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Education reform needs a dose of Silicon Valley

In many places, education reform efforts fail.

You know who else fails? Silicon Valley start-ups. They fail often. They fail hard. In fact, they have failed so often that there are entire conferences dedicated to start-up failure. 

Failure is seen as a badge of honor among start-up founders. 

In reality, launching an education reform initiative is a lot like starting a company. There is a founder/reformer’s vision. There is a small but dedicated team. There are scrutinizing stakeholders/investors. Challenges are immense. Failure rates are high. 

I’m not advocating that education reformers should tolerate or celebrate failure in the same way that Silicon Valley does. After all, the stakes are high. This is children we are talking about.

Instead, I believe that education reform leaders should look to Silicon Valley to understand the steps they take to prevent failure.

When you look under the hood, the field of entrepreneurism is rich with battle-tested tactics, processes, and methodologies that have been shown to significantly increase the likelihood of success. Those in the field of education reform should be tapping in to these methodologies for some outside-in innovation.

One such methodology that education reformers should look to is user-centered design. User-centered design and its related philosophies (e.g., design thinking and human-centered design) place the end users at the center of the solution design process. In the past, technology developers identified a problem, created a solution, and launched a product. Many of these brilliant technologists created solutions in isolation. These solutions, while seemingly elegant and useful to developers, fell flat shortly after product launch.

This story sounds familiar to those with careers in education reform. A problem in the current education system is identified. Experts design a solution using the best research and greatest education minds available. Funding is secured, and a new initiative is rolled out. Shortly thereafter, the initiative falls flat.

I’ve heard many education experts say, “The problem is not in program design. We design great programs. The problem is that they are implemented incorrectly.” Here again, education reform echoes the woes of technology developers in Silicon Valley, where brilliant programmers create difficult-to-use or confusing interfaces and then blame the customer —“we just have to teach them how to use it correctly. More training!” 

Yet, over time, Silicon Valley started to figure it out. They realized that a failure in implementation is actually a failure in design. Thought leaders began to study the interplay between solution design and implementation. Silicon Valley soon adopted methodologies like Steve Blank’s customer development, Eric Reis’ lean start-up, and Tim Kelly and Ideo’s model for human-centered design.

And now, the tools and tactics of an industry prone to failure can be used to improve education reform initiatives. The parallels could fill a book (one I would like to write one day), but, for now, I will leave you with four suggestions from the world of user-centered design:

  1. Involve users in every stage of the design process.
    One of the fundamental principles in user-centered design is that feedback from users should inform the beginning, middle, and end of the design process. In the beginning, users inform a deep understanding problem. In the middle, iterations on solution concepts and prototypes are tested with end users for feedback. In the end, users validate minimum viable products and inform implementation strategy. For more on the design process, check out this short guide from Stanford’s design school, or the longer Field Guide for Human-Centered Design from Ideo. Looking for concrete ways to involve users? Keep reading.
  2. Map your stakeholders, and go listen to them.
    Education is a complex ecosystem. A solution that does not recognize and account for this complexity is less likely to succeed. An exercise that start-ups often undertake is called a stakeholder map. By first mapping out all of the stakeholders and then taking the time to go listen to them, solution design is more likely to succeed.
  3. Do not design for “average.”
    In my opinion, this is where many attempts at solution design in education fail. Reformers that hope to have broad applicability may feel like they have no choice but to design their program for the “average” teacher or school. Yet, no one is average. I love the way Roman Mars explains how we became obsessed with average. Instead, design with specificity. Design education reform initiatives for a small subset of schools, regions, or students rather than the average. In Silicon Valley, this is called customer (or market) segmentation.
  4. Get low-fidelity prototypes in front of end users quickly.
    In education, the concept of a pilot program is nothing new. In fact, the state of North Carolina (my state) has dozens of education pilot program going on right now. Yet, I would venture to guess that very few of them used low-fidelity prototyping early in the design process. Many organizations—from start-ups to large corporations to government entities — are starting to realize the value of prototyping. They are throwing around words like “lean” and “agile” and “sprint,” all of which have strong ties to Silicon Valley. Low-fidelity prototyping decreases the cost and time required to get critical feedback from end users on the solutions that have been designed.

Innovation often occurs at intersections as two seemingly disparate fields come together and learn from each other. One of my favorite examples is the Pumps and Pipes conferences, where folks from three seemingly different fields — oil and gas, medicine, and aerospace — come together to exchange ideas. In my opinion, the intersection of Silicon Valley and education reform is rich with insights and opportunities for learning. I’m still working out what all of this means, or how best to bring these insights to bear for meaningful change. Maybe you have some ideas. I’d love to hear them. Reach out to me at and let me know.

Jim Redden

Jim Redden is an innovation advisor with RTI International. He believes that innovation has the power to solve many of society’s toughest challenges. A chemical engineer by training, Jim specializes in strategies and tactics that enable the front-end of innovation. Prior to joining RTI, Jim taught physics and biology at Cristo Rey Brooklyn High School, an innovative work-study high school for low-income students.