Our Inspiration

Chaos Theory of Change

Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics that seeks to understand the inner workings of dynamic systems, which modify their behaviour under a seemingly chaotic, non-linear way. Whether chaos theory can apply to how learning occurs, due to the myriad of internal and external factors involved, is still subject to academic debate. Examples of such internal factors are self-motivation, confidence, ability, prior knowledge, metacognitive skills and learning strategies, etc and of external factors, teacher competence, physical learning environment, government policies, etc.

Some see the interactions between such factors as similar to those in a dynamic system (Akmansoy & Kartal, 2014) and draw interdisciplinary parallels as a result, whereas others say that this association is ‘misguided’ (Hunter and Benson, 2010). Either way, chaos theory can help us see education provision in a completely different light which might inspire innovative thinking in solving complex problems within the field and should be explored.

Dynamic systems

The force or influence applied by each of a system’s internal components on one another, compounded with the influence by forces external to the system, affect the dynamics of its components in unpredictable ways (Reference for Business). A good example of this is weather forecasting (Alkan), where the surface of planet Earth is a dynamic system composed of humidity, oxygen, dust and other elements. Within this system physical forces such as temperature, pressure and gravity determine movement of its composite elements in ways that can be forecasted, but not predicted exactly (e.g. where it rains, when hurricanes are formed, how often sandstorms appear, etc.). Other examples of dynamics systems are inter-human dynamics, exchange markets, and even the movement of water molecules within a glass of water that was stirred.

The reason why we can never predict how a dynamic system will react with any precision is not because its inner workings are physically chaotic and unpredictable. It is because there are too many factors influencing the system, both internally and externally, escaping our ability to identify and keep track of all of them, even with sophisticated computer modelling. Hypothetically, if we could identify ALL the factors involved, no matter how small, study their behaviour and track their influence on ALL other system components, at the same time, we would be able to predict the future. This is because dynamic systems are deterministic despite them seeming random (i.e. an event is the result of, or caused by, a series of other events that led to it and is never the result of randomness). This is why chaos does not equate randomness or erratic behaviour, but only appears to do so (Reference for Business).

Determinism is also often equated, especially in the field of philosophy, with the absence of agency and freewill. However, Chaos Theory does not remove the agentic traits of each element of the system, but maintains instead that “each component of a complex system has the ability to fluctuate, randomly and unpredictably, within the context of the system itself” (Reference for Business), while also exerting influence on its environment and other system components.

The Butterfly Effect

Determinism in the smallest influences within the system, as described above, gave rise to the concept of the Butterfly Effect, introduced by MIT, Edward Lorenzv, in the early 1960s (Reference for Business). Colloquially, we know it as when a butterfly flaps its wings in Texas, causes a hurricane in China (Boeing, 2015). Within a dynamic system the concept describes how the influence of each force or factor, no matter how small or insignificant, will result in unforeseeable, and potentially significant, impact elsewhere within the system (Reference for Business). To illustrate this, researchers John Briggs and F. David Peat have been quoted as having said that “the whole shape of things depends upon the minutest part. The part is the whole in this respect, for through the action of any part, the whole in the form of chaos or transformative change may manifest” (Wheatley, 2001).

By analyzing problems in terms of multiple variables, one may discover a rich array of potential causes” (Çobanoğlu, 2008 in Akmansoy & Kartal, 2014, p.511)

Because of the dynamism of internal and external forces it is often difficult to say whether a big change on the system will result in a state significantly different than the one it started from due to potential internal self-cancelling forces. Likewise, a small change could have a significant impact due to a domino effect on its components. In Change Theory, arising from the field of management, this effect is recognised through the importance placed on the human-element of a change project (or reform) and through the recognition that rarely do change projects result in the exact same planned outcomes set out at the very beginning. In the field of education, this worldview is important when thinking about reform so it can be designed and implemented with these potential effects in mind.

