Sandy Speicher is a Partner at the global design and innovation firm IDEO, where she also serves as Managing Director leading the learning and education practice. Her teams look to people’s unmet needs to inspire new solutions for a wide variety of challenges – from the ways people learn to the ways systems operate. Working with organizations across the public, private, and social sectors, Sandy’s work has helped to create an affordable school system in Peru. She has helped shape strategies to improve schools for the poor in India, and developed learning tools to improve youth literacy in Brazil. Her work also focuses on creating tools to help build creative confidence in students and teachers, so that they can be agents of change for how our classrooms evolve. She helped Carnegie Corporation launch 100kin10, which President Clinton referred to as a new model for social change. Sandy holds an M.A. in Education from Stanford and a B.F.A. from Washington University.
Catalyst: Describe your work at IDEO and what you do in the education sector.
Sandy: I’ve been at IDEO for about 14 years now and have spent the last decade leading and building up our learning and education practice. Today, we have a dedicated team of over 30 designers working to find better solutions to challenges in lifelong learning and education. We work with leading education change makers to design new ways for the sector to build its own creative capacity. We’re often developing learning tools and technology, school systems and models, and even national strategies for education. We also work at a societal level to think about how learning and development affect systems like social justice, incarceration, and equity, and how design can improve them. Ultimately, we aim to bring creativity and wisdom from a design perspective to create new and surprising solutions, and to help individuals strengthen their creative muscles to realize that things can be better.
Catalyst: What kind of learning environment do you think that students can really thrive in? Do you think it’s the same for everybody or case by case specific?
Sandy: This is such a tough question. It’s challenging to say that the same learning environments are right for everybody. At the same time, there are certain universal needs that come first. We tend to think that a learning environment is equivalent to the way that space is divided, the way the curriculum is divided, the way the pedagogy is designed, or the way the learning experience happens. But underneath all of that is the concept of care, which is universal. Students and people really thrive in an environment in which they are uniquely cared for, and cared about. That underlying concept feels true across the board, but the way that can manifest itself is different in each case. In order to inspire students to thrive, you really have to understand each student and constantly think about how to design an environment to bring out their best.
Catalyst: We define thriving as creative unsettling, the ability to approach life as a learning journey of experiments that help us embrace and live with greater authenticity and generativity. How does your work align with this concept?
Sandy: I love the word unsettling because in so many ways this is one of those universal truths that we are continuously learning, whether or not that’s happening formally and whether or not we’re conscious of it. Currently, I think our systems are biased towards concrete and specific knowledge, and we need to find ways that we can expand to make sure that we’re not just developing knowledge about the outer world, but also helping to build an understanding of our inner world. But I don’t think it’s one or the other, I think it’s both.
For example, many schools and non profit organizations are looking at the dropout rates of students who are first in their family to attend college. We have congregated around this question to help uncover new design solutions by engaging the students themselves. The common answer was that college is very expensive and students needed to find full-time work. But one student cracked that answer wide open and showed us an alternative rationale. As a high school student, he felt such pressure to attend college. Once he was enrolled, he struggled to rationalize the cost and risk, because he wasn’t yet sure of his purpose or what he was hoping to achieve. Until he determined what he needed to do or pursue through higher education, he actually felt that it was irresponsible to spend the money and the time and ultimately dropped out.
There’s a lot of expectation now about the necessity for students to attend college, but not a lot of work being done to help students develop an inner narrative, a sense of themselves, and their reasons for going to college. As a result, we fundraised to design a solution for this, and created The Purpose Project, which consists of different tools for high school students to find their sense of purpose. It tracks and identifies life experiences, both in school and out of school, to help students start recognizing some of the patterns of affinity across their daily experiences. Once students realize these patterns, they can begin to learn more about that interest or desire. For example, a student may realize that they felt really courageous when breaking up a fight on the playground. That feeling might trigger an understanding that they really care about peace. The student could then test out new projects or activities that would lead to a career path that activated and engaged an interest in peace.
