It's very hard to find words to describe something that has yet to exist. I know this because, for months now, I have been called on to do exactly that. I am working on a project that is part connective tissue, part neural network, part playground, part bridge. But none of those words capture the full extent of the Innovation Zone (iZone) in San Mateo County, the project I am working on during my time as a fellow here at the d.school.
So, what is the iZone? At its essence, it is "a partnership between schools and our community to accelerate the transformation of public schools for the digital age." There are three central parts so far:
- A network of innovators who collaborate and share learning – we both “build” and “partner” across our ecosystem
- Facilitation of a continuous process of innovation – “Education by Design”
- An organized set of partnerships supporting innovations in the network
That is how my team and I are formally defining it, at least for now. But there is so much behind that definition -- stories of students, teachers, parents and administrators. There is the story of my team's work and my personal story (which you can read more about). There's the web of rules and regulations that govern school districts, and then there's our vision for San Mateo County schools once the iZone vision is realized.
It's a lot of story to tell, and the act of doing so is proving difficult. Part of that has to do with the fact we're still in the process of creating the iZone. But another part has to do with the fact that the system we are working in and around – public education -- is actually really complex.
I worked with d.school fellow Matt Haney and editor-in-residence Emi Kolawole around this storytelling design challenge. I explained the vision of the iZone over and over again. We filled up the whiteboards here at the d.school with ideas -- dancing between nouns, verbs and adjectives -- until I eventually said:
"It's easy. Classrooms have to have adequate bandwidth to connect to the world around them. Students have to have devices to learn about the evolving world and communicate with each other. Teachers have to be comfortable with computers, the Internet, and instructional software and collaborating. So they need training. They need time. The devices have to work. We need a network of support. We need monitoring – “mission critical” infrastructure in every classroom. These are all steps that we've done in industry. It's not anything new. We just have to do this with our schools, right? Ok, so if we address the connectivity gap, we still have a lot of teachers who have been asked to teach in a very rigid format for a long time, and we also have this twenty-first century world that needs a lot more problem solvers, coders and engineers. And we don't have many teachers who know coding and engineering, so we have huge challenges to solve there. The Internet affords so many new, rich ways of learning. We need to explore what those are and get our educators, parents and students good at them. We need radical collaboration amongst parents, teachers and students around student success. We need to design for self-paced learning and creativity. So there's just a lot of experimentation that has to go on right now. The iZone is creating ways for that to happen in – rather than just around - our schools."
"I'm going to send that to you," Emi said, snatching her phone up from the bench in front of me. She had secretly been recording me.
"It's good," said Matt quietly.
"Send it to me," I said, "because I don't think I can say it again."
What I said that day is certainly not the complete story of the iZone or a complete definition, but it's a start -- an honest expression of my vision born of well over an hour of generative collaboration. I'm not new to working at a point of future convergence, which is where the iZone project firmly rests. But I've found it difficult to find words to describe the future, because my team and I are building something for the unknown.
Have you worked on storytelling around complex-system design? Are you interested in learning more about the iZone? Let me know in the comments.