Application of Chaos Theory on organisations and educational establishments

In the 80s the concepts above started being applied to fields outside exact sciences, such as biology, engineering, economics, etc, but most notably to how organisations and companies work. As such, there is extensive literature that talks about how companies are falsely seen as machines with known inputs and predictable outputs (Reference for Business and Alkan). However, how well companies will do at any point in the future, and even if they will survive, cannot be predicted. Based on knowledge of the company (e.g. its financial health, internal policies, expansion strategies, etc) one can only forecast how well it will do in the future, but the myriad of external (such as market conditions, politics, and even weather, etc) and internal factors (such as team dynamics, management policies and styles, and even the mood of one single individual within the company, etc.) makes it impossible to predict with absolute certainty how well it will do at any point in the future.

Within organisations order is often equated with control and extensive efforts are made to tightly control ‘inputs’ (e.g. people’s behaviours and performances) for desired outcomes (Reference for Business). However, “chaos theory implies that this is unnecessary, even harmful” (Reference for Business). Schools and other educational establishments are also institutions subject to organisational forces. Therefore the literature on chaos theory applied to organisations is also applicable to educational institutions, as seen is a 2014 study by Akmansoy, V. and Kartal, S. Fundamentally, this idea that one should allow self-organisation within the institution, guided by a shared mission and purpose, is one that can be applied in relation to teacher autonomy over the educational content.

Characteristics of dynamic systems relevant to the field of education

The above means that the state of a dynamic system at any one point is sensitive to initial conditionsand changes over time (‘initial’ here refers to a snapshot of the system dynamics at a previous point in time as each state is preceded by a previous one, as no state appeared from scratch but resulted from a previous one).

In education this means that every single experience a child has during their educational journey will impact their performance in some way, sometimes positively or negatively (Akmansoy & Kartal, 2014, p.511), from obvious ones such as the quality of didactic materials, to less obvious ones such as that one time when they were told off by the teacher. This does not suggest that we should control for every single factor as part of a child’s educational experience, but we need to acknowledge that these influences exist and be mindful of them when designing educational experiences and school reform. In chaos theory applied to education, this aspect has been used to highlight how one missed lesson can have unforeseen consequences on a child’s education further down the line (Akmansoy & Kartal, 2014, p.511).

It also means that a child’s educational performance fluctuates over time and a snapshot of a child’s performance and ability at any one time is not a predictor of success later on (Akmansoy & Kartal, 2014, p.511). This is important in reviewing policies that cut out children with poor performance or bad behaviour from the system, as, because of the Butterfly Effect, we can see that “a student can make a difference, and that schools should make use of all of the abilities that their students have (Çobanoğlu, 2008, in Akmansoy & Kartal, 2014, p.515).

Another key term in the chaos theory vocabulary is that of non-linearity. This is used to describe the seemingly chaotic behaviour of elements within a dynamic system due to the myriad of difficult-to-trace dynamics within. The concept of non-linearity has also been applied to the learning process to suggest that a tightly controlled, static and timed, educational path for any student (e.g. that involves careful planning and scaffolding of knowledge, etc.), will not determine a certain outcome, although it may affect it in unpredictable ways (Akmansoy & Kartal, 2014, p.511). For instance, a child’s understanding of the learning material and their ability to learn and apply it at any one point changes, even if very slightly, with every experience they go through. Sometimes this allows them to perform better, absorb more, or demotivates them and sets them back temporarily. This dynamic and fluctuation is not compatible with a static and pre-set learning path.

While the above does not reveal a solution to better adapt the provided learning path to match this dynamism and optimise a child’s learning experience, it does explain why rigidity in the sequencing of how learning content is structured and expected completion within a given window of time, is not an educational model aligned with the aim of giving each child the learning opportunities needed to succeed.

The disorder caused by chaos in education should not frighten educators; on the contrary, it should be used as an opportunity to seek order from chaos and then reorganize the system to adapt to this new situation” (Akmansoy & Kartal, 2014, p.517)


Our Inspiration

21st Century Challenges

Co-authors: Rebekah Simon and Teodora Boarta

(NB: This blog is an opinion piece and was created to serve as a conversation starter for the Designing Education workshops. Therefore it should not be used as reference in any academic writing.)

