"Tell me and I’ll forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn."
— Benjamin Franklin

Education has hit the ‘RESET’ button.

If you had told me during my years of graduate school that ‘Design Thinking’ would be a phrase one would soon hear in relation to education methodologies, I never would have believed you. Thanks to the progressive minds of many key institutions, such as Harvard’s Teaching & Learning Lab and Stanford’s d.school, as well as thought leaders in organizations such as Partnership for 21st Century Learning, the Hewlett Foundation, this philosophy of personalizing education for student-centered learning founded on principles of empathy, collaboration, problem-solving, experimentation, critical thinking, and innovation has quickly become a buzzword within the realm of teaching and learning. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO and author of Change By Design, believes ‘Design Thinking’ has evolved to be very much at the forefront of teaching and learning.  The principles of the process as they relate to education and the design of a physical space are very much interchangeable. As designers, we emphasize the perspective of the needs of the end-user and constantly test, innovate, and collaborate to design the ideal environment for them. The same is true within ‘Design Thinking’ in education, the needs of the end user are paramount.  It is these very principles that differentiate it from the more traditional teaching methodologies. Brown defines ‘Design Thinking’ as a “human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements for business success.” It is this sensibility and process, with the catalyst of technology, that has launched ‘Design Thinking’ into the realm of education.

In keeping with Stanford d.school’s Design Thinking Process, PK12 schools are becoming a hotbed for innovation and change regarding both teaching and learning modalities. So too are the learning spaces themselves. As a designer who has spent her professional career designing academic spaces, the onset of the ‘Design-Thinking’ philosophy into education is a chance to design to cultivate young minds in a truly organic way. Designing spaces that embrace furniture, architecture, and education in a completely new way is thrilling.

In working with the Episcopal School of Dallas on their new Lower School, the principles of ‘Design-Thinking’ have very much been on our minds as we have designed and listened to the members of the school community.  Because of this undercurrent, I had the unique opportunity to travel with faculty and administrators of the Episcopal School of Dallas to two incubators of ’Design Thinking’; Steelcase furniture and four schools within the San Francisco region who are capitalizing on the creative problem-solving process. These trips were transformative for me as a professional, but also for the new Lower School project which is scheduled to break ground in May 2018. This research was an amazing opportunity to not only spend a concentrated amount of time with a client to get up out of our chairs, outside of a conference room and GoTo Meeting screens to learn and grow together, but also to have a direct impact on how the relationship of architecture, furniture, and prototype design will have culminated in the new Lower School.

The mission of the new Lower School at the Episcopal School of Dallas, as defined at the onset of the project, is to provide a school that will be a “springboard for life-long curiosity and purposeful relationships.”  Through a modern lens, the Episcopal School and Overland have together designed a

"…learning environment that nourishes innate wonder and rigorous creativity, dynamic problem-solving and bold innovation, deep nurturing and ethical decision-making…with limitless potential and grounded reality"
— Mission Statement for new Lower School

The floor plans of the three-story school are a direct response to the new ways of embracing teaching and learning modalities. Everywhere is a classroom. Education is literally transparent. Technology is everywhere. Books are not housed in a single room but bundled throughout the school. Grade levels are clustered into ‘Neighborhoods’, a total of six, which create an intimate learning environment in a three-story school. Interwoven among the Neighborhoods and circulation are shared collaboration spaces. Together these spaces provide gathering spaces for ‘Design Thinking’ to transpire in the form of active and blended learning, problem-solving, project-based learning, cross-pollination across disciplines, and learning zones.

Photo credit: Stanford’s d.school

Our shared travels gave our team, Overland and The Episcopal School of Dallas, knowledge and insight which has encouraged us, as a collective, to embrace principles of ‘Design-Thinking’ for the design considerations within the Neighborhoods and create an active relationship between architecture, furniture, and prototype design. The Neighborhoods will be spaces, which can literally be created, defined, and personalized daily by faculty and students alike. The Neighborhoods will be the hub of student-centered learning that focus on collaboration, creativity, independent and small group learning, communication, and experimentation.  The furniture and prototype pieces will provide a series of systems, from storage to seating, that support varying teaching and learning styles. An example can be found in the 1st Grade Neighborhood. Students will actively engage and curate the space, daily. 1st Grade is a “hive” of activity that will have a full-scale, semi-circular hive and be comprised of two detachable, moveable components. The hive houses books and writable surfaces. It can either be pushed together to create one large central zone or broken apart to further define smaller “zones” within the neighborhood. The Neighborhood has an angled wall which will house a series of hive-like recesses providing the nooks and crannies as well as moveable, sliding panels providing different surfaces and interfaces for student learning. There is no front of the room. One can write on almost every surface from walls to windows to tabletops. Furniture is designed to be reconfigured frequently and often. Furniture will fold, stack and store easily. Borrowing a principle from the spaces as Stanford’s d. School, each one of the six Neighborhoods will be able to “RESET.” Signage will reside in each room showing the original configuration of the Neighborhood. Students and faculty will personalize their space and ‘experiment’, but also be accountable for resetting the space to start at the beginning again. This very concept enhances the ‘Design-Thinking’ concepts of iteration, tinkering, innovation, and collaboration.

Photo credit: Erin Ewart

This synergy between design and education, that is “Design Thinking”, has developed as an understanding that the time is now for students to be introduced to a way of learning that significantly prepares them to compete in this digital and competitive world in tandem with learning traditional academic content. The skills and learning environments in which many of us spent our formative years of PK12 learning or within are no longer appropriate for the development of this new skillset. The education landscape needs to ‘RESET.’

Students and teachers need flexible spaces which allow for innovation, creativity, critical-thinking, problem-solving, communication, and collaboration. Having evolved much in response to the Industrial Age, teaching and classrooms of the past were systemic and teacher-centric. Teachers stood at the front of the room and ‘chalked and talked.’ With the onset of technology, we are mobile, connected, and thinking in new ways. ‘Design Thinking’ is a response to advances in technology and the Digital Age. It encourages problem-solving, a manner of learning that is more abstract, active, and versatile.  Learning happens in any location, on every surface, independently or in small groups.  It provides an occasion for “learners to take an inquiry stance, think divergently, and develop reflexivity.”

By embracing concepts derived from ‘Design-Thinking’, the new Lower School, but specifically the Neighborhoods, will provide a landscape that is welcoming, comfortable, invigorating, open, transparent, and aspire to generate a love of learning within the 21st century.

  • Ben

    Well-written article, Abigail! Exciting to hear about new ways of thinking and working being played with at Overland.

  • Rick Archer


    THanks for sharing about the future of education and about your and Overland’s experience with ESD. They have been an exceptional client and the new lower school is going to be unlike any learning environment I’ve ever seen. Thanks for your leadership on this project and for your thought leadership in the area of K-12 education