Applying Design to Education

In designing an environment for learning we have to imagine better ways of being. The same could be said for designing education itself.

Interior of High Tech High, San Diego, California

Interior of High Tech High, San Diego, California

I once asked a student at High Tech High in San Diego, California what advice she would give those designing learning environments. She replied: “Create somewhere relaxing and bright, so you can open the windows and see out; you know, somewhere you actually want to be for 7 hours a day!”

I asked another student. The answer: “Create a building that allows students to want to learn, rather than merely containing the learning process.”

High Tech High began life 14 years ago as a single charter school (a US school that receives public funding but operates independently) setting out to challenge conventional schooling wisdom and establish a better way of training an ethnically diverse and often disadvantaged student body to meet the high tech skills needs of the economy.

Since I first visited High Tech High over five years ago, it has grown from three to a cluster of six schools.

The comments from my two student interlocutors go to the heart of creating a great school, one that cares and shows interest in motivating and inspiring both students and teachers.

In my blog post “Creating Education by Design” I reflected on proactive design of education and how design principles set out by the venerated industrial designer Dieter Rams could be applied to education.

It is “Design” that is at the heart of High Tech High. Not just the design of the buildings – clearly the spaces were created to engage the students, teachers and visitors alike – but design of education itself.

It sees itself as an “organisation advocating a set of design principles”, rather than merely being a model or even a franchise. In other words it recognises differences in context.

Design principles at High Tech High

High Tech High has adopted four design principles: Teacher as Designer – where the teachers are curriculum and programme designers; Personalisation – where teachers know each of their students well and are committed to learner centred approaches; Common Intellectual Mission – all High Tech High schools follow the same agenda for diversity and integration with assessment being performance-based with problem based learning, projects and presentations to community panels.

The fourth design principle is “Adult World Connection” – where the world of work is closely connected to the world of learning through for example, relatively long internships and workplace based projects. Interestingly this is one obvious point where the physical surroundings reflect the philosophy – the environment has been designed to have a “distinctive workplace feel”.

High Tech High, and the ideas driving it may not be entirely unique today, but they were fourteen years ago. Designing education like designing places, demands vision and imagining better ways engaging young adults.

Question: Do you know other examples of schools “design principles” have been overtly applied to education in this way? I would be interested to hear about them.

Below is an image Gallery for High Tech High, San Diego, California

The original High Tech High is housed in a converted Naval Training Centre and in its physical design there is a strong focus on transparency, colour, providing a variety of small and large spaces for individual and group project work, and an emphasis on using as many of the surfaces in the public areas such as walls, floors, ceilings to display student work. Deliberately learning is made public and visible.

In the spatial design four design principles are adopted: Flexibility – all seminar rooms and public spaces must be capable of multiple uses; Ownership – small learning clusters which can be personalised; Transparency; Originality – conveying the uniqueness of the schools through the approach to the design of the physical environment.

The following images illustrate some of these:

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