Since the introduction of compulsory educational systems in the UK, and its adoption in the form of universal education around the world, educational systems changed in response to multiple factors, often political in nature. Some of these factors reflected changes in society which put pressure on the governments of the time to reform the system to serve the changing needs of society (for instance, it is believed that compulsory education in the UK was the result of the rising need in a skilled labour force following the Industrial Revolution).

However, these changes often had a time lag and reform in education, when responding to a societal change, often takes some time to adapt to new environmental conditions. Can it be argued that the changes in today’s society are increasingly being outpaced by the system’s ability to adapt to these changes? If so, are there ways in which we can make it more responsive? For instance, can discussions on possible future scenarios of society and education be helpful in this matter?

Whether changes and pressures within society should be a sufficient catalyst to reform education or not is in itself value laden, and largely controversial. Should education change to respond to psycho-emotional pressures children face nowadays? Some would argue that education is reserved only to the development of rational thought (Hand, 2008, p.219), and addressing aspects outside of it, such as resilience, is not within the school’s remit.

Should education seek to equip children for the challenges a society faces at any given time? If yes, in what ways? See table below with a short list of examples (by no means exhaustive) of changes in the past 50 years, their impact on society and their potential significance for education.


Current Impact

Significance for education

  1. Instant access toinformation
  2. Increased onlinepresence
  3. Connecting individuals and communities across the globe
  4. Cyber threats
  5. Inequality in access to broadband
  1. Increased need for media literacy
  2. Internet safety education
  3. Equality in remote learning
  4. Impact on mental health of students
  5. Globalization – more access to new cultures and people
Advancements in science and medicine
  1. Higher demand for STEM skills and specialisations and less funding for arts
  2. More technological literacy necessary for low skill/low wage jobs
  3. Research and prototyping new technologies requires interdisciplinary collaboration and project management skills.
  4. We live longer lives which has an indirect impact on how services are funded (including education)
  1. Need for emphasis on civic education and community engagement
  2. Education is less holistic and more specialized
  3. Pressure on students to choose a field that is profitable (greater number of graduates in STEM fields and fewer students studying humanities)
  4. Floods of new graduates in STEM field without evidence of higher employability
  5. Advances in tech require constant continuing education (e.g. lifetime education)
AI and automation
  1. Data tracking and monitoring
  2. Productivity-driven mindset
  3. Algorithm-curated content
  4. Changes in the labour market and work environments
  1. More self-paced, individualized learning
  2. Shift to ‘human skills’, such as adaptability, flexibility, creativity, etc.
  3. Less socialization in classrooms
  4. Backlash from parents and increased socio-economic divides in access to tech-driven and tech-free learning
Climate Change
  1. Shift in methods of energy production
  2. Major changes in where people live
  3. Emphasis on sustainability
  4. Shift in focus from ‘individualism and ‘consumerism’ to the ‘collective’ and the ‘global’.
  1. Social action mindset
  2. Sustainability in the classroom
  3. Need for cultural literacy
  4. Individual responsibility vs. responsibility of government and corporations
  5. Skills to solve complex social problems

Over the past two decades, there have been a myriad of rapid changes in the education sector, as well as changes in the labour market and new technological developments. Many of the changes have been caused or exacerbated by the implementation of new technology in classrooms, as well as a decline in humanities education and an increased interest in STEM subjects. These changes create many new challenges in the field of education, and we should seriously consider whether these challenges need to be addressed in order to fulfil the goal of creating an equitable education system which imparts knowledge and skills while also producing a self-reliant populus.

While the table above tackles reflections on the educational system now, there are also more medium- and long-term trends that we could be considering and factor in long before they occur. This is because the educational cycle of a child is between 12-17 years of education. In order to create an educational system that prepares pupils for entering a society 20 years from now, education needs to think in advance of what such a society might look like and adapt our education systems to pre-empt meeting its demands. For instance we should be considering trends such as: multi-profession, passion-driven career, focus on work-life balance (including for pupils) or a demand for individualised services (including in education).

