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The power of design-based education: A Q&A with TED ebook author Emily Pilloton

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Designer Emily Pilloton believes that education not only enriches the mind but the heart as well. And, in the best cases, it can also enhance a community. With that goal in mind, Pilloton and her partner Matthew Miller started Studio H, a program to bring design-based instruction and learning into the high school classroom, with students creating structures for the local community.

Pilloton is the author of the new TED Book Tell Them I Built This: Transforming Schools, Communities, and Lives with Design-Based Education, which describes how her programs can reshape classrooms and communities. We got in touch with her to ask a few more questions about what she envisions.

What inspired you to start Studio H?

In both classrooms and communities, we saw an opportunity to create a culture of limitless possibility. Students were disengaged from their own learning, and the community was disengaged from what was happening within their own education system. Creativity, citizenship, critical thinking, and capital were four things we believed were essential for the youth to be successful as young adults. Design was a vehicle to build these four “C’s.” Through public architecture projects designed and built by students, we hoped to set a new precedent spearheaded by youth for years to come; a feeling that everything is possible, and that we have the tools to build the future we all want.

Why is vocational education in schools falling short?

Unfortunately vocational education has been one of the first things to be cut from school programming. Where it does continue to exist, it is plagued by the traditional stigma that it is primarily for non-college-bound students, and that its first purpose is to train students to enter into a trade. The term “vocational,” in my mind is part of the problem. It implies that it is purely about vocation. In my mind, what we have come to call vocational education can be so much more: if we integrate creativity and design, students have more ownership about what they can and will produce. And if we build in a social focus, the products of such an education can have a profound impact on both the students and the community. The addition of Arts to STEM programs — turning STEM to STEAM — starts to tackle this issue. Hands-on education that results in visible, relevant projects initiated by students is hard to argue with, and gives students the confidence and complex skills required to enter into adulthood, regardless of vocation.

Should schools include more design-based curriculum in schools? If so, what advantages does it provide to students?

I think the opportunity for educators is not to drag-and-drop design-based curricula into their classrooms “just because,” but instead to continue to be learners themselves. If we preach “learning by doing” and the value of “failing forward” to our students, we as educators must also be able to take that leap of faith. Design-based education, at its core, is two things: a response to context, and an ability to be vulnerable starting something without seeing the end point. Both students and educators can practice and build these skills; for educators, it means creating bold lesson plans and projects that are responsive to the immediate environment, that are relevant, at times non-linear, even scary, but that push beyond what we already know. The best thing we can create is a classroom that is rich with exploration and discovery, for both students and teachers.

What can teachers, administrators, and parents do this week or this month to bring some of your ideas into their classroom?

As I say in the book, “Make it now.” The best way to start, is simply to start. For school communities, taking the initiative to be a participant in something new is an amazing thing. For teachers, this might mean scrapping a standard lesson plan for teaching the Pythagorean theorem, and instead going out in the world to chart and measure right triangles. For a principal, this might be a new spin on professional development that encourages experimentation as teaching practice. Parents and families might identify a need within the school and pull together the volunteers and resources to build something together. The most important group to listen to, however, is the student body: we must give students a voice to bring their own ideas to the classroom. Commit to giving students the space to voice their dreams, and the tools to make them real. This is the best thing any teacher, administrator, or parent can do right away, tomorrow.

Tell Them I Built That 
is available for the Kindle and Nook, as well as through the iBookstore. Or download the TED Books app for your iPad or iPhone.