Schlechty Center on Design

In order to understand the Schlechty Center’s position on design, one must first understand
design, invention, and innovation as they are used in Schlechty Center work.

Schlechty Center on Design focuses on the fact that school districts need to understand and
utilize design if they are going to provide the kinds of learning experiences that will engage all
students and increase the possibility that they will learn at high levels, and if those school districts
are going to transform themselves into the kinds of organizations that will support a focus on the
design of engaging work.

The basis of design is a cornerstone of all of the Schlechty Center’s work along with Coaching
for Design, a process that supports teachers in working on the work for students. It is also vital in
the formation and work of School Design Teams and District Design Teams, as well as in the
work of school leaders. All use design thinking as they work on learning experiences or social
systems in order to support the district’s transformation from a bureaucracy to a learning
Design, as defined by Phillip Schlechty, is the development of relationships among critical
elements that satisfy the needs, motives, and values of the customer. Invention is the
process of creating something new. Innovation is the process of installing something
new. An innovation can be either a process or a product, but the innovation does not
occur until the process or product is put to use. So, in a learning organization, the design
work begins by understanding the customer, inventing new processes and products in
response to the customer, and being innovative in the ways that new processes and
products are installed.


Design of Learning Experiences

In order to engage students in important learning
experiences—tasks, assignments, units of
schoolwork—schools and teachers must attend to
the design of experiences that are most likely to
appeal to students’ values, interests, and needs. If
teachers accept that students must be engaged in
order to learn at high levels, teachers can no longer
assume that materials created for a generalized,
universal student will in fact engage all students,
nor will materials created with just the age or
general academic ability of students suffice. A
focus on engagement requires that teachers as
designers and leaders understand well the needs,
interests, and dispositions of their customers, the
students, so that teachers might take such
information into account as they design work.
When teachers as designers and leaders fully take
into account their customers, the learning
experiences they design hold great promise to
result in the kinds of profound learning required by
today’s world.

In learning organizations the attention of teachers
moves from planning to design, a shift that has
dramatic implications for what teachers do and
what they think about what they do. Rather than
seeing themselves as instructors and viewing their
primary tasks as planning and delivering
instruction, teachers will need to see themselves as
persons who design tasks for students that are so
engaging that students seek instruction.

In a learning organization, the design of such
experiences is the core business. As such, it is an
assumption of the Schlechty Center that nurturing
engagement, through design thinking and
attentiveness to the 10 Design Qualities, results in
the customers’ volunteering their attention and
commitment to the work. This requires moving the
emphasis from school as a platform for teaching to
school as a platform for learning, where not only is
information taught but opportunities to learn are
created also.

See Schlechty Center on Engagement for detailed
information about the nature of engagement.
Design of Social Systems

Since public education is currently organized as a
bureaucracy focused on ensuring student
compliance, leaders must design/redesign their
organizations, specifically the social systems that
comprise the district and schoolhouse, thereby
transforming them into learning organizations that
will nurture and support commitment to
engagement. Currently, as bureaucracies, school
systems rely on rules, procedures, and
hierarchical authority to conduct their business
and to maintain order and certainty. In contrast,
learning organizations rely on clarity of focus and
direction and utilize design to provide continuous
innovation—and increased satisfaction and
achievement—for staff and students alike. If
public educators today are going to respond well
to the rapidly changing social forces that impact
young people and their learning, they will need to
design school districts that have the capacity to
address uncertainty and change; in other words,
public educators will need to design learning

Much that happens in schools can be understood
only if one understands how the social systems
that comprise the schools operate. This is why
systems thinking is so important to educational

System design requires leaders to understand
that districts and schools function as they do
because of the current nature of Six Critical
Systems, social systems critical to the work of
transformation. If leaders are to design learning
organizations, they must work to change the Six
Critical Systems. Specifically, learning
organizations differentiate themselves from
bureaucracies by using design thinking to
emphasize the Directional System, Knowledge
Development and Transmission System, and
Recruitment and Induction System, and to make
the Evaluation System, Boundary System, and
Power and Authority System subservient to the
primary systems.

See Schlechty Center on Change for detailed
information about transformation.
The Schlechty Center maintains that public education needs to utilize design in at least two
arenas, the design of learning experiences and the design of social systems.

Design Thinking
In design thinking, leaders must do the following:
• understand the customer at a profound level and begin with the customers’ needs and
• think strategically in a divergent and metaphorical manner, set long-term goals, and focus
on what is important to accomplish, not simply what can be done;
• plan strategically using convergent and concrete actions;
• recognize that planning exists inside the context of design, not vice versa;
• see the connection between and among design, invention, and innovation;
• visualize the action parts of the design process: collaborating, prototyping, identifying
weaknesses, and making in-flight corrections through redesign.

Reform or Transform?
When confronted with the need for change in districts and schools, the common approach is that
of reform—simply put, trying to get better at doing what has always been done. This is continuous
improvement, and it focuses on using established processes and products in modified ways.

In transformation, or continuous innovation, designers stay close to the beliefs of the organization
and the vision of what might be. This requires most organizations to reinvent themselves. They
get better and better by doing different things, not by doing the same things differently.

Today’s schools must learn and practice continuous innovation. The utilization of design thinking,
the routine invention of new processes and products, and the installation of those processes and
products in response to today’s changing customers are needed to facilitate the formation of
learning organizations and engagement-centered schools.

Schlechty Center
950 Breckenridge Lane, Suite 200
Louisville, KY 40207
502.895.7901 fax

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