Deep dive into: Internet, AI, and automation

While there is much that can be said about automation and changes in the labour market, perhaps one of the most important changes of the last few decades has been the shift in focus from reading and writing as the fundamentals of literacy to a much wider definition. This is seen in education through the need to “mak[e] sense of abundant, often conflicting pieces of information, [and] assess the reliability of sources and the validity of given claims within concrete cultural contexts.” (OECD)

Technological and digital literacy is perhaps the most important component of this shift. However, theevidence is not strong enough to support claims about the relationship between tech and student outcomes (OECD). Also the introduction of technology as a component of schooling has served to widen the gap in access to education between different social groups. While the impact of new technologies should not be ignored in education, more thinking needs to be done around how this is integrated in the classroom. This may require a user-focused (i.e. pupils) approach, careful instructional design considerations and changes in curriculum and pedagogy.

Recent studies revealed that higher rates of screen time among adolescents have a negative impact on psychological well-being. This changes the way we should think about the future of technology and AI learning systems in the classroom, and what the best way of both encouraging students to gain skills in the area of digital literacy while also fostering good mental health and psychological well-being.

How do we plan for the future?

OECD has developed four possible scenarios for the future of education in order to start a conversation around how prepared we are as a society for each and what the gaps are. The scenarios are:

  1. Schooling extended – education is the primary way of gaining social and economic capital, so more people stay in school for longer, and degrees begin to lose their value
  2. Learning outsourced – Traditional schooling systems break down as society becomes more directly involved in educating its citizens. Learning takes place through more diverse, privatised and flexible arrangements, with digital technology a key driver.
  3. Schools remain, but diversity and experimentation are the norm. Opening the “school walls” connects schools to their communities, favouring ever-changing forms of learning, civic engagement and social innovation.
  4. Education takes place everywhere, anytime. Distinctions between formal and informal learning are no longer valid as society turns itself entirely to the power of the machine.

(Via OECD four scenarios schooling)

While we may not all agree on whether education should mirror major changes in society, they should at the very least inform how we think about the future of education. There are many facets that must be considered, from the mental health and well-being of students to the changing landscape of career opportunities, and the window of opportunity to rethink education through those lenses is narrowing rapidly.


Our Inspiration

Systems Thinking

For a comprehensive cover of the need and usefulness of Systems Thinking in Education read the Educational Development Trust report available here. This blog, when ready, will aim to capture some of its highlights. 

Systems thinking is an approach used to tackle complex issues that persist over time, with no successful solutions to date. It seeks sustainable solutions based on deep understanding of issues. 

“Systems thinking is different to linear or cause and effect thinking, as it recognises more complex interdependencies and how multiple components may affect each other in different ways. It also helps to differentiate between the underlying issue and the symptoms of something deeper.” (Ndaruhutse et al, 2019, p. 13)

Table 1 below can be found on page 13 of the  Educational Development Trust report on systems thinking.

Traditional responses to improve education outcomes that take a piecemeal approach may have some success but are unlikely to solve the ‘wicked problems’ that different education systems around the world face. Systems thinking can help policymakers achieve faster and more sustained progress in education that results in broad outcomes for the current and future generation of children and young people.” (Ndaruhutse et al, 2019, p. 11)

Key ideas and concepts in systems thinking:

  • the components of any system are not only interlinked, but interconnected – that’s why when considering reform one needs to think about the unintended consequences of proposals, underlying processes, secure stakeholder involvement and seek to understand & resolve internal tensions resulting from proposed changes.
  • the system and its components are constantly changing and adapting – expect the possibility of unforeseen results & plan mitigations as much as possible, maintain a big picture view, solutions should be iterative, experimental and co-created. 
  • a system doesn’t exist and operate in isolation; influences what happens outside of it as much as external forces influence it – solutions need to be context-specific (not just based on good practice elsewhere), external ‘forces’ need to be identified, understood and taken into account when generating solutions.
  • distinguishing between underlying causal-relationships and symptomatic ones – leads to deeper understanding of the issue, multi-layered stakeholder analysis, closer inspection  of correlation vs causation and the need to challenge existing assumptions and own biases.

