Education by design: a year of thinking and doing

Education by design: a year of thinking and doing
September 20, 2018
Carole Basile

A year ago, we announced we were reimagining our college of education.  Big words, admittedly. But we also have to admit that our education system does not reliably do what we need it to do for nearly enough people and communities. So, a year later, it’s time to ask:  What are we doing about it?

It’s early days, but we know this much: We alone can’t fix anything. School districts are engaging in our educator workforce initiatives so we can begin the vital work of synchronously redesigning educator prep programs and education jobs around the needs of learners. We’re facilitating design labs with schools and districts. We’re fielding contextual models so we can prototype the hard stuff.  And we’re putting together a research agenda to evaluate our own work. So we’re on our way.

 We have aligned our college’s broad array of programs and activities in support of strategic initiatives designed to address four of the most pressing, systemic challenges we face in education.

Below, we offer a summary overview of a year of thinking and doing as we work with partners to create effective innovations that will improve education.

Education workforce initiatives

How can we develop and deploy 21st-century educators? 

As another fall brings reports of teacher shortages and teachers working extra jobs to make ends meet, we are more confident than ever that the problem of attracting and retaining effective educators needs to be framed not only as a labor supply problem but as a workforce design challenge.

Compensation is surely part of the calculus, and in our state of Arizona (and others) educators are taking a newly active role in shaping the public debate about resources. A serious approach to compensation and resources is a necessary, but not sufficient, part of elevating the education profession.

To meet the needs of 21st-century learners, we need to redefine the jobs of 21st-century educators. As we noted last fall, if we’re not getting the workforce we want, we probably need to reimagine the profession, the workplace and how we prepare people for both.

The foundational point of view for all this work is 1) the job of a teacher who is asked to be all things to all people at all times is untenable, so 2) we need to develop teams of educators with distributed expertise that can deliver personalized learning that improves student experience and outcomes. 

Professional Teacher preparation is still key, although, typically these programs have been a matter of developing curricula and professional experiences that align with what graduates will be asked to do in schools. We’re taking it a step further by working with schools and districts to simultaneously rethink the jobs learners need educators to do—including specializations and the ability to enact systems change. Ultimately, braiding these three strands together into a more integrated and effective professional model.

We are also working to create teams of educators with new and differentiated roles and expertise. Full-and part-time educators from the community that bring varying degrees of experience and expertise. These new educator networks serve in ways that provide students with what they need when they need it. 

Contextual models

How can we prototype effective systems?

As an anchor institution, ASU has the resources, the culture and the social embeddedness to advance this work. We are fortunate to have an array of strategic partners. As of the start of the 2018-19 school year, we are partnering with five public school districts and one charter school. Together, we are developing new roles for full-time school employees (including certified teachers) and our teacher candidates. Crucially, we are exploring a range of learning-support roles that we can professionalize, such as laboratory assistant, project-based learning advisor, small-group reading teacher and digital learning assistants.

Each of the examples below is a different learning environment. Context matters. And because it does, systems-level change at scale does not — in fact, cannot — mean that we can design a one-size-fits-all solution.  

In two of our partner districts, Avondale Elementary and Pendergast Elementary, we are piloting team-based, paid professional apprenticeships for our teacher candidates. Instead of the one-teacher-one-classroom model, our students work under the supervision of a lead certified teacher. We’re exploring how, by providing four educators to groups of 50-60 students, this approach can deliver better-personalized attention to learners.

By working with these districts to pay our students, we can help schools address immediate staffing challenges, reduce the debt burden for our students and ultimately reduce the barriers to entry for people into the education profession.

Beginning this fall (2018), Avondale and Pendergast are paying a combined total 51 of our pre-service ASU teacher candidates. This is a significant improvement in a state that, in fall 2017, had been forced to hire more than 1,000 emergency-certified teachers with no formal education training. They have had a level of teacher training — in both pedagogy and content — that most of the teachers currently on emergency certification have not had.

Our students are working under the supervision of lead teachers and have the support of our clinical faculty. They apply for paid positions through the district application process. We are already discussing how best to expand the pilot with Avondale, including a junior-year unpaid professional internship that would precede a senior-year paid apprenticeship.  

With Buckeye Elementary, which recently adopted the Summit Learning Online Platform as a tool to deliver better-personalized learning, we are developing teams of teachers and trained learning mentors.

The learning mentors play a variety of supporting roles that allow the certified teachers to provide deeper student coaching on personalized goals.

