The Value of the Design Process

While few who are close to the education world would argue with the importance of keeping students and student learning front and center in how we organize school, the truth is that school was not originally designed that way.  I can attest with 25+ years working in the K-12 school space, that our systems are largely designed around adults.

Most schools (especially at the high school level) are not structured to provide time to get to know each student and their strengths and interests.  Nor is it super realistic inside really large systems to accommodate student needs or guide them in crafting their own unique path to the future. Instead, students are batched into large classes and told what they need to learn in order to get an A, get on the honor list, amass advanced courses, all to assist their entrance into a top rated college. So students get good at understanding how to comply with what is expected of them.  

While the path to higher education is certainly an important one and opens all sorts of new opportunities for students who persist and graduate, even those graduating from our top higher education institutions can be lacking the skills necessary to enter the workforce.  Students are quickly confronted with a shift away from complying with the expectations of the teacher/institution and thrust into a work environment where they are asked how they see a given problem, what they believe is the best strategy to apply in a particular situation, what they have built or produced or created that gives evidence of their capacity to perform in a job. Work turns the table on students quickly away from ‘How well can you do what you are asked?’ to ‘How well can you figure out the best way forward?’ ‘What creative ideas do you have that we haven’t considered before?’ ‘How might you solve this problem in a different kind of way?’ ‘How will you work with others to achieve our organizational goals?’

This shift requires us to prepare students differently.  The first step in that journey involves authentic engagement with students - getting to know who they are as individuals, caring about their lives and who they are interested in becoming.  When we deeply understand the students we are serving and build systems and structures to match their learning needs, we are better positioned to fully engage their partnership. 

Next we need to provide students with graduated autonomy as they move through high school to dig deep into their own curiosities, to tackle problems they don’t yet know how to solve but are equipped with a structure and methodology for doing so.  We must free them to assess what is most important and to develop internal gauges of quality and rigor. Finally, we must do so in an environment of high accountability where students stand up in front of their peers, parents and the larger community to defend their thinking, learning and work products. 

At Sanitas Academy, we are committed to engaging students in the design process, so that our high school, is a reflection not only of state standards and core requirements to enter college but also of student standards, cares and interests.  Students are capable of designing courses that interest them, of doing real work and tackling new problems that haven’t been solved before. In fact, it shouldn’t surprise us that when students (like adults) do authentic work, their engagement levels soar.  


Our first student engagement session which was hosted at Google gave students a chance to do just this.  Jim Stephens, the Director of Design at 2Revolutions took the students through a human-centered design experience with the following question:  How might we help the Sanitas Design Team create a school filled with purpose and passion so that students feel inspired, engaged and prepared? Not surprisingly, the 8th grade students had brilliant ideas for how to make this happen some of which are depicted in the infographic below.  Their ideas will form a critical set of conditions to consider as we design the space, systems and structure of Sanitas Academy. More student and community design events are coming up!  See our calendar for more info.

Finally, a big shout out to Rachel Harpster and Brian Brewington, the Googlers who made our design session possible at their very cool new office! Thanks also to Googler and Summit Middle School parent, Jerry Berg, for being a chaperone and, of course, Jim Stephens for sharing his talent!

Emily Puetz

Founding Director

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