and then iterate.

But there are also a set of mindsets that underlie that process. There’s optimism and collaboration. If you believe that it is your role to help someone innovate, you actually have to believe that a better future is possible. It’s a non-negotiable—and you know what? That is ridiculously rare.

It seems that for people that have been in this industry for a long time, they’ve gotten so beaten down that optimism feels impossible.

It’s true. But in a way, our role ends up being rooted in that endless belief that a better future is possible. That’s a thing that was surprising and caused resistance at first. Collaboration is another thing. It’s actually really hard to put into practice, and do it well. That diversity of thought and opinion is difficult to wrangle.

In my experience of unfolding this design thinking dialogue, my memory is that at first, people thought it was intriguing, but that it would never work. The key was finding the people who said, “I see what you’re saying, and I’d like to go on this journey with you.”

Have there been any schools, districts, or projects you’ve worked on where you’ve seen those optimistic people, in the way that helps push progress?

When I look at the space now, it’s amazing to see the abundance of what is happening because people used design thinking to address challenges, from micro ways to big systemic systems. There are patterns I’m seeing now, both that we’ve participated in and others from the sector. We need to raise a generation of changemakers, because the world is complex and there are immense problems. But, we also want to use design thinking to create new systems. There’s a ton of work we’ve been doing there, such as when we collaborated with an organization, Innova, in Peru to design a whole school system that would be of international caliber.

And then, there’s a really cool thing we see emerging where schools realize that the culture of school matters, and it can be designed in a way where teachers, students and parents are involved in the designing of school. Teachers are designing every day. It is constant, and iterative—but rarely do teachers think they’re a designer.

...which is funny to me, because science teachers use the scientific method, which is similar to the design thinking process.

It is similar, except design thinking doesn’t start with a hypothesis, but a question. It’s very hard for teachers to slow down enough to realize that there’s a question behind the problem that they’re facing.

So, we had done some work when we engaged teachers in a design process. In 2011, we launched the Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit—essentially a textbook for teachers. We’ve had about 100,000 people download it, created a second edition, did workshops. But then we realized that we weren’t seeing a lot of stories of impact as a result of teachers being exposed to design thinking. We felt the best way to teach was to help structure that, so, we created the Teachers Guild.

Teachers Guild is a free, member-driven community of teachers who are innovating both for their classroom and from their classroom. We’ve put together all these partners from across the country, and we’re learning so much about the role design thinking can play in advancing these national questions. In the process of national collaboration, participants are finding new friends, and we’re starting to see that that builds up their confidence to lead locally.

I have one more question—not every school and district can afford to work with an organization that can train them on design thinking. Likewise, some schools or districts might not offer teachers time to engage in something like the Teachers Guild. Do you have advice on how these people can start bringing in the design thinking process tomorrow?

One of the biggest things I think people need to remember is that we’re all creative, and that creativity gets applied differently. We are all at our best when we are at the center of our creative essence. Time changes when we’re joyfully creating. And so, there’s something to be said about finding something you really care about, and what you’re excited to address.

Be in dialogue with people about that. Be curious about your students. Always look for something that surprises you. That is a really great place to start.

Want to hear the full interview with Sandy? Check out the EdSurge On Air podcast below.

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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