We’re also working with the Washington Elementary School District to bring adults from the community into schools to support community-relevant problem-based learning. We know our communities are rich in experienced adults who might have significant content knowledge but lack the instructional skills of career teachers.

The idea here isn’t that “anyone can teach.” It’s that committed adults, trained and working under the supervision of experienced professional teachers, can be part of an inspirational and effective team of educators.

With ASU Prep Digital, an online high school, we’re exploring how to deliver content to students locally, nationally and around the world through a rigorous blended modality.

As part of this approach, lab facilitators sit with students in a classroom or computer lab, guiding them through coursework in partnership with an ASU Prep Digital teacher who is connected to the learning site via a web-based platform

In order to further professionalize the lab facilitator role, we have developed a set of modules designed to prepare lab facilitators to support students in blended and digital environments.

Each of the above models is distinct. What they share, however, is school and district leadership committed to co-creating models that incorporate different educator roles filled by full-time employees, part-time employees and ASU students performing professional apprenticeships and internships. 

Design initiatives

How can we work with schools and communities to tackle a wide range of challenges?

“You’re doing it wrong.”

 Educators and education leaders don’t need to hear that. They need a wide range of partners committed to asking the right questions, navigate uncertainty, and defining problems and prototyping solutions. Last year, we announced our intent to facilitate community design labs so we could bring people and ideas together to increase the innovation capabilities of individual educators, schools and organizations, districts and communities. 

Since then, we have kicked off design labs with eight partners.  In one district, we worked with 11 teams from 10 schools to ask whether each school could or should develop a distinctive identity. Participants included principals, other administrators, teachers, students, parents and community members. Because the nature of the design process sometimes leads to reframing questions, this project brought to the foreground the fact that school identity is largely a function of perception – and, specifically the perception of quality of service. This year the work will continue to examine this issue with members of the community at our side.

Community design labs can be used to address problems of varying scale. Others, such as one district’s ambition to design a school of the future, begin in an aspirational mode before clarifying specific actions. Some, like one district’s attempt to turn around a high school that is underperforming relative to other schools in its district, define problems in terms of outcomes. Others focus on how a district can increase its own capacity to address tough challenges by learning how to facilitate their own design labs.

Within our own college, we are practicing what we preach. We are introducing our own undergraduates to design process as a way to approach challenges in their own lives and careers. We also have cross-staff design teams addressing our own organizational challenges, helping us avoid silos of non-communication and organizational inertia. After all, if we are serious about addressing systems-level challenges in education, we better all be able to think outside the rubric. 

Use-inspired research

How can we connect our research to schools and other places where teaching and learning happen?

It was education research, conducted over decades in far-flung locales, which provided the data and insight into what we now draw upon to reimagine education. Economists, psychologists, learning scientists and many others continue to build bodies of knowledge that can help us improve education. We want to generate even more team-based, transdisciplinary research that improves the lives of learners, the impact of educators and the performance of education systems.

And we know that, as we become more ambitious in our innovations in educator preparation, we need to hold ourselves accountable.

So we’ve allocated some of our research budget to building new theories of action both internally and externally so we can better understand the intersection of workforce redesign, educator preparation, and outcomes for all students— testing our assumptions and identifying next practices.

Our moonshot


At Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, when we talk about our work, we talk about “innovation with purpose.” We view innovation as the means of being accountable to three imperatives:

The economic imperative

We need to think about preparing learners for the next economy.  This means that we need to think about educators, the job they are being asked to do and the network of expertise needed to advance K-12 students into a workforce that we can’t yet imagine.

The democratic imperative

In an ever more pluralistic, multicultural society, we need to create learning environments that prepare students to become part of an educated citizenry capable of assuming the responsibilities of self-government and of participating in a thriving civil society. 

The equity imperative

Creating equitable education across geography, income, race, and ethnicity needs to be a key feature of the U.S. education system. It will take fundamental change of our education systems to address issues of equity.

So, have we fully developed our unified field theory of a how a college of education can answer these imperatives and help design and build better learning futures?

Not yet. But we have moved our college beyond a point of no return. We are committed to a profoundly multilateral approach to partnership that includes public and private schools, policymakers, parents, students and community organizations of all kinds, as well as people and resources across ASU.  

Together, we aspire to develop a more sustainable educator workforce that can deliver better outcomes to learners and more rewarding careers to educators. Together, we intend to harness educational technology such as AI and machine learning to provide personalized instruction to all learners. Together, we will engage the full spectrum of human capital in our college, in our university and in our communities to unleash the human potential of learners.