Figure 1 below can be found on page 10 of the  Educational Development Trust report on systems thinking.

Figure 1 below can be found on page 10 of the  Educational Development Trust report on systems thinking.

The report also helpfully identified 5 policy tensions in any reform proposal on education which are, by themselves, “a collection of complex, intractable problems and considerations that must remain at the forefront of the minds of those leading and delivering global education reform efforts” (Ndaruhutse et al, 2019, p. 11):

1. Keep a balanced focus on how to use systems thinking to address simultaneously the two ‘wicked problems’ of equitable access and quality learning.

2. To work across organisational boundaries in a joined-up way, reforming education systems to improve outcomes for all children whilst also considering the wider systemic influences so reform is not undermined.

3. Balance the desire to be evidence-informed with the reality that operating in a political, economic, social and cultural context will make this hard to do.

4. Pay equal attention to a) the change management programme and accompanying capacity development approach needed to implement a reform and b) designing the reform itself.

5. Carefully balance what the system can achieve with personal and collective responsibility for decisions that can (negatively or positively) impact the functioning of the system.

“Systems thinking expands the range of choices available for solving a problem by broadening our thinking and helping us articulate problems in new and different ways. At the same time, the principles of systems thinking make us aware that there are no perfect solutions; the choices we make will have an impact on other parts of the system. By anticipating the impact of each trade-off, we can minimize its severity or even use it to our own advantage. Systems thinking therefore allows us to make informed choices.’ (Goodman, 2018)

Adopting a systems thinking approach in education would mean (a short, but not exhaustive list):

  • thinking about all the actors and stakeholders involved in the system, their dynamic interrelationships and the need for co-creating solutions together (e.g. adjust expectations according to agency limitations of actors at each level);
  • understanding that there are no piecemeal solutions without a ripple effect of some sort;
  • thinking holistically about issues (understanding how system components work together) and transcending the boundaries of said system, like external drivers (e.g. the impact of pupils socio-economic background on their learning);
  • gaining enough trans-sectional understanding of issues across the system to grasp inter-reactions between system components (this may involve going outside our areas of expertise);
  • challenging own cause and effect assumption regarding issues in education;
  • being more critical of ‘borrowed’ reform and understanding how to contextualise solutions and their impact; etc.


Goodman, M., 2018, ‘Systems thinking: What? Why? Where? When? and How?’. The Systems Thinker Website available at https://thesystemsthinker.com/systems-thinking-what-why-when-where-and-how/ 

Ndaruhutse, S., Jones, C. & Riggall, A., 2019, ‘Why systems thinking is important for the education sector’. Educational Development Trusthttps://www.educationdevelopmenttrust.com/EducationDevelopmentTrust/files/17/17fec588-e413-461b-a107-78b6569304cc.pdf

Soeonline, 2020, ‘What Is Systems Thinking in Education? Understanding Functions and Interactions in School Systems’. July 28, 2020, American University’s School of Education Website, available at https://soeonline.american.edu/blog/systems-thinking-in-education# 


Our Inspiration

Design ideas

A main domain to look into for inspiration for our thought experiment is the field of design thinking.

Ian Gosher’s blog calledBeyond Design Thinking: An Incomplete Design Taxonomy, on Design Thinking and the many trends that inspired the field is worth a full read.

Design Thinking emerged in the 80’s and gained popularity at the turn of the 21st century. In its most simple formulation, it might be “characterized as the scientific method applied to the creative process” (Ian Gosher). 

  • It is human centered and iterative. 
  • It uses iterative prototyping in its journey “from the abstract to the concrete” (Ian Gosher).

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby distinguish in their book ‘Speculative Everything’, between affirmative design and critical design (watch an interview with the authors). Affirmative design focuses on problem solving and serves to improve our live as it is now. It “is problem solving, with design framed as a process that provides answers in the service of industry for how the world is” (Ian Gosher). On the other hand, critical design “is characterized as problem finding, with design framed as a medium that asks questions in the service of society for how the world could be” (Ian Gosher). According to Gosher, “if Affirmative Design is problem solving, then Critical Design is problem finding, which is to say, it is a critique of the context and culture in which the designed object exists“.

