Interview on Promethean Planet

I was delighted to be interviewed for PrometheanPlanet as part of the run-up to an  Education Fast Forward debate entitled Is this the Year of the Games? Innovation, Learning and Uncertainty. The debate, streamed live on the internet, involved EFF Fellows from around 12 different countries. Many people watched it live from the Stakeholder Design website, and a highlights package is being put together.

Here’s the full text of the interview:

Sean McDougall is MD of Stakeholder Design, an international design agency that helps clients transform their education and public service provision. He is internationally acknowledged as a pioneer in the field of co-design and stakeholder engagement, and has over 10 years’ experience in the transformation of political, social and educational outcomes.

Sean is also an Education Fast Forward (EFF) Foundation Fellow, a collection of global education thought leaders who meet every few months to debate the future of education. The next EFF debate takes place on April 18, 2012, and is entitled Is this the Year of the Games? Innovation, Learning and Uncertainty. You can stream it live on Planet from 2 p.m. (GMT + 1), or view a recording of the debate after it has concluded.

We recently interviewed Sean to discover how he uses design techniques to address education strategy, his thoughts on the place of technology in education and his wishes for the future of education.

Promethean Planet: Sean, tell us a little about your background. How did you end up using design techniques to address strategy in education?

Sean McDougall: I grew up in Belfast on a council estate where 50% of adult males (including my father) were long-term unemployed and those who worked tended to be taxi drivers, barmen or welders. At 11, I made it into the local fee-paying grammar school (luckily, virtually all the fees were paid by the local council). However, in the seven years that I was there, I was the only one from my estate to enrol. This is not a boast – it is a lament. I was left with a sense of the enormous waste of potential as my friends, children of above average intelligence but below average income, missed out on opportunities just because their parents lacked the knowledge or confidence to help them move forward.

I could see, even as a young boy, that people can be both victims and beneficiaries of design. Today, when I see that almost 80% of middle class white girls go to university, while a similar number of working class black boys leave school at 16, it seems obvious that the educational system is benefitting people from one part of the community more than others. The knock-on effect of this in Britain, where almost half of all job opportunities now require a degree, is almost incalculable.

About ten years ago, I got a job at the Design Council, where I was put in charge of a campaign called Schools Renaissance. The purpose of the campaign was to find out how the process of ‘user-led’ design could be used to improve educational outcomes in British schools. We broke the concept of school into its component parts – spaces, systems, products and services – and created amazing exemplars such as the 360 degree flexible classroom and the Designmyschool online engagement prototype while perfecting the technique. One school saw its pass rate rise from 35% to 60% during the campaign timeframe – proof that design offers children more scope to participate in education and to flourish. User-led design is now embedded in the school; its pass rate is now 82% and it is rated securely outstanding.

In 2006, I set up as a consultant at the behest of some of the people I’d been working with through Schools Renaissance. Since then, I’ve been pulled sideward in terms of subject area and up and down in terms of age group. However, education remains the mainstay of my work.

PP: What are you working on today and what excites you as you look to the future?

SM: What really excites me both today and looking ahead is the range of work that comes my way. In the early days, I was incredibly lucky to win Futurelab’s annual education innovation competition (for ‘Fountaineers‘), and I was also appointed as a designer on a UK government project called Project Faraday, for which I developed a number of exemplar future science spaces. After that, things just spiralled.

At the moment, I’m putting the finishing touches to a booklet that I’m calling It’s Not About The Building. This is for anyone who has had their school rebuild cancelled but still wants to deliver transformation in educational performance and attitude.

I’m also in discussion with a head teacher in Australia who came on one of my ‘not like us’ study tours and wants to incorporate some of the thinking into his forthcoming school rebuild. In addition to this, I’m hoping to do some work within the ‘teaching schools’ framework, offering training in design thinking to senior leaders who are effectively in charge of a massive service design project.

PP: How do you see the educational debate progressing?

SM: I love the way that learning and schools are becoming separated as concepts. One day, I was speaking at a conference and a nun from an educational order came up and asked if I would be interested in working with a community of Sisters, Travellers, recent immigrants, ex-offenders and young people at risk. We often forget that nuns are the forerunners of teachers, social workers and nurses. However, many nuns still choose to live amongst the people in order to better understand their needs and be available when needed. These nuns were brave enough to describe themselves as a dying breed. They asked if I would help them to prepare a legacy for the people they tried to help – those who had fallen right through the holes in the state’s various support systems.

