The Future of Learning: Leaders with a design mindset

When we talk about the ‘Future of…’ anything it is a defiant moment because we are challenging where we are right now (and have been). People are generally comfortable with the status quo, but as leaders, we know that we can’t settle. We live in an era of disruption, which is code for ‘change on steroids’. It’s faster than it has ever been, yet slower than it will ever be again. There will always be another horizon looming. Yet as more gets piled on, little seems to be taken away.


For those of us working in education, we often feel like this house. Another addition, another storey, another family-member to be accommodated, more gets added, nothing seems to be taken away. Additions and extensions continue to be made without assessing the safety, durability, simplicity and even aesthetics. As a result, it is un-designed, unsafe, complicated to navigate and ugly.

My own focus is the ‘Future of Learning is Design’. Design starts with user empathy, that is the learners, and designing learning and learning environments from their perspective. However, critical to the success of the design mindset is leadership. This support, in terms of vision, direction, encouragement and resources can mean the difference between a nice idea and pushing through genuine change and disruption.

At the leadership level there are two questions to ask about any strategy:

  1. Is this just adding another thing without taking anything else away?
  2. What ‘could be’ if we had an open field?


This open field is also called ‘zero-based thinking’. I’ve been reading Timeless Learning: How imagination, observation and zero-based thinking change schools. The authors pose this scenario:

What might it look like if we’ve 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? (p.248)

Zero-based thinking is the essence of design-thinking, abandoning preconceived ideas and returning to our ‘why’. In a corporate sense:

Leaders must question what is happening in their company and use it to feed clean sheet design. Not just in moments of existential angst, but also when things are going well to keep the business fresh and aligned with customer and market realities. (p.5 Accenture Strategy: Zeroing out the Past)

‘When things are going well’, not as a knee-jerk response to problems. Leaders set the conditions to prepare the open field. This report from Accenture Strategy describes it as ‘designing from the outside in’. It suggests that 70% of time in companies is not directly related to creating value, that leading a design mindset brings the activity of the company a ‘customer-first spirit’.

Sometimes I wonder who the focus of the activity in school really is. Is it the comfort of the adults (whatever their role in a school), the structure of the curriculum, or reinforcing parents’ belief of what school is? These can ultimately be at the expense of present and future needs of learners? Leading a design mindset is leading change and this makes people uncomfortable. I wonder if the people in that house realise what they were living in, did they just get comfortable with it?

How might we lead a design mindset that encapsulates a ‘learner-first spirit’? By taking a fresh look at these elements so resources (time and money) can be allocated strategically:

  • Content – Identifying the knowledge and dispositions that support authentic learning, or as the Timeless Learning team call it: Project-based everything!
  • Context – Articulating the evolving role of the teacher and the design of the purposeful learning environment.

To lead a design mindset, start with a green field, have the learner as your focus and challenge all prevailing beliefs around school.

Ready. Set. Go!


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