The Purpose Project tool is really a way to build the muscle of reflecting on our actions to develop insight about ourselves. We sometimes think that our narratives of purpose come through divine intervention. Perhaps, but it also helps to build and develop the purpose muscle, and understand that it changes all the time. Personally, having been through college, grad school, and now having a measurable career, I know that interests and sense of purpose change. We need to begin to get comfortable with this change, rather than think that there’s one thing that we are. I tell you all of this because I love your definition of thriving, this constant engagement and curiosity in the world, enough to notice where you fit into it and where you can help enhance it. And at the same time, you can’t do that without some knowledge and skill. It’s about that balance.
Catalyst: Do you think that our own personal experiences of education get in the way of the redesign process?
Sandy: I think that they do, but I also think that our personal experiences matter. Oftentimes when people innovate in education, they don’t always think to bring others along. However, engaging people in the process of design and getting them on the learning journey is really integral to get to a new place. I don’t think we can create our ideal if it doesn’t include everybody else’s vision for what “good” looks like. We have to all design together. Personally, I’m constantly checking my biases, given my own experiences with education. Simultaneously, I’m curious to understand other people’s experiences and what that means in order to design for the intersection of all of our beliefs and values. I work to make sure that I’m not pushing my agenda. I have a point of view, but so does everybody else. I’ve learned that great design in a social system is really about understanding a myriad of perspectives and then finding a solution that reconciles as much of that as possible.
Catalyst: I want to talk about this idea of disequilibrium. A concept you’ve spoken about before, which leads to heightened creativity. I’d love for you to share your insights on that.
Sandy: I love that you referenced that because it’s such a meaty topic, and it merges my two worlds of education and design, looking at what learning theory teaches us about the creative world. The idea of disequilibrium was initially surfaced by the psychologist Jean Piaget. After observing children and how they learn, he laid out this theory of constructivist learning, which states that knowledge isn’t gained but it’s actually constructed through our interactions in the world. In so many ways, it feels a lot like the creative process, which is all about taking a leap. It’s getting to a new understanding of what could be, or how we could see something based on all that we see and know now. We see it as creative because no one else has thought about it before.
When someone does something and you think, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that before,” it’s because we can bring known information to a new place, creating a new understanding.
In the constructivist theory, you have to go through this phase of uncertainty, which feels like a dark time. You have all of this input in front of you, and you don’t yet know what it means. It’s super uncomfortable, and given how quickly life is changing, and our systems are changing, we have to become masters of being in a state of disequilibrium. We have to become comfortable with it ,because it’s the state where we start to question the mental models that we have. Only through that questioning can we find new answers, and without it, we would shut down our engagement and miss how the world is evolving. I’m talking very abstractly, but it seems to connect so strongly to your concept of thriving.
Catalyst: It absolutely does. Do you have a concrete example of disequilibrium that people could connect to?
Sandy: If you interact with young people, it’s easier to see this constructivist learning process. For example, with a child you often point to things and name them. You might be driving down a road and point to a cow, and maybe that cow is black and white. In a child’s mind, a cow equals black, white, and big. But when you’re driving down the road again and see a brown cow, at that moment the child has a choice to make: to either redefine the word cow in their mind, or ignore the new input, reverting back to the idea that cows are only black and white. The disequilibrium moment is that period of questioning when the child thinks, “I thought a cow was something else.” It’s so simple when you think of it that way, but you realize quickly this is happening in so much of our world, both in both micro and major ways.
Learning is where we can design for this disequilibrium. Think back to some of your best professors. They are often the ones who shake up your thinking, or pull together readings that make you question things you thought you understood. You realize that you can
see the same information in a different way, ultimately creating a more inclusive narrative of the world and what is possible.
The creative process is a constant feeling of disequilibrium, a state in which we begin to question the mental models that we have. The education system is a place where we can design for this disequilibrium, so we can learn to become comfortable with challenging conventions and accepting new ideas in order to thrive.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
>> LEAD as if life matters.
>> RECOGNIZE disequilibrium is essential for active learning.
>> REMEMBER comfort does not necessarily equal thriving.
>> RE-IMAGINE what is possible build the muscle of creativity.
>> REFLECT on your actions to deepen your purpose and lead learning.
Ansell is a content creation strategist with a focus on copywriting and social media marketing. Jacqueline holds a B.A. in Art History and Psychology from Colgate University, and is a 2nd year graduate student in the Design Management program at Pratt Institute exploring her interest in problem solving through empathic design.