Empowering Educators to Creatively Solve Problems Across the Globe
In the fall of 2019, the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), an international development organization and agency of the Aga Khan Development Network, asked us to co-create a design-based innovation process for public schools around the world. Specifically, these schools were participants in the Schools2030 initiative—a globally informed, locally rooted 10-year learning improvement program working with 1,000 pioneering preschools, primary schools, and secondary schools across 10 countries on four continents.
This initiative is funded by a coalition of nine private education philanthropic partners to support teachers, school leaders and students to develop and design solutions that promote holistic, quality learning for all. This effort is inspired by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals set to be reached by 2030.
While the initiative and the scale of potential impact were exciting to us as designers, the real question for us was: how do we co-create a set of tools that can help produce meaningful design work led by those closest to the challenges they were facing? This article tells the story of the development and deployment of these resources, as well as the early signs that they are making a difference.
As design educators with over ten years of experience training and coaching people to take up design as a new way of working, we were thrilled to be able to apply the knowledge we have gained to help set up this initiative for success.
The scale and potential impact of Schools2030, while daunting, is deeply motivating and inspiring. If we can support 1,000 schools in such diverse places as Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Portugal, and Brazil to do meaningful design work that leads to better outcomes for children, then we believe we have a model that could make an even bigger impact over time.
We have developed a strong set of values and beliefs that inform our work every day, and which resonated especially strongly on this project. We believe that educators are designers. Every day, teachers create experiences for their students through developing student goals, considering different student needs, iterating between lessons, and impacting student learning outcomes. We believe that empowering educators with foundational design tools and methods will not only amplify the work they currently do, but it will also amplify the learning potential of their students.
As our work began in the fall of 2019, we started with the goal that any teacher in the world could pick up the Schools2030 Human-Centered Design Educators Toolkit and go through it, page by page, to complete a locally-driven design process with fidelity. They can use it to create human-centered projects that will improve the holistic learning outcomes of their students. This was a collaborative process, and Munir Ahmad, AKF's Global Innovation lead, shared his perspective on why the Foundation chose to focus on design as their tool for change:
Today, the global development and education landscape is facing unprecedented change. During the last months we have all seen the largest disruption of education systems in history due to COVID-19. In this context, social innovation holds the promise to offer a new framework and mindset to help the education community (students, teachers, parents and others) to collaboratively create more impactful and affordable solutions to solve some of the most pressing problems in their communities and schools. Design methodologies such as human-centered design offer a structured process that can help navigate this complexity, and create the necessary creative confidence to enable all actors to become active change agents. For AKF it is critical that we invest in nurturing a community of creative problem-solvers equipped with design and innovation competencies in order to sustainably improve the lives of people living in poverty.
As we dug into this complex project, we established our work on three main pillars: Design Principles that would guide the development of the project in a human-centered way, Design Tools that would enable educators to practice design thinking, and Design Training that would build capacity in local teams to guide the work of the school teams.
Design Principles In order to develop the design principles that would steer our work during this project, we interviewed educational leaders from each country. These conversations provided context that informed the creation of the toolkit and the training sessions in a human-centered and user-friendly way, while also staying accountable to our stakeholders and clients.
The Design package must…
Support a design process that is driven by those on the ground, with the goal that they will build evidence and conviction toward solutions that will create holistic quality learning for all
Support a design process that generates solutions that make sense in the educators' context
Support stakeholders to identify challenges and solve them using a human-centered approach
Support school leaders and teachers to design solutions that are best for their context while also "not starting from a blank slate" by drawing inspiration from learning and best practices
Communicate an understanding that "choice" is a key element of local work; educators are not "told" what to do in their communities
Be broad enough that it is applicable across a wide variety of contexts
Include appropriate design research techniques for preschoolers as well as students in primary and secondary schools
Support a process that eliminates power structures in the work
Once we developed these design principles, we were able to share them with the team at AKF to get feedback and refine them. After the process of refining these principles, we continuously returned to the principles as our northstar for the project.
Design Tools We created a collection of resources for educators, school leaders, and facilitators. The main resource is the Schools2030 Human-Centered Design Educator Toolkit. This 184-page workbook outlines a ten-phase process. Teams of educators in local schools use the toolkit to identify, research, and prototype solutions that will lead to improved holistic learning outcomes for their students. The toolkit is supported by facilitators from the AKF and regional Schools2030 partners. Every phase of the design process is a cycle that can be completed at a self-directed pace and redone as many times as needed until the team is ready to move to the next phase.
We researched many other toolkits, method cards, websites, and videos aimed at providing introductory resources for human-centered design. We realized that explanation and support needed to empower someone to navigate an otherwise ambiguous and open-ended process.
The final pillar of this work was the training of Design Trainers. We started in Nairobi, Kenya in early 2020 with AKF's Schools2030 staff and partners from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania and a team from the Regional Education Learning Initiative (RELI), a network of more than 80 civil society organizations throughout East Africa dedicated to improving the quality of learning for all across 26,000 schools.
Halima Shaaban, the Schools2030 National Coordinator in Kenya, participated in the in-person training in Nairobi. For her, "The best part [of the training] was having an opportunity to experience the human-centered design journey with my program team [as well as] seeing the culmination of the work we had put into refining the journey and toolkit."
Halima also shared that her most important new insight was "the realization that the process should focus on awakening the teachers' (already existing) design instinct, and to avoid presenting it to teachers as a new concept, because they already experience design in their everyday classroom."
Halima sees the very high potential of the toolkit for empowering teachers as design thinkers in the classroom:
The toolkit is a comprehensive guide for the teachers on navigating the human-centered design journey for their contexts. I especially like two things: 1) The format of the toolkit with the introduction, main tools and the transitions pages. The transition pages are of particular importance as they give teachers an opportunity to consolidate their thoughts and work [summary], discuss and agree as a team on the next steps [alignment], and finally have reflections on activities that were difficult and how they may support each other to work better as a team. The reflection page is also important for me as it gives me an idea of where teams are struggling and may need support. And 2) the mindsets outlined for each phase—through them, the teachers are made aware of the potential mental blocks they may face while designing and the tips [mindsets] to navigate these blocks.
The work is now spreading. Halima and a team of colleagues recently started training new teams in the design process while leveraging the Schools2030 Toolkit. For her, the best parts of that process have been "having the teams see the process as a journey and making the links between the phases, having the teams discover the human-centered design process as a structure where each phase provides a foundation to build the next phase on."
Throughout this journey, Halima has learned "the power of empathy. As a facilitator who has gone through the same journey, I am more understanding of the challenges and uncertainties the participants face and therefore am able to support them better (partly by sharing my own journey and struggles with them)."
Continuing the Training During the Global COVID-19 Pandemic In the face of global shutdowns and school closings from COVID-19, we decided to pivot to an online training model. Over the summer of 2020, we hosted 13 online sessions using Zoom and Mural for all 10 countries in the Schools2030 initiative. We began to see that the struggle of parents in Kenya was similar to that of parents in Tajikistan. The team from India inspired us all with the creativity of their prototypes.
Each country had a design team that learned the human-centered design process by using the tools to solve a pressing challenge. Because of the complexity of different contexts across the globe, teams were able to choose between two design challenges: How might we support learning from home? Or, how might we reimagine school reopening in the times of COVID-19?
Each country developed unique ideas for improving holistic learning outcomes that met specific needs for their community. The idea that was developed in Kyrgyzstan focused on teaching student self-efficacy through hygiene and hand-washing. The project idea from India focused on a physical box of learning resources that would be mailed to families in order to support hands-on learning.