Friday, September 30, 2016

Democracy, By Design

Today, a very interesting exhibit opens at the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in Manhattan. By the People: Designing a Better America features "hacks" by average people who are working to solve a problem or challenge in their own communities. As the linked New York Times article shows, the focus is on a "bubble up" approach.

The democratic concept of "by the people" is familiar most notably from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, although versions of its use circulated well before 1863. Certainly, our founders created the representative democracy we live in so that people can exercise their will directly or through elected officials.

How might concepts of democracy impact educational innovation? How do we design innovations that promote equal and just opportunities for all? 

Certainly, all of our states have some form of education clause in their constitutions that mention the right to a free and public education; many differ in further explanations or details. In addition to rights allotted in state constitutions, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution also may provide some educational rights to students.

There has also been a lot of litigation brought by students and families who do not believe that the delivered public education was at the level required by law. The most famous of these cases is Brown v. Board of Education, which challenged racial discrimination. Sadly, while racial discrimination remains an issue in education, many subsequent lawsuits have been brought based on inequities around funding, transportation, resources, facilities, teacher proficiency, and other areas.

Those factors and others need to be considered as we design innovations in education. For starters, we need to ask ourselves some basic questions:

  • are we including student voice in the design?
  • do all students have equal access to this new learning opportunity, and if not, why not?
  • what supports do we need to develop for students who may struggle in this innovative model?
  • how will we measure effectiveness of the innovation as it relates to student learning?
Democracy is often messy, hard, and takes time. Couple this with trying to make improvements in education, and you may feel like the task is impossible. But it is through the collective action of the people that productive change takes hold and thrives. We have a profound opportunity to model democratic principles through our work, and we need to be cognizant of it.

Join the conversation...
What are some additional democratic factors or considerations we need to consider as we design educational innovations? 

If you're interested, Cooper Hewitt has an Educator Resource Center for teachers interested in incorporating design in their classrooms. The site includes lesson plans aligned to national standards for all grade levels and helps teachers of all subjects learn ways to promote innovation, critical thinking, visual literacy, and problem-solving across the curriculum.

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