Zero-Based Design

Zero-Based Design. It means you do not keep your kids trapped in your past.

What would you do if you had to justify and defend every school rule? Every school procedure? Every school tradition? And you had to do that before every new school year?

Zero-Based School Rules. Zero-Based School Procedures. | by Ira David Socol | Medium

If you had never seen a school, never heard of a school, never known of formal education…how would you choose to get our children from age four to age 18? or age 22?

What would you create for that very complex task? What would your community build? What would your society want?

The heart of Zero-Based Thinking lies in that deceptively simple question. It seems simple — but indeed it is very, very difficult to remove what we know, to break the ties of experience that bind us conceptually, to the system we have inherited.

The road to Zero-Based Thinking begins with observation. But not observation limited to — or even primarily within — schools. Go outside, watch kids, watch humans. Watch them learn when you are not interfering. Watch them learn in parks and coffee shops, on playgrounds and playing fields, in museums and in stores, while riding on buses and trains, while playing with legos, while watching the tide come in. Learn to watch learning. What does a four-month-old do? a four-year-old? a 14-year-old? a 40-year-old? Keep your mind blank and observe. And then begin to imagine…

Zero-Based Thinking in Education — What? Why? and Sort of How… | by Ira David Socol | Medium

“Zero‐based design.” What might it look like if we’d never seen a school, but needed to bring our children from age 4 to age 18, or age 22? What would we do? What would we ask? What should the childhood experience be? What should the adolescent experience be? What do we want our students to understand as they grow?

Should every child jump in puddles? Climb a tower? Look underwater in a tidal pool? See Macbeth? Cook an egg? Change a spark plug? Read a book by an Indian author? Watch films from the Library of Congress collection? Compare the New York Times and the Guardian? Twist on a swing? Dance on a stage? Laugh at a Dr. Seuss book?

What are the things you want for your child?

Socol, Ira; Moran, Pam; Ratliff, Chad. Timeless Learning (pp. 248-249). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

In 1832 William Alcott wrote, “We too often consult our own convenience, rather than the comfort, welfare, or accommodation of our children” (Alcott 1832). So, how do we fully consult childhood when we design our educational ecosystem?

Let’s begin here: There is no average child. There is no way to describe the average of Pam, Ira, and Chad. There is no way to describe the “average” of the first five kids who walk into your classroom. And we should not want to. Monocultures are not healthy ecosystems; they are not sustainable ecosystems.

Socol, Ira; Moran, Pam; Ratliff, Chad. Timeless Learning (pp. 248-249). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Imagine walking into a room in the early morning filled with educators and being told that the system of education in America had failed. You and the team in the room are charged to immediately begin building a new system from scratch. You won’t be able to leave even if it takes months to do so. You are told that a zero‐based process will be used by team members to question, imagine, describe, consider, and challenge all assumptions and biases about learning and to generate design solutions. Zero‐based design means you start with nothing that exists today in schools, from bricks and mortar to schedules to staffing to curricula. If you can’t build from what you know as school, how do you start?

Socol, Ira; Moran, Pam; Ratliff, Chad. Timeless Learning (p. 141). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

To question the authority of traditional hierarchies and normative practices means that you must take the time to build a map of the classroom, school, or district and its current operational structures and processes. You can begin to question norms by observing, asking, questions, and engaging in discussions with colleagues and learners at every level of your work.

Four Actions to Break Norms of Public Education

  1. Assess your class or school or district rules for learners. Do this by talking to teachers and learners of every age. Ask them to talk about rules that impact them – bathroom rules, classwork rules, test rules, dress code rules, technology use rules, talking rules, hallway rules. Look for other signs of authoritarianism or division of power in your school such as how teachers are addressed (Mr./Mrs. or first name or last name without Mr./Mrs.) and signage across building (No Students Allowed; Teachers Only). Are your walls covered in rules and reminders of compliance and power structures, or are they reflective of an environment that students – current students – are empowered and have control?
  2. Collect information about talk among teachers and learners. How much time do you estimate kids talk as compared to teachers in your room, your school, your district? What do kids talk about? To what degree is talk teacher directed? What does “who’s talking” tell you about the democratic education in your class, school, school district? How do young people get a message their voices matter to educators?
  3. Research the concept of learning agency and dig deep into noncommercial sources to determine what this means philosophically and looks like in action (CORE Education 2014). Find what you consider to be radical examples of this concept. What does it mean to you for young people to have a sense of agency? How do learners begin to develop agency in their own learning? What is the role of the teacher in setting the stage for children to have a sense of ownership in and power over their learning? How might they get choices of where to work, what projects they want to work on, how they show their work to authentic audiences and to teachers, what they want to make? How do they participate in and lead conferences with teachers and their parents to share their own perspectives on their work and growth as learners?
  4. Start courageous conversations by taking action to engage colleagues in questions about compliance‐based vs. democratic education. Contrast values that each approach teaches implicitly and explicitly to children. What values most align with life readiness for adulthood?
Socol, Ira; Moran, Pam; Ratliff, Chad. Timeless Learning (pp. 143-144). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Zero‐based learning design is a kind of resourceful design that begins with a clean slate and applies a fresh look at what schools can become when learners become the client and the learning designer seeks out what they value in their learning experience by noticing them, talking with them, and observing the interface of space and opportunities valued by learners and not created for the convenience of the adult in the room. Zero‐based design captures timeless moments of flow; the designer removes structures and procedures that impede learning flow. Creation of learners’ delight and joy in learning is the end in mind. And, when designers inquire, empathize, respond, and create opportunities in response to learners, they build open ecosystems that recognize the value of diversity and personalized pathways – not tech personalization alone, but personalization of curriculum, assessment, and pedagogy that evolves as learners’ interests, questions, and curiosities emerge. Heterogeneity is valued as an asset in the environment. Replication and homogeneity are recognized as structural design elements of Frederick Taylor’s efficiency and effectiveness model that led to standardization of factories and factory schools in the 20th century (Modern History Sourcebook n.d.).

