Friday, November 27, 2015

Empathetic Schools

We’ve spent the last few weeks interviewing educators of different types. We’ve talked to teachers, aides, and administrators, from both high-income districts and low-income urban schools. While these interviews are no substitute for classroom observation or the experience of teaching itself, we have begun to understand some of the challenges in today’s classroom.

One challenge in particular stood out to me. Repeatedly, educators from low-income areas mentioned the difficulty of keeping their students interested. Many of their students were being recruited by gangs outside of school and few went home to stable environments. There was such a contrast between a student’s curriculum and their life, that many just didn’t see the importance of the subjects being taught. These kids spent most of their school day asleep, secretly using their smartphone, or disrupting class.

All the educators we talked to agreed that these students aren’t inherently unmotivated. Every student cares about something. Everyone has something for which they will put in effort to achieve. For these students, however, that something was just not the curriculum the teachers were mandated to teach.

Now a brief anecdote: I grew up in a low-income area, where nearly 50% of students received free or reduced lunch. My middle income family discussed books and worked on science projects after school, so it made sense to me to pay attention during those subjects. However, some of my friends only had academic interactions during school hours. By high school, many of these friends no longer cared about algebra, US history or English literature. Fortunately, their apathy didn’t extend to extracurriculars. Our school, which had one of the worst average GPAs in the county, had the best track and soccer teams in the state. Many of my peers who wouldn’t spend a minute on homework, trained for hours everyday with our sports teams.

We now live in a world where the grit and determination demonstrated by these students in sports matter more in the long term than what they learn in class. Research increasingly shows that the most important predictors of modern job success are so called “21st century skills,” such as collaboration, motivation, and creativity. So students who don’t care about the traditional subjects aren’t doomed to boredom or failure if we teach these universal skills through subjects the students care about. To do this, we need more empathetic schools. We need schools which are built around an understanding of their students’ needs and motivations.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Build teams at Olin College in Spring 2016

When we share our mission with friends, acquaintances, and strangers, it's very easy for them to picture themselves as a contributor on a build team. They imagine observing and interacting with a classroom and bringing their own particular set of skills to the table with the teacher in order to co-design worthwhile solutions. For two teams of students at Olin College of Engineering, their interest has led them to take the next step. In the spring, they will be collaborating with a local school in the Greater Boston Area, working with members of the community there who have passion and vision, but not necessarily the time or the tools.

These teams will be the first to deploy in partner schools under the School Shaped banner, so we’re very eager to see what kinds of work they will achieve. We have a lot of confidence in Olin students, their ability to learn and adapt on the fly, and their capability of producing compelling work.

Their success is our success, so we’re providing them with as much guidance, support, and counsel as we can. Imagine how chaotic it would be to leap into a partner school community without careful coordination and planning! We want our teams to start off on the right foot and to continue strong throughout their partnerships, so our input comes partly in advance, partly Just In Time, to ensure they receive precisely the help they need. Socially, we provide our build teams with exhaustive guidelines on how to engage with partner schools, teachers, classrooms, etc. We share best practices with them, and schedule periodic check-ins to help them course-correct as they go along. On the product side, we arrange design reviews with professionals in the field to provide feedback and guidance on how to proceed. On the technical side, our teams receive tutorials, access to our distribution platform and app management service, and even debugging assistance. For enterprise viability, we are partnering with incubators around the country to provide our build teams with the best possible chance of receiving connections and funding - essentials for launching a business once one of their solutions captures their imaginations. Finally, everyone benefits as we document and share each team’s observations and lessons learned, and as we spread the message that our efforts are enough to bring about positive change, one classroom at a time!

Monday, November 9, 2015

It All Comes Down to Heart

The School Shaped team is a talented group with diverse skills and backgrounds, but not one of us qualifies as a logo designer. So when we set out to create a logo for School Shaped, we weren’t sure which direction would be best. We wanted it to be simple, memorable, and also act as a representation of our entire mission. You know, simple stuff.

We worked through several iterations as a team, and found that thinking about the logo pushed us to think more closely about our goals and our reasons for founding School Shaped.

We started out by building upon objects that are considered “traditional” school items, adding a twist to show that we are hoping to bring about change. For example, we experimented with the idea of an upside down book with a schoolhouse depicted on it, to represent how we were going to “turn schools on their heads” with our innovative ideas. The fire was supposed to symbolize inspiration, a “kindling of ideas” if you will, but it ended up looking like a book burning instead. So it was a no go on the first design.

Simultaneously, we explored color palettes with bright, primary colors that are reminiscent of elementary school classrooms. Tools like and were invaluable in this process.

