Innovate from the outside in

In a local school near me, the staff has spent a couple of years iteratively redesigning the way they prepare students to change classes at the end of the year. It used to be a done deal, classes allocated by SMT and Deans, with families informed by letter in the last week of the school year. For some students, dreading the class mix or not knowing their new teacher, the fear hung over the summer break as they waited for term 1 to begin. For the parents of these worried children, there was little option but to wait with no recourse to support. What a way to kick off a new year of learning! This experience was not true for the majority but it certainly was for a few. And so, starting with the experiences of the few, the school redesigned the process in ways that now prepare all students, offer choice and options, regularly involve the community and give everyone much greater opportunity to prepare positively for the start of the year.

In effect, the school redesigned the experience based on the needs of those who were previously least prepared for the change – and created a process that now suits the whole community.

This story captures an idea that I have touched on and evolved over the couple of years in relation to designing inclusive experiences and it is captured in these two slides below. Despite putting in hours of prep for various presentations, it is often these two slides that are most commented on afterwards!

Innovate from the outside in

The key focus for the metaphor of the apples below focuses on how we can reimagine learning experiences and programmes so that we set out, from the start, to offer pathways, activities and ideas that include all learners (student/adults)

Why do these slides catch people’s attention more than any other I share?


apples in the middle

In the first image above, there is a group of apples in the centre that catches your attention most often. These are the people in the middle whose needs we generally know about and understand. It is tempting, when we design learning or meetings or workshops, to pitch at this predictable majority in the middle and then retrofit (or, whisper it, ignore!) for those who don’t fit that pattern, those apples left on the outside.

Why might they be there? A whole variety of reasons: the topic doesn’t link to their experiences, they have needs not being addressed, they have strengths that they cannot use, they are absent, they can’t make the link to their own interests, they live in a different place to those in the middle….a whole host of reasons which we may not know always know about.

And because meeting the needs of the people on the outside requires us to design more creatively – to innovate – than we would do if we just pitched to the middle,  it is understandable why it can feel easier to start without them even when we would like to work differently…

apples on the edges

The second image above simply switches this idea, inviting us to think about designing with the needs of those on the outside first. If we do this, we will ensure that our programme or learning experience or resource will include the needs of those most often excluded. It is not always the same people each time, but it could be. The aim is to develop approaches, experiences and programmes that offer sufficient options so as to be universal. Most programmes design for a predictable variety of people – and leave out those who don’t fit our own understandings and assumptions…’one size fits all’ fits no-one.

This way of thinking is helpful for designing learning – and also professional learning for staff, innovation planning for organisations and institutions. Essentially, this is user-centred design – not at all a new idea – but one that is vital to thinking about ways of being inclusive if we want a person-centred system.

So, for example…

  • In a class where one student has needs which include high-functioning autism, we would find out as much as we could about needs/strengths and start there, even if they are the only one. Sharing images and video about a forthcoming school trip won’t just help them prepare it will be helpful for everyone.
  • In a meeting where one person cannot attend, recording the meeting, keeping docs in shared spaces, using social media tools for communication help bring them into the experience.
  • Before a professional learning session or meeting, sending out a Google form before hand helps people signal where they are coning from, what they might hope to see/hear so we can include these prior experiences at the start as a springboard for motivation.

Why is this effective and important?

If we want to reimagine systems that are built around the people – instead of making people fit the system – then this is a helpful way to work.

  • It is people-centred, culture-centred and strength-based – that’s a strong ethical position on which to ground our work.
  • It is motivating because it builds on what people need/want and can lead to us offering choice and options.
  • It engages people by building on prior knowledge and known experiences before introducing new ones
  • It does not assume what people want – one learner might be ‘on the edge’ in literacy-learning contexts but is a leader on the soccer pitch – and instead it starts from what we know, who we are and where we come from.
  • It maximises designs in ways that leverage the tools we have today; digital technologies offer us more opportunity than ever before to remove barriers and offer multiple pathways through learning experiences.

Where to start?

Clearly, to design for the ‘apples on the outside’ we need to start from what they need/want/know and we need to understand enough about our own practice so we can redesign it effectively. We  find ways to find out about the people with whom we work, and provide opportunities to share relevant information with us. There are frameworks and processes that are well-established that can help us think about working from strength-based, people-first positions:

Redesigning experiences

Universal Design for Learning (CAST) outlines ways to vary designs to take into account needs once you know them. Check out the work being done in this space in New Zealand here:

In a world where is tempting to think of technologies or new buildings or new staff as being catalysts for change, this shift in experience design in school culture and in education systems as a whole would take us closer to true innovation.

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5 thoughts on “Innovate from the outside in

  1. Awesome – what a great idea – teaching year 10 courses in science through the minecraft lens for our Autistic kids opens it up to gamers, designers and microcoders who want to develop their skills in both gaming and science for the future – well done – i love your blogs tony – ps spent this gorgeous sunny winter solstice filming Ponds and Peoples to make a 20 minute video for mindlab on going global with digital resources via aotearoa, australia and UK – blasting into cyberspace on a sunny winters day on the cusp of the seasons, the edge of the great plates and in the slip slide zone of knowingness


  2. Why play it safe and do the known, when it could suit so many learners even more, to get out of the comfort zone and do something different? Bold yet sensible changes that include the community and most importantly the learners who will become the future decision makers in the community, make sense to those who dare to dream of an even better system. Although there is also the saying, ‘conform, or you will be asked to leave the club’.


  3. Hi Karen – I love the info-graphics. Differentiation is just a matter of teacher understanding of akonomics. lol


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