How Can Schools Use Design and Futures Thinking in this Unique Moment?
Posted 08/25/2020 08:00AM

A series of letters between Graded Superintendent Richard Boerner and Ariel Raz, head of learning collaboration at the Stanford These letters address the use of design and futures thinking in schools to navigate uncertainties amidst a global pandemic and improve distance learning.

Dear Rich,

Welcome back to the United States! I suspect that after being in Brazil for the last school year, it must feel like you hopped into a flying metal tube from some science fiction saga and have been transported into another reality.

While I've had the great fortune of being healthy, safe, and grounded over the last five months, the pandemic has been incredibly disruptive to how our group at the has worked with K-12 schools. Of course, with that disruption comes opportunity. But despite my natural optimism, when I think about what each school must do to prepare for the next academic year, it still feels daunting.

I suspect that the feeling stems from the difficulty of navigating uncertainty while preparing plans that remain solid, specific, and communicable to the wider school community. It's been helpful to reference the work my colleague Lisa Kay Solomon has done on the intersection between futures thinking and design. In design, we take on an empathic lens towards the human experience, embracing complex problems in the hope of creating equitable and liberatory outcomes. Futures thinking gives us the ability to look further out, practice flexibility, and rehearse critical decisions, setting the conditions for an adaptive school community.

The cloud of uncertainty brought to schools by the spread of COVID-19, racial inequities, and an economic downturn require a unique approach. We believe that approach must blend an equitable design approach with an active posture towards the future.

How do we use design and futures thinking to plan and prepare for this unique moment?

  • Futures thinking helps you investigate and explore possible futures and their effect on your organization. It helps you develop a long-term vision based on macrosocietal conditions.
  • Design is about discovering and understanding what people might need in that future and co-constructing experiences that will build their skills, mindset, and abilities to thrive in that future.
  • An equitable lens helps design with our community members who have been historically marginalized, and amplifies their voices as we design together.
  • Both methodologies hold a method of parallel prototyping, or creating multiple versions at once. In futures thinking, we work within multiple possible futures to better understand what's possible. In design, we plan for multiple prototypes and iterate on them based on feedback.
  • Our hunch is that when futures thinking and design is incorporated into K-12 planning, these two methodologies enable schools to be more agile, imaginative, and ready for disruption. It builds our muscle for change by mitigating "change fatigue" and helps us be "change fit."
  • When you structure such work through a collaborative process, it spreads adaptive knowledge across your organization so that many members can rise to challenges as they arise.

I wonder about how these methodologies play out in your school. How have you worked with your community over the last few months, and how has design and futures thinking impacted how you've prepared for the fall?

Your friend in California,


Dear Ariel,

During the 15 years I have been working overseas, my travel home this summer was by far the most bizarre and unsettling. My break will be short, as I will return to Brazil within the next two weeks to begin the 2020–21 school year in the most unique way — from a distance.

For us in Brazil, the pandemic arrived swiftly and hit aggressively. Our campus doors closed on March 13, and we remained in distance learning mode until June 10, at which time we concluded our school year.

I must confess that responding to the pandemic while leading an international school was one of the, if not the, most challenging professional experiences of my life. Living with ambiguity is unsettling. Sometimes school leaders are described as "town mayors" and when in doubt, people want answers. Moving so quickly to distance learning required our teachers to be incredibly nimble and flexible. Soon after our distance learning launch, I began to pivot my thinking to the future — to August and the opening of a new school year. Questions that immediately came to mind were:

  • How would we design learning when we could not predict the modality in which we would be operating?
  • In what ways could we ensure the best learning experience for students while mitigating the risk of viral transmission?
  • What actions and measures would we need to take, in the midst of a pandemic, to ensure our community the confidence to send their children to school for in-person learning?

As Graded began to face this looming reality, we needed a way to bring clarity, objectivity, and process to our thinking and decision-making. For the last few years, Graded has, fortuitously, been deeply embedding design thinking into our operational structure.

We started on a macro level by formulating assumptions about the future and making bets as to what the months ahead might hold. We then used that thinking to help us design various scenarios in response to potential conditions we might face. We considered student schedules, course offerings, transportation, internal and external learning spaces, health and safety, cleaning protocols, lunch experience, and student movement throughout campus. This design/futures thinking experience offered us several pathways, which ultimately allowed us to prepare multiple deployable solutions.

As we conducted our design experience and tackled specific COVID-related challenges, we reached out to our stakeholders. By assembling a short-term faculty task force, engaging our Board of Directors, and holding parent information sessions, we built confidence, understanding, and community. Trust during moments of disruption is key.

