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Jul 27 2013 - 12:00am
Susie Wise
Susie Wise believes that "humans are by nature designers" and this is especially fitting as she is currently the director of Stanford’s, K12 Lab. As one of the lab’s founders in early 2007 Wise was an early proponent of adding design thinking (Explore this NLT "Seen in NY" feature on IDEO’s Design Thinking Toolkit) to education. Wise has also worked as a design strategist and innovation coach at software giant, Intuit, and is the co-founder of Urban Montessori Charter School in Oakland. Wise holds a PhD in Learning Sciences and Technology Design from Stanford’s School of Education.


Question: How did your educational trajectory (background) affect your current work?
Answer: In retrospect I see that I was a "learn by doing" kid and a "learn by doing" young professional as well. I was always quite capable in my classes, but starting in about the 4th grade I did all that I could do to develop and run projects outside of regular class time. I helped at the school for severely mentally disabled children; I ran a citywide canned food drive; and when times were tough during school desegregation I was one of the 8th graders chosen to help build student teams that could work across difference to build an integrated high school community. Through these kinds of experiences I discovered that I had a leadership abilities and that I loved working on real problems, not found in textbooks or worksheets.

And the pattern continued. Indeed I have formal degrees from good schools -- a BA in History from Penn and PhD in Learning Sciences and Technology Design from Stanford -- but I was shaped by the 12 years in between my degrees. Those were the years I spent working in educational non-profits delivering programs in public schools throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Whether doing HIV/AIDS prevention education or creating ways for young people to meet filmmakers debuting at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I was driven by a desire to bring exciting real world experience into schools and to recognize and build upon the profound kinds of learning that could happen outside of traditional school frameworks. This work is what led me to do a PhD focused on the multiple identities and embodied cognitions people use in informal learning environments.

What I really learned in graduate school was how to bring design thinking into everything I did. It was an accident of my first quarter as a graduate student that I ended up in a course with IDEO and founder David Kelley, whose much-anticipated book, Creative Confidence—Unleashing the creative potential in us all, is coming out this October. I didn’t actually know he was famous and the had yet to start up, but I was hooked on using an empathy-focused, prototype-driven approach to all of my work. Luckily my dissertation advisor was game to engage with my prototype visualizations and my desire for feedback early and often – not normal fare in the Graduate School of Education. In addition to applying design thinking to my personal work it was during graduate school that I made the connection between the project-oriented learning I had enjoyed as a young person and the potential to build design challenges into K-12 education. These were some of the seeds of the’s K-12 Lab, launched in 2007.

Question: What professional experiences have been most formative to your current work?
Answer: Two previous jobs pop to mind immediately -- one early and one late -- that speak to my desire to bring design thinking deeply into the work of education reform. My first job in educational software was back in the CD-ROM era. I was an associate producer at start up, which meant that my main job was to maintain our bug database. I dutiful played the early reading games we were developing and logged the "bugs" I found into the database. I was flummoxed when most of them would come back to me labeled "closed bug – in the design." How could the incomprehensible navigation really be "in the design"? It was a mystery to me and it sparked a desire to understand what users really need in an interface. It was the start of my human-centered design journey.

Fast forward to after my graduate degree and I am working in a software company in Silicon Valley known for its design thinking culture. My job as an "innovation coach" was to help teams develop their user-centered innovation practices. What I discovered there was that it takes more than individuals wielding a design thinking toolkit to build a culture of innovation. The entire organization must be focused on creating conditions where innovation practices can thrive. From my first software design experience I learned to care deeply for the individual’s experience and from this last experience I learned to build at the system level. Both are critical to bringing design thinking into K-12 education where I seek to work on several levels: supporting educators using design thinking, flipping districts to create system-level change, and innovating to inspire new ecosystems.

Question: How do you hope your work will change the learning landscape?
Answer: For me this is about creating new kinds of ecosystems. I hope our understanding of learning landscapes will shift to become focused on learners and the resources they need to grow, be creative, and succeed. Too often now when we think about teaching and learning we think about school buildings. I seek change where we see communities come together to map their towns or cities, precisely as learning landscapes. For example we are building tools that help a community ask itself questions like: What kind of design challenge might our young people work on? Who in the town is a designer, an entrepreneur, a civic leader, and how might they coach our educators and young people? These kinds of questions can help a town shift to a community-resource driven model of learning. When thinking about resources and ecosystems in this way we are also forced to consider the role of teachers in new ways. How are they coaches, facilitators, and connectors? And do they have the resources they need to think, prototype, and build accordingly? I am extremely excited by the potential for our work to help re-imagine the role of teachers.

Question:What broad trends do you think will have the most impact on learning in the years ahead?
Answer: The broad trends I care about most right now:
(1) building creative confidence -- ensuring that all children see themselves as creative innovators
(2) challenge-based learning -- creating design thinking challenges where young people build their empathy, problem-definition, and prototyping skills while working on real world challenges that matter in their communities
(3) network thinking and new ecosystems for learning – looking beyond the school building for learning resources and building new kinds of virtuous cycles to connect people to the learning they need and desire
(4) personalized learning – maximizing how new personalization tools intersect with all of the above

Question:What are you currently working on & what is your next big project?
Answer: I am currently launching the next chapter of the’s K12 Lab Network. In the 6 years since starting the Lab we’ve help catalyze a movement of educators bringing design thinking into their classrooms and their professional practices. We are thrilled with the momentum the movement has gained. We see more and more teachers using design thinking and we have more schools and districts asking us how to begin their own journeys. Our role now is not just as a lab at the, but supporting the emergent network across the country. Big picture we seek to empower edu-innovators to take their practices and programs further. Edu-innovators are educators and entrepreneurs using design thinking to build more creative schools or create new tools, ecosystems and models that empower young people. Our vision is that one day all children are confident in their creative abilities.

To help shape our next chapter we are experimenting through collaborations with SparkTruck and Project Breaker (See this NLT piece on Project Breaker and the group’s founder Juliette LaMontagne) to build new design challenge tools and explore local ecosystem building. In the next year we will also support a small cohort of Bay Area schools to deepen their design thinking practices and integrate design thinking with the common core. And to continue to experiment at the edges we have also selected an inaugural cohort of 3 edu fellows who will be in residence prototyping the "future of high school," California’s first iZone, and using the new ed tech platform Nearpod to redesign classroom interactions. Active and inspired project work at the learning edge and support for educators and schools making change to build creative confidence are the hallmarks of the K12 Lab Network’s next chapter.

Image: Courtesy Susie Wise

Posted in: New Learning TimesProfiles|By: Kate Meersschaert|81 Reads