Scaling Education Transformation Through Learner-Centered Design

Practice   10 November 2016
By Anna Hall


Is it ok for us to rethink education? Should we seek to disrupt a system that was so fruitful when it was first devised? We think so, and so do many other education leaders across the country.

Anna Hall
Senior Director, Springpoint
A Conversation between Education Reimagined’s Paul Haluszczak and Springpoint’s Senior Director, Anna Hall

WHEN LOOKING THROUGH THE TIME CAPSULE THAT IS A FAMILY PHOTO ALBUM, it can be overwhelming and inspiring to see how much has changed from generation to generation. But, hidden behind all this change is the striking homogeneity among everyone’s educational experience. Pictures with changing faces in the foreground but the same hallways, classrooms, curriculum, and teachers in the background.

With all of this “sameness” unseen elsewhere among the documented memories, why doesn’t it stick out like a sore thumb? Why don’t we question why the foundation on which our minds are built has seen so little innovation, while the rest of the world has accelerated into a Jetson-esque era of possibility? Is the current system aiding in this acceleration or acting as an inhibitor?

When we begin approaching questions that strip away over a century of “normal,” we start to feel like unwanted trespassers inside our own minds lurking in the mysterious shadows of dreams and ideas we never knew existed. Is it ok for us to rethink education? Should we seek to disrupt a system that was so fruitful when it was first devised? We think so, and so do many other education leaders across the country, including a small team with big ideas, Springpoint.

Springpoint has spent the last four years taking action on their “disruptive” plans—working with 12 learning environments in six cities to rethink the design of their respective school models. Springpoint’s experiences have been tediously documented and analyzed in order to scale their work and develop a practical guide for educators across the country who are looking to rethink and transform their environments.


In early October, Springpoint officially published Designing New School Models: A Practical Guide. An intentional and inviting guide, Springpoint wanted to make sure they left the door open for all educators to explore the possibility of redesigning their environments from scratch, while also making it clear that everyone must start with the learner. We had the opportunity to speak with Anna Hall, Springpoint’s Senior Director, about this topic and more.

“[The language in this guide] is something we wrestled with a lot. Our process has taken various shapes depending on different factors and the people we work with. We settled on this idea that developing a strong understanding about students’ and families’ ambitions, expectations, what they’ve been through—that is a foundational design piece. We don’t think anyone can design a strong learning environment without that understanding.

What we strongly recommend is that the understanding come from layered inputs. People spend time on the quantitative data (credits, grades, test scores) that provides useful outside parameters. However, the numbers don’t help bring an understanding to the nuances and unique experiences of each learner. Until you sit down with students, you can’t really understand the quantitative data. So, we are also observing classrooms, field research activities, student interviews. The quantitative and qualitative data helps us make more concrete recommendations. We strongly suggest students and families sitting with the design team. This way, the voice and priorities of the learner will influence and inform the design of a school.”

Springpoint’s approach seeks common understanding among all education stakeholders, so the final product addresses the needs of every learner. If the central actors are not included in these discussions, a new look will not result in new outcomes. So, the initial challenge for leaders wanting to redesign their environments is to walk out of their professional silos and invite new voices into the discussion. To make this invitation genuine (not just to check off a box), Springpoint presents design teams with a challenge.

We ask folks to think about students they know and map a portrait with questions and assumed answers describing how the learners might respond. We want folks to see how they view and assume their views on students. Then we have them actually go out and ask the questions to the students and compare their assumptions with actual conversations. We want folks to get into the habit of testing assumptions. This presses adults to think positively and creatively.”

Once the framework of looking through the eyes of the learner is established, the gears are ready to start churning. The uniqueness of each community means each environment’s implementation will be strikingly different. Through their process, Springpoint believes everyone should prioritize Young People, Great Practice, and Iteration. And, with these priorities set, the unique identifiers of each community will shine through.


We want folks to get into the habit of testing assumptions. This presses adults to think positively and creatively.

Anna Hall
Senior Director, Springpoint

With young people at the center, leaders are encouraged to identify great practices in a variety of settings within their community and around the country that can be adapted to the design of their new environments. Of course, there is no such thing as a finished product, so Springpoint always keeps the ability to evolve at the forefront of the design conversation. Just as iterations are seen before launching a new learning environment, room should be left to continue as times change and new lessons are learned.

We’re the boss of no one during the process, we’re the guide. We begin our engagement with partners as they develop a proposal. Here, we try to understand the development’s history, resources, and politics so the collaboration process and our guidance is embedded within their regular practice—so our advice is authentic. We fill in the gaps from there and help them with their challenges.

One thing we struggle with is administrative change. We can never assume the ecosystem is static, and we look to help developers pivot with changes. It is helpful to have relationships with every single stakeholder. It makes us better positioned to understand various elements and have established relationships that radiate out. So, we can always support the mission at its core—and collaborate with others and build layers in relationships.”

Keeping with priority number one—the learners—the results Springpoint has seen thus far are best expressed by the learners themselves. The new dispositions learners bring to their environments on a daily basis shows how transformation can reignite the flame they once felt for learning.

Before the process begins, we commonly ask students to define what success will look like in their lives. The responses vary from ‘I want to go to college’ to ‘I want to explore my passions’ to ‘I want to find who I am.’

Once the schools launch, we constantly hear from students, ‘Our school is like a family, people know us here. They know what I want. Someone will ask what I need if I’m struggling; people care about my interests.’ Learners need the context that they are known and cared for.

We also hear students talking about transparency. They often say in detail how they’re being measured and how they’re successful. There’s agency with that. If they want something, they know how to ask and advocate. For example, learners can say, ‘This is how I’m doing in my English class, and I didn’t do well on competency tests, so I went to my teacher and asked for help.’”

Creating an environment that allows the necessary knowledge, skills, and dispositions to grow and develop in all learners is a tall task that demands attention to detail, transparency, and active involvement from all stakeholders. There are leaders everywhere reimagining what their ideal environment could look like if they had the right guide to put ideas into action, and Springpoint’s new publication is a reputable resource to consider.

As pictures of the next generation of learners start filling our family albums, let’s make sure the changes in the background are as exciting and inspiring as the changes in the foreground.

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