Leader shares why next level teaching goes beyond experiential learning
Laura McBain is a designer, educator and serves as managing director of the Stanford d.school and the co-director of the K12 Lab. Her work focuses on how human-centered design can be used to provide equitable and innovative educational experiences that will help all students thrive in a changing world. In this role she leads design challenges in education, designs new learning experiences for educators and serves as an adjunct professor at Stanford University.
She is the author of “My Favorite Failure: How Setbacks Can Lead to Learning and Growth ” which provides insights and narratives into how you can create the conditions to take risks and experience failure together. Prior to the d.school, Laura worked for 15 years at High Tech High serving as the Director of External Relations, principal of two school sites and a founding teacher. She has taught middle and high school students in charter comprehensive schools. Laura has a bachelor’s degree from Miami University-Oxford, Ohio, and a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Can you share some of your background and how you became the leader of the K12 Lab at the Stanford d.school?
I have been in education for over 20 years, and I started out as a substitute teacher. It turns out that substitute teaching is an interesting beginning into education because you see so many different types of classrooms. I taught English, math, PE class, and music. It was an interesting way to observe and see what really works for kids.
In your experience, what do you see as the biggest gap in traditional education and how does the K12 Lab aim to address this issue?
I learned early on that young people want to feel respected. They want to feel like they have a sense of belonging and do work that matters. I have always felt that if we simply give them respect and appreciate their own identities, we can fix the misalignment between how young people are wanting to show up in school versus how the system is treating them.
The gap that exists is more about how we transform learning experiences to a place where kids want to show up and get excited about their work and create something that did not exist before.
How do you see the role of experiential learning in the development of creative confidence in educators, and how does the K12 Lab incorporate this approach in its work?
One of the biggest myths is that experiential learning is devoid of content. The best teachers are great at weaving content in and allowing young people to digest it and then creating opportunities for them to debate. Experiential learning must first be grounded in context. Real engagement, however, occurs when young people can take the content and think about what they can make with it.
There will always be time for lectures, reading books and writing essays. All of that becomes important parts of any type of experiential learning experience. The job of a facilitator is to find those moments where we engage in those as part of the larger trajectory of where the class is now.
As an example, one of our past students is now working in open AI. We had a conversation about how these tools can help prototype things to understand risks and considerations. But they cannot supplant your unique voice. Experiential learning allows you to find your voice.
In your opinion, why is this mission to inspire creative problem-solving in educators so important, and what impact do you hope to have in the long-term?
The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, (a.k.a. the d.school) was started in 2004 by David Kelley, who saw a need for interdisciplinary teaching across Stanford. There was a commitment to nurture the next generation of designers and create designers who are asking the questions.
Educators, staff members, and faculty come together and co-teach, and design classes based on juicy, complex challenges we are facing. It has evolved to include a master’s program where students learn how to use design to solve big issues like climate change, AI, poverty, and global development. We have undergraduate programs in product design and we train and work with nonprofit sectors, education for-profit sectors, and help others understand and use design to address some of the complex challenges we’re facing.
We certainly design technologies and products. But we also design experiences, systems, and perhaps most important, we design relative to long-term implications.
Can you share your vision for the future of education and how the K12 Lab plans to play a part in shaping this future?
The K12 Lab has been around for about 15 years. We work with Stanford students and we train educators so that they are able to design and build the schools of the future. We typically run long-term experiments around the issues in education that need some type of support or a new way of approaching the problem.
None of this is new. Experiential learning or progressive education is all based on theories from great minds of the past. The question is not about where education is going as much as how we connect students more deeply with their communities. In other words, we need to inspire students to ask what the needs of their respective communities may be. By instilling that mindset, we can start to address the unmet or latent needs within our system and our own communities.
We think the role of an education designer is to get better at seeing the challenges, and not dictating a solution. Our job is to help people think about how they can approach their own problems differently.
What do you think are some of the barriers to getting us into the right mindset?
Time, money, and resources are always barriers. Education is one of the most underfunded sectors in the world and educators are constantly asked to do more. They are immersed in what they must do in the moment, so it makes it difficult to move to asset framing and ask what is really happening in your community.
We approach things as if we are at a deficit. That deficit mindset holds us back from noticing the positive deviances within our communities and celebrating those teachers that are doing amazing work.