I offered them training in design thinking and facilitated them as they visualised and prototyped a whole raft of future social services that would better meet their needs. They now have a thriving community programme dealing with issues like nutrition, mental health, social inclusion, literacy, history, technology and physical health, all designed by the end users but located in a convent. The Irish media have described them as ‘the best designers in Ireland.’

Each piece of work seems to link to the next. Following on from this, a university asked for help to design an international centre for social gerontology, where academics and elderly people could explore social problems and co-create solutions. The requirements, in terms of furniture, systems, location of facilities, transport and intergenerational contact were fascinating.

Later, that work led to me providing training to a number of councils on how to design urban spaces and systems to meet the needs of the people who will actually be using them. I find the concept of ‘universal design’ incredibly exciting and see enormous opportunity to apply the same thinking to our schools – not just in terms of the width of the corridor or height of the reception desk, but more in terms of educational processes that people find easy and hard to navigate.

PP: What should EFF be trying to achieve? How can you contribute?

SM: I’ve really enjoyed the debates, but I do feel that we have spent too long improving our understanding of the problem when we ought to be sketching out and testing solutions.

In a typical design framework, we would discuss the problem with a view to creating a brief, and then discuss solutions with a view to conducting small scale trials. Working groups would be established to answer specific questions based on the conclusions of our debates – for instance, ‘We need schools for all ages – what do they look like?’ or ‘How do we deal with the issue of copyright?’.

I have already put forward my own proposal to take things forward! It’s a book called What Are Schools For? and it starts by asking whether the Victorians’ answer to that question is still valid. Having set out how things have moved on since then, the book would then illustrate how the educational system could be remodelled to address the major strategic needs. This can then serve as the inspiration for architects and local authorities engaged in pilot projects.

PP: What role do you think technology will play in raising educational standards?

SM: If we are talking about a British secondary school, then I remain doubtful about the ability of technology to deliver change. Frankly, products that make it easier to do the job of teaching are adopted much faster than those that make it easier to be a learner. For instance, electronic whiteboards are basically blackboards that clean themselves and remember everything ever written on them. They stormed British classrooms like soldiers on D-Day. Meanwhile, the average British student has to sit for six hours a day on a chair that costs £8, and carries around 15% of their bodyweight to and from school.

Elsewhere, technology is already making an incredible difference. The population of Africa is expected to double over the next 30 years, almost entirely as a result of technological advances. The idea of every African child having access to every published book in the world via wireless Internet and $10 laptops was greeted with incredulity less than ten years ago; now it’s seen as straightforward.

My main concern is that we still see technology as something distinct from everything else. In my view, we should be unconscious of really great technology – it should be like a light switch or a fridge (which between them may well have done more for the world than the Internet). Too many schools seem to regard technology as some form of holy object, to be revered, feared and stored behind locked doors.

The other thing I’d say is that technology often operates to the detriment of the child’s physical development – children sit still, hunched over, doing no exercise. I’d like to see technology being developed so that movement and learning were supported simultaneously. ‘Hunting’ for lions using GPS devices is a great example; but we could explain the process of ageing much better by using devices that simulate cataracts, and we could all practise being dentists by using haptic devices linked to 3-D screens.

PP: What would you like to see happen next?

SM: I’d like to see the cycle move from perpetuation back to innovation again. When the Victorians created our educational system, they did it for a reason: they needed large numbers of people with the right knowledge, skills and attitudes to run or work within the British Empire economy. The core requirements were an innate sense of British supremacy, the ability to read, write and count, and instinctive willingness to obey. Their version of school delivered this package very well.

If we were starting again, we might start by recognising that our children will be expected to work easily and professionally with people of multiple cultures. This brings with it a requirement to respect and honour difference. They will co-exist with huge numbers of very elderly people. This requires a sense of compassion. They may live on four different continents during their career, so their children may have no particular sense of homeland. This requires a new approach to citizenship. And they may be educated with and by people of many different ages in many different countries. In that context, our school buildings could become as redundant as the travel agents’ office.

Visit the Education Fast Forward section of Promethean Planet for more information about the EFF debates.

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