Our next direction led us away from a simple logo towards a descriptive banner. We had a series of 3D shapes with symbols inside them, representing the mantra, “Inspire, Create, Grow.”
As a team, we liked the visuals and the idea of having different symbols for different aspects of our mission, but we started to wonder if these were the correct three words to summarize what we were trying to do. We were trying to focus more on collaboration, building communities and partnerships between developers and schools, and really creating an understanding around the key needs teachers have. The word “inspire” seemed lacking in conveying all of that. We also decided that it was too complex of a design to serve as a logo, so it was one more iteration on the shelf.

We started brainstorming more, simplifying the design and trying different things to see what would stick. We had plant imagery, we had rainbows, we had colorful shapes. We had a bunch of logos that seemed promising until we realized how similar they were to existing logos that we subconsciously copied - such as the Safeway logo or the Stack Overflow logo.

We worked on this for almost a full month before we put our collective feet down - we were going to decide on a logo by the end of the week. Doyung threw out a bunch of ideas surrounding a heart, and we all immediately warmed to the simple yet compelling sketches.
Graham put it really well when he said, “I think it demonstrates that we really value schools as they are, and our users and stakeholders will identify with it as well."

We care about schools, and we care about helping teachers enhance their students’ learning. We aren’t just a group of techies thinking we can do it better. We honor the amount of time and energy teachers put into their work, and we simply want to combine forces and do what we can to help create new tools and experiences for the classrooms that need it most.

All the color combinations!

We call ourselves School Shaped, because we hope to be exactly that. We want to create products that come from the hearts of schools, and we want to work together with the school communities to shape them. And that's how we got our logo.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Disruptive Technology and School Shaped

In 1976, Apple released its first personal computers. At the time, the only real competitors to personal computers were $200K microcomputers. Apple’s simpler, cheaper devices targeted a totally overlooked demographic: the average consumer. However, within 10 years this consumer market for computers had become the dominant market, with Apple as a dominant player.

Apple’s Computers are a great example of a disruptive innovation: one that overtakes the dominant players in a market by starting with a simpler product that targets a smaller, overlooked segment. Two weeks ago, Michael Horn stepped down as the executive director of the Clayton Christensen Institute. Christensen originated the idea of disruptive technology and Horn, his pupil, has done much to promote such advances for education.

Education is a field ripe for disruption. There is a growing achievement gap between the nearly 50% of American children attending low income schools, and those in higher income areas. One of the key drivers of this gap is unequal access to quality technology. Affluent schools have large discretionary budgets to spend on unproven technology and, most importantly, the expensive training these technologies require. In low income schools only 50% of teachers feel they get enough training to incorporate tech into their lessons. These underserved schools are also more likely to have inexperienced or underqualified teachers, who find it difficult to incorporate tech into their lessons.

A new generation of disruptive technology could do much to shrink America’s achievement gap. Just as Apple made computers available to underserved consumers, disruptive edtech could provide quality education to our underserved students. However, most education technology today falls far short of being disruptive. This is certainly not for lack of effort - many products are based on years of research and, in the right setting, can produce astonishing results. The problem is that these product are missing a crucial ingredient for disruption: simplicity. They are designed and built by people who likely haven’t been into a K-12 classroom in 15 years. Apple was able to build simple computers because Jobs and Wozniak represented their target market. They knew what simple meant for PC users. On the other hand, what an edtech developer considers straightforward could become very complex in a real classroom. Thus we see “simple” edtech which requires weeks of training, and often increases a teacher’s workload.

If we want truly disruptive education technology, we need to make it simple. Without free market forces, this is quite difficult - teachers and students can’t vote for the simplest solution with their dollar. Instead we need to have direct partnerships between developers and school communities, to understand what is intuitive in a school environment. This is our mission at School Shaped. We produce teams of edtech creators who know what simple means for teachers, students and administrators. We are working towards an edtech marketplace full of disruptive technology for every school community.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

What School Shaped Offers Partner Schools

When School Shaped began the process of finding schools to partner with, we assumed that our biggest selling point would be the custom tools that would be produced and used in classrooms. When contacting schools, we talked about the benefits of the user-designed software that would be created in collaboration with the schools. However, it soon became clear that what schools cared about the most was the benefit to the community from the design process itself.

Research from the Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL) at the University of Maryland shows that children who are involved in a cooperative-design process experience social and cognitive enhancements. These enhancements include increased collaboration, communication, and confidence, among other things. This research also reflects what other thought-leaders in the education field are discovering: “design thinking” is critical to building a solid foundation for future learning and problem solving.

The benefits of design thinking also extend beyond K-12 students. There are many organizations focused on developing design thinking for adults, promising similar results. Readers may already be aware that the at Stanford has an online crash course that takes learners through the design thinking cycle.

School Shaped’s long term goal is to build great teams who will build great edtech. In the short term however, we will provide more to our partner schools than just quality software: We will empower the community through collaborative design.