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Cross Industry Innovation in K-12 Education

I don’t like speeding tickets all that much.  In fact, I think I would be hard pressed to find many people that do. The whole experience from the initial gasp when you see the red and blue lights in the rearview mirror right up until the moment you realize that you are not escaping with a stern warning is both maddening and embarrassing all at once.  Yes, I might have been going a bit quickly, but I was running late and the kids needed to be picked up, and I was only 10 m.p.h…..ok maybe 15 m.p.h. over the limit, officer.  Sigh…just give me the ticket.  Head shake on cue.

For years, we have used the same few methods to stop people from speeding–signs, stern warnings, photo radar, and of course, the threat of getting a fine for being a bit of a lead foot.  Yet despite efforts to change people’s driving habits, in a study in 2008 of a thousand random drivers, 100% of them thought that it was fine to exceed the posted limit by 5 mph, and 36% felt that it was ok to drive at 20 mph over the limit.   Hmm.  Another head shake.

What if we took a different approach?  Typically, we lock ourselves into a traditional means of solving problems, where we try to take what we currently do and do it just a little bit better. Or we do what we have always done, but just a little bit differently.  “We’ll find a faster horse!”, we shout with vigor.  But what if we looked into other, completely different sectors to see if there were practices that we could borrow and apply to our own situation?  What if we decided that we weren’t going to look for a ‘faster horse’, like bigger speed signs or more stringent ticket fines,  but rather would adopt a completely different approach that we could adapt from a different situation altogether?

What if it were FUN to obey the speed limit?  And a tiny bit of ‘fun’, even when we got caught?

Well, that sounds like a different approach.

In a new and thought-provoking book called “Cross-Industry Innovation — Not Invented Here”, Ramon Vullings and Marc Heleven describe “The Speed Camera Lottery”, created as part of The Fun Project by Volkswagen.  In Copenhagen, there was a particular section of road that was known to be a place where people ignored the posted speed signs.  In “The Speed Camera Lottery”,  a speed camera was used to photograph and measure the speed of all of the drivers on this stretch of road.  Using a camera to photograph drivers in itself was not revolutionary, of course.  Nor was the fact that those drivers who were speeding were levied a fine for their traffic violation.  But what was truly unique was that the fines collected from the speeders were put into a pot, and those who were not speeding were out into a draw for the money that was collected!  “The Speed Camera Lottery” was born, drivers slowed down an average of 22% while having a totally speed enforcement experience.

Sometimes I feel as though I am annoying friends and colleagues with my constant questions around the “the delight factor”, or absence thereof.  Too often we find reasons not to look for that unique ‘something’ in the experiences at our schools that makes them meaningful for our students, our parents, and our educators.  “When did we decide we have to be boring?”, I often wonder, many times with regret when I ponder some of my lessons as a classroom teacher.  As a result, one of the pieces that our learning experience design team takes pride in is ensuring that we find an element of “surprise and delight” for the participants in the inservice or professional development days that we create so they remember the experience that we created.

Recently, one of our district schools came to our team with a project–they wanted us to create a learning experience that would immerse their teachers in project-based learning.   Typically, when such a request is made, professional development providers pull out a tried and true, one-day lesson template that they have in their lesson bank, modify a couple of bits to suit the age bracket that the teachers work with, and get ready to go.  While convenient for the PD provider, planning such as this often misses the mark for the educators for one simple reason–the PD provider doesn’t take the time to do the research to find out who their audience is, and more importantly, how they learn best and what their current struggles with professional learning might be.  The result is an uneducated guess as to what the needs of the group might be and a subsequently ineffective inservice day.  Yes, I said ‘uneducated’–simply focusing on the content of a PD day represents a small part of the equation, the real artistry is in the design of the learning experience.

Earlier this year, I visited Continuum, the internationally recognized design firm in Boston that created iconic items such as the Reebok Pump, the Swiffer, and numerous other product and service solutions across the globe.  Ken Gordon, colleague and friend at Continuum talked to me about ‘pain points’:  he said “You really need to turn up the ’emotional hearing aid’ when you are listening to your clients.  You need to find the the pleasure points and the pain points.  Once you find those, that’s the gold.  Pain points are opportunities.”

Fortunately, much like Continuum and their focus on human-centred design, our team has adopted the process of Learner-Centred Design: the team is disciplined in considering the needs of the learner first.  Not only does the team spend an inordinate amount of time getting to know the wants, wishes and pain points of the group they are serving, they co-design a vision of the ideal, and go wild with ideas of a ‘surprise and delight’ factor that will make the day memorable.

During our process of educational ethnography (where we spend time interviewing the group we are designing for), we found out a few things about the school.  They were a fun-loving bunch who liked to be social, who liked competition, and who really needed hands on activities–they wanted to learn by doing.  But because the team was able to quickly develop a positive relationship with the school, we also found out something that was interesting:  one of the teachers we interviewed smiled and said “Sometimes we aren’t always on task.”.  The other teachers from the school agreed, “We are like our kids!  We might need to be held accountable.”.  Ahhhh, the pain point.  Ken Gordon would be smiling.

So we now had our opportunity!  Much like the speeding ticket scenario in Copenhagen where they found a way to surprise and delight people in holding them accountable to the speed limit, we needed to find a way to surprise and delight the school in holding them accountable to learning about professional development.  One of our designers asked a key question that was phrased in just such a way to make us think differently.  She could have asked, “How can we hold people accountable?”, but instead she said “Who is one person no one can say “no” to?”.  Our project team laughed, and another one of the designers yelled “Grandma!”.

The room got quiet, and suddenly we all began to smile.  Seniors!

So while we designed a professional development day that was immersive, hands-on, competitive, and had people learn the work by doing the work, we also surprised the staff by giving them the opportunity to connect to our local seniors community through the PBL design challenge that we had
created.  And by having them design something for an authentic (and loving) audience, the team found a way to hold people ‘accountable’ in a way that delighted rather than dictated.  No policy.  No rule.  Just Grandma.  And Grandpa.  And a lot of smiles and memories.

Schools don’t have to be boring.  By choosing to get to know our school communities, and developing an understanding of their ‘pain points’ in a process that is so commonly used by industries outside of education, we can ‘surprise and delight’ the students, parents and teachers in our school communities.

And if it can be done with speeding tickets, it certainly can be done in our classrooms.

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