Our reopening plan, Eagles Reunite, prioritizes the health and well-being of our students and faculty, while allowing for an optimal learning experience.

We will prioritize student, faculty, and staff health, safety, and well-being over all other objectives:

  • By establishing and promoting practices and policies that reduce the risk of viral transmission and enable us to be responsive and agile when facing evolving health circumstances.
  • By ensuring hygiene- and health-related policies are research-based, effectively implemented, clearly communicated, and diligently enforced.

We will emphasize student learning and the integrity of faculty instruction:

  • By providing as much face-to-face instruction as is safe.
  • By conducting full-day in-person instruction with physical distancing when it is safe.
  • By ensuring that the social and emotional needs of students and teachers are met.
  • By providing the greatest level of instructional consistency between in-person and distance learning modes.

Ariel, it seems to me that inequity is further heightened as we engage in remote learning. I am curious how the issues we are facing in Brazil are being seen in context to those in the United States. In what ways are you deploying design and futures thinking to help remedy the ambiguity schools around the world are facing? In what ways are you designing for equity as these schools plan for reopening?

Be well and stay safe my friend.

Richard Boerner

Hello again, Rich,

In my nine years as an educator, I can only recall one other instance where the American education system felt like it was under an existential crisis similar to today. It was 2012, and we were approaching the holiday break down in Louisiana, where I worked for a rural school district. As I tightened my tie and gathered my belongings for the 20-minute drive to school, I checked my work email. I clicked on a message from my principal, notifying me of a school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Struggling to process the emotional weight of the news, I read the next few lines. Here were direct instructions that we may not, under any circumstances, discuss the news with our students, and that counselors were available to support as required.

I went through the motions as well as I could that day, doing my best to maximize the instructional days while numb from shock. My sixth-graders were likely studying fractions (it feels like all we ever studied in sixth-grade) and I noticed one of my pupils had his head face down on his desk. He lifted his head ten degrees and in the sleepy, pained breath of a middle-schooler asked, "Mr. Raz, did you hear about those kids that got shot?"

Suddenly, I realized what should have been obvious: on this day, we needed to stop the clock and move away from content. Students throughout the entire United States were experiencing a moment of trauma, a moment that had to be spoken about, understood, and processed – a moment that demanded a response. And I, not being one to rankle my superiors, I was frozen: do I buck the system, or do I answer my students?

Today, I feel that you and I find ourselves as actors in a system that's in a similar moment of crisis. Not only are students feeling the shock of school closures, but agony at the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others. Much like school shootings, racism is an endemic threat to equality and justice in American society. And the presence of both has a profound impact on students' ability to feel safe in schools.

These profound historical moments have enveloped the collective consciousness of American society, and we can be certain that our students, be they are entering pre-K or matriculating into college, are managing a complex emotional universe. Like us, they seek to understand what's happening and find their own place within this moment.

In the 2018-2019 school year, my colleagues at the explore how we make sense of navigating ambiguity. As part of that series, our Executive Director Sarah Stein Greenberg recorded a short interview where she references a piece by marine biologist Aaron Hirsh. He writes "[e]very pedagogical situation can be thought of as a kind of triangle among three parties: the student, the teacher, and the world that student and teacher investigate together." This school year, we should offer ourselves the freedom to examine and understand the outside world with our students.

Part of this project requires us to look inward. I've found it helpful to develop a practice of self-awareness, and interrogate how my identity shapes my understanding of the historical events that unfold around me: How am I positioned with respect to power? How does that influence my relationship with my students? How does my own identity affect how people treat me and how I perceive the world?

And part of this work is outward and organizational. The near-term future of education is one where we should expect conditions to change, schools to shift, and educators to pivot. Amid this change, a consistent process can help offer guidance and consistency as educators work to advance towards equity. Here are a set of powerful actions you can repeat as part of a design process:

  • Ask yourself whose voice is missing from the choices your organization is making. Identify vulnerable populations in your community and design with them. Reach out to the school community members who aren't captured by learning experience and redesign the learning experience to include them.
  • Experience student life as students experience it. While you may be unable to physically shadow a student when school opens in the fall, you can experience their remote school day. Talk to an adult in their life to get a sense of their home schedule. Contact their teachers to understand their academic schedule, and ask to access the online platforms they use. If the student is unable to log in, request permission to speak with them by phone so you can understand what their school day is like at home. Use that experience to craft human-centered insights to guide improving the learning experience, be it hybrid, remote, or in-person.
  • The Liberatory Design resource collection, shared by my colleagues from the K12 Lab and the National Equity Project, offers scores of suggestions for engaging in equitable design work.

