Practice 1

Design school as a learning experience, not a factory


In April 2021, Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta became a community vaccination center as the nation emerged from the COVID-19 lockdown. On the day it served the highest number of citizens, 12,726 people received a COVID vaccination there. From the parking garage to each stage of verification, the experience was one that humanized every person. People were met and directed from their cars in the parking garage to the gates. From the gates, checkpoints were set up at short distances along the journey. At each checkpoint, friendly faces greeted patrons and directed them to their next stop: up an escalator, down a hall. It was staffed with enough people that waits were fewer than 2-3 minutes at each checkpoint. In the staging area just before the vaccine administration space, an announcer jovially narrated the numbers of those patrons welcome to move on. There were smiles all around. A sense of community among those gathered. Even though more than 12,000 people were moving through the process, it felt joyful, communal, well-organized, safe, and personal.

By contrast, the experience of school for too many students – and teachers – is more like being in a factory for inanimate objects. We have Frederick Taylor, the Father of Scientific Management, to thank for this. His innovation in the late 1800’s closely monitoring time and motion in factories to minimize wasted motion was the design foundation for many businesses and factories, as well as how public schools were conceptualized to process large numbers of students efficiently through a uniform program. Taylor’s design aims were to maximize productivity and profitability.

Quick Start Actions

Shadow students

Select 3-5 students representing a range of experiences and perspectives especially outside the “mainstream.” Ask if you can shadow them for a day to better understand what school is like for them, from the moment they first step foot on campus and including lunch. The aim is to simply experience school exactly as they do. After you have completed your shadowing, bring the students back together and share the insights you gathered with them. Invite their voice to shape a plan for change.

Name how you want them to feel

Engage your staff in a generative dialog around the question, “What feelings do we hope to evoke for students when they enter school?” Study organizations that do a good job for you in evoking that feeling - what do they do that makes you feel that way? How could you replicate or adapt that practice into daily routines and practices at school? How will you know and check in on how students feel at school? How will you ensure you are seeing and supporting students who may not fit typical profiles?

Answer the question, What is learning?

There is an irony in school leadership that precious little time is spent thinking about or defining what we mean by learning despite the fact that the primary purpose of schools is to spark and amplify learning. We assume that learning takes place when students are in a classroom with a teacher. We assume that test scores are evidence of learning. We often assume that everyone knows and agrees what learning is. Rather than assume, it can be productive to invite teachers, parents and students into dialog about what meaningful “sticky” learning is and how it differs from mere transmission of information.

Take a human-centered design or theatre class

Recast your identity as a leader from administrator of buses, schedules, tests and rosters to designing an experience for students, teachers, yourself, classified staff, parents, community members that vibrantly, lovingly and relentlessly pursues learning, and creating the conditions in which learning and connection thrive.

Attend to all aspects of the human experience of school beyond formal instruction

The physical space of school signals what is expected to happen within the walls. Utilize natural light, color, and art to infuse in the space with creative energy and reduce the prevalence of physical spaces that dictate compliance and isolation. To make the school a gracious social gathering place, ensure it is someone’s job to greet each student or visitor at entrances and exits. Model, encourage and incentivize smiling among leaders and adults in the building, as well as at students and visitors. An easy way to make people feel seen is to actually see them and acknowledge them!

Practitioner Highlights

Premier Experiences in Carroll County

Scott Cowart


Carroll County

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Premier Experiences in Carroll County – Five years ago, superintendent Scott Cowart led the adoption of five Vision Commitments that set the bar for what a “premier” school system looks like and what the community can expect. The first two commitments, “Focusing on learning” and “Providing premier experiences,” are examples of how to lead enactment of this Learning-and-Connection-Sparking practice.

“As a leader, I’ve always focused on results. But if our data don’t represent actual learning on the part of students, teachers and leaders, those aren’t the results we are looking for. We need school leaders and a community that aims for more than only high test scores if we are to prepare our young people for the most robust opportunities to contribute to our community’s future. Our commitment to focus on learning means we live out learning as a system in everything we do. Learning doesn’t happen only on test days or days when a teacher is being evaluated. Learning happens in my office. In principals’ offices. In teacher meetings. Everyday throughout the year. That’s how we get premier learning results – including being a premier place to work that attracts the best teaching and leadership talent.”

Cowart pairs this commitment to learning with the commitment to “provide premier experiences” that recognize students are not merely in school as minds, but as full humans. One example of this was how the district crafted experiences for students and families during the pandemic who were in transition years (incoming to Kindergarten, moving from elementary to middle school, and from middle to high school). To ensure every child arrived at school having made a personal connection, they hosted meet and greet events in batches to ensure guidelines in place at the time for social distancing did not have to mean social isolation. Jared Griffis, principal at Central High School at the time, later reflected that the incoming class of freshman that year was noticeably more tightly connected and socially supportive of one another than typical classes.


Designing Experiences

This book distills insight from across many disciplines to help readers understand the difference between delivering services (or products) and delivering experiences.

11 Ways Leaders Can Develop Empathy

This brief Forbes article curates advice for leaders from the Forbes Coaches Council. Bite-size and actionable, each of the eleven ways takes on a unique facet of growing your empathy muscle.

5 Secrets to Designing Unforgettable Experiences

In this blog post from The Aesthetics of Joy, author Ingrid Fetell Lee shares insights that can be easily translated into the daily routines of school - for students or teachers.