Socol, Ira; Moran, Pam; Ratliff, Chad. Timeless Learning (pp. 258-259). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Imagine Learning Built from Scratch

Imagine contemporary learning spaces that challenge every convention of the places we built as schools in the twentieth century. Imagine gathering spaces that encourage young people to work and play together in natural learning communities supported by teachers who create pathways that guide them towards adulthood. Imagine a merger of transparent natural and built environments that allow learners the delight of multisensory inputs through access to natural light, fresh air, and green space. Imagine a continuum of flexible spaces designed to create an atmosphere of choice and comfort as students pursue their interests and passions through transdisciplinary learning that fosters collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication.

Socol, Ira; Moran, Pam; Ratliff, Chad. Timeless Learning (p. 262). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Our visits to the World Maker Faire and the New York Hall of Science have led us to ask “What is the Futurama of learning?” We wonder, what if the most interesting minds in the world of education came together and were challenged as Bell Labs engineers were one morning in 1951 to imagine that the entire telephone system of the United States had collapsed during the night (Coupland 2014)? We love the story of what those engineers began to do when they were told to build a new system from scratch. And, how those Bell Labs engineers collaborated to imagine communication devices now commonplace in our pockets today (Knowledge@Wharton 2006).

What if we were creating an educational World’s Fair? The educational version of the 1951 Bell Labs? Or Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Projects, also known as the Skunk Works (Lockheed Martin n.d.)? What if we were not just imagining different versions of cells and bells schooling? Or evolved technologies that still support the dominant teaching wall? What if reform wasn’t sitting at desks in rows simultaneously hitting the keyboard to complete screensheets as a substitute for worksheets? What makes the evolution of testing that iterates pencil and paper to online versions any more innovative than a twentieth‐century version of efficient administration? And even if big data applications for sorting and selecting kids into groups based on age, reading levels, or grades is more efficient, how is that better for kids now than in 2002?

What if instead of continuous improvement of the same old school models, we chose to create a space that promoted a contagion of educational creativity? Maybe, just maybe, we’d invent as did those who created a new telephone system inside the 1951 Bell Laboratories, or helped engineer NASA’s 1961 startup to land a man on the moon within the decade, or the World’s Fair Futurama II exhibition of 1963.

We hear all the time that we are teaching kids who will enter jobs that haven’t been invented yet. If the schools they attend today are still preparing them for a future that represents the past, what do we do to change that? Where do we look for educational designers, inventors, engineers, and builders? And, how do we accomplish the level of exponential change needed in the context of the educational needs of a few hundred students in a regular elementary school in Iowa or several thousand in a comprehensive school district in Virginia or over 51 million public school learners in America?

We believe educators must do exactly what Bell, GE, Lockheed Martin, and NASA did when they took on the grand challenge to invent something that didn’t exist. Look inside the organization and find and protect people who have a creative quotient that is off the scale. Build school laboratories where creative teams know the leaders have their back and they are charged to leverage the resources of the organization to create prototypes that begin in the future, not the present or the past. Think like the best inventors who ever existed because they didn’t work to build the next dead reckoning step but to build beyond a horizon that can’t be seen. Why not begin building ideas beyond the edges of the universe? Our profession is filled with history’s stories of pathfinders and wayfarers who have done just that. Why not educators, too?

Socol, Ira; Moran, Pam; Ratliff, Chad. Timeless Learning (pp. 126-128). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Using “zero-based thinking” to fundamentally redesign schools.

In our discussion, we focus on converting traditional schools to ones that put students first. Often, when we talk about ‘student-centered learning”, we’re really just offering a faux choice designed by teachers. Instead, why not change schools to truly do what students want? Why not completely realign traditional practice to the needs of the 21st century? And what if, despite what everyone may think, students did better on traditional standardized assessment as a result? Ira offers research and anecdotes to help one understand the impact of zero-based thinking and what teachers/administrators/parents/whomever may do to transform their schools to be more human.

Timeless Learning w/ Ira Socol | Human Restoration Project | Podcast

Further reading,