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Why Design Principles?

Why We Need SoLD-Aligned School Design

Imagine a world in which every child’s life is a succession of positive opportunities for development—opportunities through which a child can come to know who they are and discover the wide range of possibilities for what they can become. Imagine different types of learning settings in which those kinds of opportunities are also intentionally built and optimized, regardless of where a child lives or attends school. Imagine, too, that educators can identify each child’s talents, interests, and aspirations and align them with learning opportunities designed to promote them and build on them to create new competencies.

This is not the world in which we currently live, but it is one that we can now begin to create. Building on new knowledge from the science of learning and development, coupled with a commitment to advancing equity for all students, schools and community partners can bring these opportunities to bear for every child.

The need is great. Even as the United States has led the world in so many areas, it remains a country of dramatically widening inequalities, with many children living in poverty and with significant adversities of many kinds, including food and housing insecurity, exposure to increasing gun and racial violence, and lack of access to health and mental health services. During the pandemic, the dramatic inequalities in the conditions of living in America have been exposed, along with the dramatic inequalities in the conditions of learning in America.

For the past century, the U.S. education system has primarily focused on the delivery of subject matter content—especially in mathematics and English language arts—using approaches that presume a bell curve of student ability, with instruction targeted to a mythical “average student.” It is a system that was not designed to unlock the potential in each and every child or to develop the whole child across the multiple domains of development. The resulting structures and practices in many schools are not adaptable to the variation in how different students learn. They do not use differentiated and personalized approaches, and they are not attuned to the development of deeper learning skills or to the habits and mindsets that support the creativity and resilience demanded in the 21st century.

In addition, the U.S. education system was not designed for equity; it was designed for inequitable access to rich learning opportunities, which has disadvantaged marginalized groups based on race, income, gender, language, and culture. Indeed, it was designed to select and sort, rather than to develop potential, and—through segregation, unequal school funding, and tracking systems—institutionalized racism and classism are baked into the design of the system itself. This system reinforces beliefs about who has potential and who is worthy of opportunity that we now know are false, harmful, and discriminatory on both scientific and moral grounds. Such beliefs risk squandering the potential of millions of students each year, and growing inequality in our society.

The COVID-19 pandemic, the related economic recession, and ongoing racialized violence have laid bare the inequities of experience and opportunity for many young people in our country. The inequities shaping and challenging our children’s futures before the coronavirus, heightened by anti-Black and other forms of racial violence, have been dramatically amplified by these concurrent and devastating events. These forces cry out for a redesign of all the systems that support our children and families and educate and prepare our youth. The situation facing our country demands that we use this disruption as an empowering stimulus for transformational societal, educational, and economic change, defined by the goals of social justice, multidimensional equity, and the opportunity for each and every young person to thrive.

It may be hard to find silver linings through so much suffering, but as recovery and reopening take shape, there will be a chance to design something very different and better for children and youth. This is the design challenge we are solving for in the Design Principles project.

The Opportunity We Face

Here is the opportunity we have today: Developmental and learning science tell an optimistic story about what all young people are capable of. There is burgeoning scientific knowledge about the biological systems that govern human life, including the systems of the human brain. Researchers who are studying the brain’s structure, wiring, and metabolism are documenting the deep extent to which brain growth and life experiences are interdependent and malleable. (See “Foundational Science of Learning and Development Research” for the key articles and reports that form the basis of this work.) Because researchers know so much more about the brain and development than they did when the 20th-century U.S. education system was designed, we can now use this knowledge to design a system in which all individuals are able to take advantage of high-quality opportunities for transformative learning and development.

Foundational Science of Learning and Development Research

Three papers synthesizing this knowledge base form the basis of the design principles for schools presented here. For those seeking access to the research underlying this work, these papers are publicly available:
  • Cantor, P., Osher, D., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Malleability, plasticity, and individuality: How children learn and develop in context. Applied Developmental Science, 23(4), 307–337.
  • Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B. J., & Osher, D. (2019). Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(2), 97–140.
  • Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(1), 6–36.

This playbook suggests a set of engineering principles that were developed by a group of educators, practitioners, scientists, and parents, building on the knowledge we have today and the contributions of many in the field to nurture innovations, new models, and new enabling policies. (See Developing the Design Principles for a full description of how the design principles were co-created.) At their foundation, the design principles are intended to advance the following goals for youth learning and development (see Goals for Young People for a more in-depth treatment of the goals and their embedded components):

  • Learners can think critically and creatively to solve complex problems.
  • Learners deeply understand content and can apply their knowledge beyond the classroom.
  • Learners are self-aware and engage meaningfully with others.
  • Learners hold a positive sense of identity, self-potential, purpose, and direction.
  • Learners make healthy life choices.
  • Learners are empathetic, ethical, and proactive in contributing to the welfare of their communities.

The playbook includes a set of design principles—informed by the Guiding Principles for Equitable Whole Child Design (see Figure 1.1 in the Overview)—to achieve these goals, along with recommendations for evidence-based structures and practices that further these aims in k–12 learning settings. A companion playbook does the same for out-of-school community learning settings. These design principles do not suggest a single design or model, nor is that the intended outcome. The desired result is to have increasingly robust innovations, new collaborations aligned with the resources for positive growth found in children’s communities and cultures, and a commitment to the redesign of our education and learning systems in both formal and informal learning settings.