According to IDEO, one of the first studios to lay the groundwork for design theory, “design thinking is a mindset. It is the confidence that everyone can be part of creating a more desirable future, and a process to take action when faced with a difficult challenge” (IDEO, 2013).

IDEO’s blog on Design Thinking for Educators’ (2013) presents how design thinking is not only useful, but already present and essential in the classroom environment, from designing daily schedules to teacher feedback systems. “The challenges educators are confronted with are real, complex, and varied. And as such, they require new perspectives, new tools, and new approaches. Design thinking is one of them” (IDEO, 2013). IDEO also created the Co-Designing Schools Toolkit, to support “educators to collaboratively create equitable change in schools through a community-led, equity-centered, and design-driven process” (IDEO, 2013).

Human Centered Design

Human Centered Design (or User Centered Design) was popularized by Don Norman’s seminal book, ‘The Design of Everyday Things‘. In the book he “urged designers to consider the user experience throughout the entire design process, rather than employing top down “engineering” strategies, which are often framed around technical solutions and ignore the actual needs of stakeholders. Human Centered Design places a high value on design research methods that cultivate empathy with the user. Methods for visual thinking and storytelling are especially important for this kind of collaborative process. By asking the users you’ll get unexpected answers that are more likely to be taken up and adopted. As long as your ideas are ‘grounded into the desires of the people’ then you’re on the right patch. Human-centered design is bound to lead to ‘solutions that are adopted and embraced’” (Ian Gosher).

Participatory Design

Participatory Design is a close relative to Human Centered Design as it seeks to engage all stakeholders in the design process and has a very explicit political dimension. “It aspires to democratize the design process, blurring the distinction between the designer (or engineer) as expert and the user as expert. Participatory Design attempts to coordinate the experiences and insights of all stakeholders in order to develop outcomes that benefit everyone” (Ian Gosher). 

Critical Design

“Critical Design has its antecedents in Critical Theory, which emerged from the Marxist critiques of the Frankfurt School in the 1930s. Critical Design is a creative strategy that establishes design as a medium for making visible that which is usually obscured in our daily interactions with the quotidian objects of our material culture, including the relationship between the object and the labor that went into its creation (i.e. commodity fetishism). Critical Design creates affordances for awareness, framing how we understand, question, and critique the society and culture around us” (Ian Gosher). 

Discursive Design

According to Ian Gosher, Discursive Design is “closely related, if not synonymous with Critical Design. The term implies that the function of the object – what it does – is secondary to how it makes us think about the context in which it exists. The object is the site of discourse. These kinds of objects tend to be prototypes, resisting commodification and mass production. They often shock the viewer into a new awareness of the social context from which they emerge (Ian Gosher). For examples of discursive design also check out Core77’s Discursive Design channel

For a quick understanding of Discursive Design read Tharp & Tharp’s 2016 blog on Discursive Design as ‘thought catalyst’, “What is Discursive Design”. “While “good design” is often professed to be unobtrusive, intuitive, invisible and something that does not make the user think too much, discursive design instead actually targets the intellect. The primary goal is to prompt self-reflection, ignite the imagination, and foment contemplation—to deliberately make the user think (deeply)” (Tharp & Tharp, 2016). 

In the UK, the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded the ProtoPublics project, “which ultimately aims to get researchers and the community together to craft “new services, experiences, projects and policies that address contemporary issues.” In support of this objective a sub-project, ProtoPolicy was organized to investigate how design fiction “could be used to help politicians and community groups imagine the future implications of policy initiatives in creative ways.” This past summer they looked specifically at the issues of aging in place, loneliness, and isolation with the help of discursive practices. Their 38-page report, Using Design Fiction to Negotiate Political Questions discusses their process and findings. For example: Design fictions appear to be more readily adopted by the civil service rather than politicians because of the shorter timescales usually adopted to take political decisions. However, through additional advocacy and research, the ProtoPolicy team seek to demonstrate that design methods, particularly design fictions, could contribute to a shorter decision-making cycles through rapid problem definition, co-developing solutions with citizens, rapid prototyping and refining concepts before full-scale deployment” (Tharp & Tharp, 2015). For more information on ProtoPublics check out their website