When I first came into the classroom, I was guided by a tendency to control all that I could. I was most comfortable when the learning experience traveled across a straight line: information was passed from me to my students. I would receive a signal back, and my task was to correct or accept that information and move on. Over time, I became aware of how we were poorly-served by the district-mandated pedagogical model, and we began to explore my diverse, experiential learning.

I look at the morning when my sleepy, middle-school student asked me about the school shooting at Newtown with a mix of shame and sadness. I must admit that I did not have the courage to rise to the moment. Partly, I felt it wasn't my place, that I didn't have the training, and perhaps I feared reprisal from a local teaching administration where I felt I was an outsider. I realize now that I was designed not to rankle my superiors, and of course, it was easier to travel the path they carved for me, the path of least resistance.

You and I are both in a unique, privileged position: we've been designed by schools, succeeded in schools, and now, have the opportunity to redesign schools. How do you think of your role as superintendent during a time when we may need to stop the clock on content and assessment? What might a courageous educator look like to you? And how might you lead your educators to address old inequities as you manage the new crisis caused by the pandemic?

Stay safe and be well,



We, as educators, have long spouted a "less is more" or "depth over breadth" approach to better schooling. Yet, many times we are just paying lip service to this construct. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to reexamine educational delivery — now as a matter of pragmatism. Distance learning has required our teachers to move slower, cover less, and pause to ensure students are grasping content and concepts. It has forced us to assess in new ways. What is becoming more and more apparent to me, to our faculty and, most excitingly, to our students, is that just maybe we won't ever return to some of our former ways.

The constraints this crisis has placed on educational delivery and assessment have spurred a reconceptualization of "content coverage." How much "stuff" is enough to learn? Schools must challenge their conventional thinking. How many war battles and dates should one memorize in 10th-grade history to ensure understanding of cause and effect of conflict?

Seminal moments like the one in which we are living challenge our frameworks. They should awaken us and make leaders consider what really matters. These are moments of deep introspection and serve as opportunities to pivot one's actions.
What are the "things" we want students to know and be able to do? I'm not talking about dates, times, or formulas, but rather those deep, enduring learning experiences that can be transferred. The learning that sticks. Cognitive scientists suggest that only learning that is deep, enduring, and transferable — the content that is accessible over time — is worthy of being taught. So, why, in schools, do we spend so much time on things that don't adhere to what we know works best? Don't get me wrong, content matters. However, content without purpose and meaning does little beyond the immediate moment of recall.
Before COVID-19 swept from continent to continent, teachers at Graded were implementing these science of learning principles. They focused on challenging themselves to first understand and assess the needs of every learner in their care. Now in the midst of the pandemic, our work continues.
Most recently, in July, when leading our faculty pre-service training, Dr. Kevin Mattingly, professor of science of learning at Columbia University, challenged our faculty by asking them to ensure that all of their students could answer the following questions with a resounding "yes."

  • I belong to this academic community.
  • My ability grows with effective effort.
  • I can succeed at this.
  • This work has value to me.

Learning is an experience held by the student and fostered by the teacher. Dr. Mattingly calls this "inside-out teaching." By starting with the learner, we begin to deconstruct what they already know, what they care about, and what they want before we teach them anything. Ultimately if done well, we can ensure the learning can be used in their lived lives.
Now, we find ourselves living within a new reality. The medium in which we teach, be it in-person, at-a-distance, or blended, does not change the need for this most important work to continue. In fact, it necessitates its acceleration to ensure learning is equitable regardless of the education platform.
In order to offer service to the faculty and students in my care, I must be courageous. I must not allow this moment to prevent us from the real reform we need both in my school and within the education space at large.
Ariel, your questions have challenged me! They will hold me accountable for my actions today and in the future. This is the true power of thought partnership. Your personal journey, shared in your last letter, resonates so deeply within me. It speaks to the educator you knew you should be in the moment, but were restricted from being. We must, as leaders, allow our teachers the space, know-how, and time to be the true artists they were meant to be. This takes courage for them and for me.
Thank you for reminding me of this most important truth.

Be well my friend and let's march on — bravely!

Richard Boerner

Av. José Galante, 425
São Paulo, SP - Brazil - 05642-000
+55 11 3747 4800
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