Claire Martin : Shaping a school
system in Peru, from the ground up
In the fall of 2011, an eclectic group of people from the San Francisco Bay Area began making regular trips to Lima, Peru. Among them were architects, mechanical engineers, ethnographers, communication designers and education specialists.
They were all employees of the design company Ideo, which is perhaps best known for designing the first laptop computer and the first Apple computer mouse. But now Ideo had been hired by a Peruvian businessman, Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor, to work on a new type of project: designing a network of low-cost private schools from scratch, including the classrooms, the curriculum, the teacher-training strategies and the business model.
Rodriguez-Pastor was “trying to break the traditional school model,” he recalled in a recent interview. “We thought, ‘Why not get different perspectives rather than build on what we think we know?'”
Increasingly, design companies like Ideo are being asked to build complex systems for businesses, governments and nonprofit organizations. Ideo has re-imagined Singapore's system for issuing work visas and the Red Cross' process for recruiting donors. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Mayo Clinic have hired Ideo for system design work, and the company has a nonprofit branch devoted to designing solutions for social problems.
This type of design work is also finding traction in education. It's a growing area of study at the Rhode Island School of Design, according to Pradeep Sharma, the school's interim provost. In recent years, the school's students have redesigned Rhode Island's voting system and proposed new designs for aspects of hospital and car-parking systems as part of their class work.
In Peru, Rodriguez-Pastor, who is chairman of Intercorp, a financial services and retail conglomerate, wanted to address his home country's poor academic performance. Peru routinely scores near the bottom of the global education survey of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Rodriguez-Pastor charged Ideo with devising a school system, called Innova Schools, that emphasized academic excellence and was affordably priced for members of Peru's emerging middle class (with tuition of about $130 a month). He also said the system had to be financially profitable and to grow quickly to include up to 200 schools throughout Peru, and possibly in neighboring countries. A collection of three schools he had recently acquired would be part of the system.
Ideo had previously designed individual parts of systems — homing in on how hospital nurses change shifts, for instance — but had not yet taken on an entire one.
“Our response was, we've never done that before, but, sure, we have a process we can apply to that,” said Sandy Speicher, who oversaw the project for Ideo.
In the past, design companies often relied on specialized teams. Architects collaborated with other architects, graphic designers stuck together and so on. But the Ideo group conceiving of Innova Schools “was a rich and interdisciplinary team of designers that came together to look at that whole system,” said Tim Brown, Ideo's chief executive and president. Systems design has become a significant percentage of Ideo's business in the past five or six years, he added.
Speicher, a graphic designer with a master's degree in education, taught at the elementary and college levels before joining Ideo. She and her group spent six months collaborating with staff members of the Innova Schools, who themselves had backgrounds in education, finance, facilities management, human resources and branding.
They began their work together by developing what Speicher called a “core mission,” around which each design decision would revolve. The mission was formidable: to build a new generation of leaders for Peru. Swimming pools, which were favored by some parents, didn't fit that bill. But continuing education for teachers did.
One challenge in systems design is that it doesn't work unless the individual components connect.
“You want to dive deep into the curriculum and dive deep into the spaces,” she said. “But in order to have a system, they have to actually integrate.”
In the case of Innova, Rodriguez-Pastor's priority of rapid growth was a particularly tricky constraint. Hiring high-quality teachers for one school, for instance, is far simpler than hiring teachers for 200 schools.
So the Ideo team developed a so-called blended learning model that relies on technology-driven independent learning and on teacher-directed group learning. The team designed classrooms with sliding walls so that two smaller classrooms could be transformed into a large one, allowing one teacher to supervise two classes during independent learning sessions.
Speicher and her designers also advised Innova to help local universities hire English-speaking professors for training future Innova teachers in English and to create a database of daily lesson plans as a guideline for Innova teachers.
“There's a whole background of complex infrastructure behind the nature of the teachers coming into these buildings,” she said.
Another potential pitfall of systems design is that it can't factor in the quirks of human existence. The assumption that “we as human beings should behave as simple agents to produce complex outputs” is flawed, as Sharma of the Rhode Island School of Design put it. “Humans are much more complicated agents and can produce independent thoughts, good and bad.”
To help manage any problems that arose once its designs were used in Peru, the Innova administrators and the Ideo team held periodic follow-up meetings.
In the nearly three years since Ideo designed Innova, it has grown to include 23 schools serving 13,500 students. Last year, 61 percent of second-graders tested as proficient in math, compared with a national average of 17 percent, according to an Innova administrator; in reading comprehension, the numbers were 83 percent versus 33 percent.
Innova's 2014 revenue will be $22 million, Rodriguez-Pastor estimates. He was so pleased with Ideo's performance that he worked with the firm on two more projects for other companies he owns. He has also created an internal design firm, calling it “our own mini Ideo team.”
Claire Martin is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She writes the monthly Prototype column on business innovation for The New York Times, and her work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Time, Los Angeles magazine, The Daily Beast, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, Self and Women's Health. She's a graduate of Middlebury College and has lived in Mexico, New Mexico, Montana, New York City and on a boat in the Caribbean. Martin is a former senior editor of Outside and was deputy editor of Men's Journal . She is a volunteer writing mentor for the Afghan Women's Writing Project and she has taught writing at UCLA. www.clairemartin.com.
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