Responsible design

Tharp & Tharp talk about another type of design thinking done in the name of service, to help those in need “where products are helpful, but less commercially-viable, especially due to very small market target. Examples given are the bite-size fork for those less dexterous – Ableware one-handed cutlery set” (Tharp & Tharp, 2009)

Speculative Design  

“Speculative Design is another sibling to Critical Design and Discursive Design. However, Speculative Design is explicitly oriented towards future scenarios. User scenarios are an important method found in many of these design strategies. These kinds of scenarios allow us to imagine things not as they are, but as they might be. They allow us to ask questions. What does the object do? For whom? Where does it do it? When? How does the object do it? And why?” (Ian Gosher). 

The MIT Media Lab are an interdisciplinary research lab working to invent the future of #politics, #archives, #data, etc. Check out some of their publications as good examples of speculative design.  https://www.media.mit.edu/groups/lifelong-kindergarten/publications/ 

Potential implications for our thought experiment

We could draw concepts from design thinking that might be helpful in framing how we think about education as a system, as a service (either public or private) for users and as politics due to its extensive stakeholder groups.

“Innovation with design thinking demands critical thinking because we must understand our assumptions that frame our ideas and shape our design.” (Turnali, 2016)


Gosher, Ian, ‘Beyond Design Thinking: An Incomplete Design Taxonomy’. cd-cf.org website, accessed on 29 Mar 2021 at  http://www.cd-cf.org/articles/beyond-design-thinking/ 

IDEO.org, 2013 ‘Design Thinking for Educators’, Jan, 2013, IDEO Website, accessed on 29 March 2021 at https://www.ideo.com/post/design-thinking-for-educators

IDEO.org, 2015, ‘The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design’. IDEO Website, accessed on 29 March 2021 at https://d1r3w4d5z5a88i.cloudfront.net/assets/guide/Field%20Guide%20to%20Human-Centered%20Design_IDEOorg_English-0f60d33bce6b870e7d80f9cc1642c8e7.pdf 

Turnali, K., 2016, ‘Innovation with Design Thinking Demands Critical Thinking’, Aug, 2016. Forbes Website, accessed online 29 March 2021 https://www.forbes.com/sites/sap/2016/08/25/innovation-with-design-thinking-demands-critical-thinking/?sh=7b2d48486908 

Norman, D., 2013, ‘The Design of Everyday Things Rev. and expanded‘, Boulder: Basic Books. 

Tharp, B. and Tharp, S., 2009, ‘The 4 Fields of Industrial Design: (No, not furniture, trans, consumer electronics, & toys)’, Jan 5, 2009, Core77.com, accessed on 1 Apr 2021 at https://www.core77.com/posts/12232/the-4-fields-of-industrial-design-no-not-furniture-trans-consumer-electronics-toys-by-bruce-m-tharp-and-stephanie-m-tharp-12232 

Tharp, B. and Tharp, S., 2015, ‘Governments Warming up to Discursive Design?’, Dec 9, 2015, Core77.com, accessed on 1 Apr 2021 at “What is Discursive Design” https://www.core77.com/posts/41991/What-is-Discursive-Design 

Tharp, B. and Tharp, S., 2016, ‘Governments Warming up to Discursive Design?’, February 2, 2016, Core77.com, accessed on 1 Apr 2021 at https://www.core77.com/posts/45693/Governments-Warming-up-to-Discursive-Design 

Our Inspiration

Sandbox Exercise

The concept is borrowed from software development where a sandbox “is an isolated testing environment that enables users to run programs or execute files without affecting the application, system or platform on which they run” (Rosencrance, 2018)

In the world of business, a sandbox environment is a space where people from different disciplinary backgrounds are brought together to discuss and test solutions to complex problems in a controlled and risk-free environment (or frame). Check out David Clarke’s blog, ‘The Serious Business of Sandbox Exercise‘ for a full description of the practice.