Goals for Young People

Our goals for youth learning and development are grounded in the science of learning and development (SoLD) and serve as the building blocks for the design principles for schools. They capture the orientations, skills, habits, and mindsets that we hope all young people will develop and maintain as a result of their experiences in k–12 schools and other youth-serving settings.

These goals acknowledge the complexity of development and span multiple domains of learning, including social and emotional development, identity development, physical well-being, mental wellness, cognitive development, ethical and moral development, and academic development. The skills are reinforcing and build upon one another in ways that allow for greater synergy among developmental goals and contribute to the development of complex, higher-order skills. While we categorize the goals under the area of development with which they most align, we acknowledge that the goals are cross-cutting and integrative.

Research also suggests that some skills are foundational, and children’s skills develop in unique and integrated ways based on their web of experiences. A child’s progress in developing one skill set can accelerate or impede progress in another area. Our goals hope to capture elements of that progression toward the final end point but recognize that children follow different pathways.

We also acknowledge that these goals are not developed in silos. They require deliberate action on the part of adults, communities, and policymakers to support youth on their learning and developmental journeys by ensuring that they have access to services and environments with the necessary preconditions that enable healthy development. This must include intentional actions to address the oppression of historically marginalized communities and systemic racism that exacerbate inequalities in education. Such support also requires a unified, comprehensive, and equitable system for addressing barriers to learning and teaching and re-engaging disconnected students.

Learners can think critically and creatively to solve complex problems. They can:

  • pose questions and seek out relevant resources and tools to answer them;
  • generate new ideas and fresh perspectives;
  • adapt to emerging demands and tasks;
  • evaluate information, evidence, and ideas from multiple sources and perspectives, recognizing personal biases and those of others;
  • analyze and synthesize diverse bodies of knowledge and apply their knowledge to answer questions and create solutions;
  • use metacognitive skills to reflect on and manage their own learning process; and
  • set and work toward meaningful personal and collective goals with a strong sense of agency and purpose.

Learners deeply understand content and can apply their knowledge beyond the classroom. They can:

  • understand central concepts and ways of knowing in a discipline and engage in essential modes of inquiry within and across disciplines;
  • explain and demonstrate how major ideas and concepts relate to each other and to the work they are doing;
  • transfer and use knowledge to solve problems in novel contexts or situations; and
  • positively contribute to and support the learning of peers.

Learners are self-aware and engage meaningfully with others. They can:

  • recognize their own emotions, thoughts, and values and how these influence behavior;
  • successfully regulate their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations— effectively managing stress, controlling impulses, resisting inappropriate social pressure, and motivating themselves;
  • assess their strengths and areas for development, with a well-grounded sense of confidence, optimism, and a growth mindset;
  • persevere, problem-solve, seek assistance, and exhibit resilience in the face of ambiguity and challenge;
  • establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups, empathetically supporting their learning and development;
  • take the perspective of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures; and
  • communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, negotiate conflict constructively, and offer help when needed.

Learners hold a positive sense of identity, self-potential, purpose, and direction. They have:

  • a positive sense of their racial, ethnic, cultural, gender, sexual, and spiritual identities and appreciate other aspects of their identities that contribute to their personhood;

  • a sense of agency and the ability to make choices grounded in their values and take an active role in their life paths, rather than solely being the product of their circumstances;

  • the ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions to support the well-being of self and others;

  • the ability to reflect on what they care about, what they hope to accomplish in life, and how their actions relate to their goals;

  • the ability to identify and develop areas of interest that support a strong sense of purpose and fulfillment; and

  • the ability to see themselves as a vital part of their communities and as having value and making a unique and fruitful contribution to their communities.

Learners make healthy life choices. They:

  • have access to healthy food, clean water, and other positive environmental conditions that enable them to live healthy lives;
  • have access to mental wellness services, tools, and resources to develop healthy coping strategies that support them in healing and building resilience from stressful events;
  • engage in healthy eating, nutrition, and activity to promote learning and physical well-being and are supported by the adults in their schools and community to do so;
  • establish lifelong patterns of healthy behavior;
  • have a positive relationship with and awareness of their bodies;
  • develop positive mindsets and have tools to cope with and move beyond negative or destructive emotions, including depression and anxiety;
  • hold a mindful commitment to making choices that optimize their physical and mental health and serve their bodies, minds, and spirits well; and
  • understand the role health plays in positive learning and development and advocate for themselves and others to improve conditions that support healthy choices for all individuals, including those who are enabled and those who have physical impairments.

Learners are empathetic, ethical, and proactive in contributing to the welfare of their communities. They:

  • treat others with respect and consideration;
  • understand how their individual actions contribute to their community in and out of the classroom;
  • contribute to efforts to create and uphold a just and inclusive learning environment;
  • value and respect the perspectives and experiences of peers and adults from different racial, ethnic, linguistic, and economic backgrounds as well as those with different sexual orientations, those who learn differently, or those who have disabilities;
  • collaborate and communicate effectively across lines of difference; and
  • use their knowledge to advocate for themselves and others to advance civic ideals.