A related concept is a regulatory sandbox which “is a methodological approach to potential relaxation of regulatory requirements that build in more testing and feedback through a safe innovation zone.” (Hagan, 2019)

Some useful concepts and terminology:

  • Those who manage the sandbox activity need to hold the big picture and should be able to connect the dots between different areas of theory and practice. They often draw upon a diverse network of people from various disciplines to ensure that the right people are in the room when thematic discussions take place. 
  • The approach taken in conversations is usually holistic and applies systems theory. This is to ensure that ideas are not being considered in isolation from the workings of the overall system and that their impact retains a dose of realism. In discussion, Agile project management methodology principles are also applied by building simple models (or straw-men), which are then build upon through constant reiterative testing with users until the model starts holding water.  
  • Testing with users is an essential part of the process.  
  • The framing is the process by which the constraints of the simulated environment are determined and it sets the context within which the exercise is to take place. As part of framing, the controller can choose to ‘switch on or off’ real world constraints such as regulation, funding constraints and human resource capacity to test ideas and foster innovative thinking.  

Potential implications for our thought experiment

When thinking innovatively about wholesome, holistic changes to the filled of education, using a sandbox exercise-type approach may be useful in deconstructing the system to understand its mechanism, dependencies and issues better. It is also helpful in testing ideas independent of ‘real world’ dependencies, such as funding, implementation and change management restrictions. These can often be specific to a certain geography, point in time and legislative configuration.  By purposefully ‘switching off’ some of the systemic dependencies we are able to identify core aspects about education systems that can be critically analysed, their underlying assumptions scrutinised and their value reconsidered.

In our workshops we may choose to apply the sandbox exercise concept to our thought experiment by: 

  • Building the frame (i.e. the assumptions underlying the simulated environment in which the model will be built and solutions tested). That can be set before the exercise begins and the ‘rules of play’ agreed collectively with the participants.   
  • Determining the end-goal, or vision (i.e. defining what the outcome of the exercise is, at the very beginning). This will be agreed in collaboration with the participants and is subject to iteration as the exercise progresses and ideas evolve. The end-goal is also something that needs stress-testing with users.  
  • Identifying and inviting voices from a range of disciplines to participate in building the models and discussing ideas and their respective merits. Seek that participants are from a range of disciplines is essential because systems are complex and draw upon a multitude of disciplines and business areas to run in practice. Also, a mark of creativity is being able to get inspired from ideas from fields outside your own. 
  • Building the model of the existing system based on its component parts (the ones essential as part of the output).
  • Discuss options or ideas of how to achieve the end-goal, with the model of the existing system as a starting point. 
  • Build models of users (or personas) with their user journeys, needs and wants. This is a form of stakeholder mapping that goes into some pragmatic aspects, beyond mere exploration of needs and wants.  
  • Test models and underlying assumptions with users, in a re-iterative way. 
  • Throughout the exercise the vision transforms into a new model of the system, with its underlying assumptions stress-tested with users.  
  • At the end of the exercise, an analysis is done between the starting model and the resulting one. An analysis will also be done on the tensions created in a non-sandbox environment, after restrictions are switched off. The result is a list of areas for further research and actionable recommendations that can be pursued in practice, within the industry. 


Participation in the ‘Designing Education’ project is currently limited to UCL students and faculty. However, if you want to get in touch regarding the project and the content of this webpage check out our Contact Us page.


Clarke, D., 2017, ‘The Serious Business of Sandbox Exercise’. Jan 9, 2017, Strategy+Business Website, Accessed online in Dec 2020 at https://www.strategy-business.com/article/The-Serious-Business-of-Sandboxes?gko=303ae.

Hagan, M (2019) Regulatory Sandboxes for legal services innovation. Nov 2019, Medium.com, available at https://medium.com/legal-design-and-innovation/regulatory-sandboxes-for-legal-services-innovation-7438bb9b658e 

Rosencrance, L., 2018, ‘sandbox (software testing and security)’. Dec 2018, TechTarget Website. Accessed online in Dec 2020 at https://searchsecurity.techtarget.com/definition/sandbox.