Drive the Train or Design the Tracks?

Photo by hxdyl/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by hxdyl/iStock / Getty Images
  • This summer I was driving, listening to Ed Catmull’s book  “Creativity, Incorporated,” an outstanding account of how to create a sustainable culture of collaboration.  The entire book is phenomenal, but I heard something that really struck a chord with me. So much so that , I veered off the highway pulled onto the shoulder, & re-listened to it - multiple times. Ed was talking about mental models people use to frame their work & talked about the all too common mental model of “driving the train”  Many people believe the way to shape the future of a company (or a school) is to drive the train, when that actually couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Driving the train doesn’t set or change the direction.  The real work is in designing its course.  Then for the rest of my drive I thought about what we do as educators and the opportunities we miss because we are so focused on “driving the train.”  

We are already a couple of weeks into another school year - far enough into the year to establish a rhythm but still close enough that you can almost get a lingering taste of the “Back to School Energy.”  At one of our back to school events, I was chatting with a teacher about our summers and the teacher shared  “I’m so excited! This summer I was able to do a lot of lesson planning.  In fact I have almost the entire year planned!?” It wasn’t the time to dive into a deep pedagogical discussion, but I’m pretty sure my horror was clearly displayed on my face “ Your entire year is planned?!  How can you plan out a year of learning for students you haven’t even met?” Sadly, in a system driven by standards, pacing guides, benchmarks & instructional targets this isn’t too uncommon.  

In education have we become so caught up in driving the train that we have forgotten to focus on designing the tracks?   Amazing things are possible when teachers no longer feel confined to lesson planning and begin to see themselves as designers of learning experiences.  While this shift may seem small, it is huge because it shifts the focus from “instruction” to learning.  It requires a focus on the learners and how they will experience what we design.

Think back to your own educational experience. Let’s say the first day of sixth grade. You walk into your classroom with your backpack full of supplies, and you can pretty much predict how the day will go. Why? Because it will be like every other first day of school you have experienced.  There will be some get to know you activity,  the sorting of supplies, and the labeling and sectioning off of binders. Then, there’s the passing out of textbooks and workbooks. In between, there are the rules. Classroom rules, homework rules, hallway rules, playground rules. You quickly learn that school is a series of rules & events all driven by the teacher and you are just along for the ride.  When asked about your day - you are likely to tell stories about your friends, describe your teacher as nice, strict, or funny, but likely there is very little dinner conversation about learning…. Isn’t it time for a new story in education?

Now let’s reimagine that first day experience. What if you walked into the classroom and the first day was about you, the learner? What if the teacher didn’t explain the rules but encouraged you to create them? What if, instead of being handed a textbook  or a syllabus you were handed an idea to explore or a problem to solve? What if you were encouraged to pursue “interesting?”  What would your dinner conversation sound like that night? What new stories would you be able to tell?

Determining who controls the learning experience is a very real issue. For so long in education we have worked under the mindset that we adults must be the “deciders” in the classroom. We must not only make sure that students have their tickets, but that they have all of the right luggage, are sitting in the right seats, and are quiet while we step to the front and move the train forward. What happens when we shift our focus?  What if we design multiple tracks and allow the students to choose both their path and their stops along the way?  What if we invite students to be co-creators in designing the path?  We have the power to change this!

Our students are capable of driving the train, but we have to get out of the driver’s seat and empower teachers to relinquish control.  Teachers may be overworked, but they are underutilized.  Do we have our teachers so busy focused on the “wrong things” that they aren’t able to shift into the role of “learning designers”?  And what does that even mean to start thinking like a designer?  Thinking like a designer means being more aware of the world around you, taking the time to empathize with your users (in this case your students), creating solutions for the future, and taking action to implement those solutions.

There is growing awareness of the importance of design and design thinking in education.  Design Thinking is a process grounded in empathy that helps you approach both problem finding and problem solving from a new perspective.  My journey with design thinking began a few years ago with a class taken at Stanford’s d. school. Like most people I was blown away by the space, the process, their interdisciplinary teams and ultimately, their success stories.  Inspired to act, my colleagues and I jumped into rethinking spaces and adopting the process but quickly learned it was so much more than that. We had to work to change our mindsets and problem solving strategies.  We didn’t know what we didn’t know, but even with our limited knowledge we started to see different results and through the process we developed awareness that we needed to reframe our mental models.  

In an attempt to capture and share our lessons learned, we started to create practices that would help us “think like designers.”  These are the very practices that will also help teachers shift out of the drivers’ seat These are the 3 practices that have made a difference in how myself and my colleagues approach our work -

Get Out of the Water:


You may have seen this photo last February of man out whale watching in Redondo Beach. He misses a whale two feet in front of him because he is glued to his phone.  This is a perfect example of someone who is so caught up in their own world, that they are missing a significant opportunity right in front of them.  They metaphorically need to "Get Out of the Water." The focus of this designer mindset is to sharpen your vision and curiosity.  Is it time to get out of your classroom and broaden your perspective?   Last school year we arranged adult field trips - why do the kids get to have all the fun?- we visited other schools to see different strategies in action, we met in art museums to discuss the integration of art into STEM & visited video game studios to understand firsthand why gaming has such an impact on students.  The insights brought back to the classrooms were amazing.  Is it time for you to get out of the water? Try to take some time to get out, and then return to your world as a tourist with a beginner’s mindset.  What new things might you notice and what are you missing?  

Ride the Same Wave

The 2nd practice is to ride the same wave.  This practice is really grounded in empathy. It is a mindset of broadening your perspective via people and need-finding. I find it interesting that we spend all of our time with students in schools and yet very little time truly understanding the experience of our students. I wonder at times if we are making assumptions primarily based on our own experience of being a student.  We were all students, so we already know what’s it like -right?  Consider shadowing a student for an entire day -put yourself in their shoes.  Walk the halls as they walk, sit in their seats - what is their daily experience at school?  The ah’has that teachers get from this experience are rich, human centered and powerful! in fact, teachers who have tried this often credit it  as the number one thing that helped them shift their role.  What might happen if you viewed your role and approach as a teacher through the eyes of your students?  How might that shift your focus?

Rule Break with Intention

How many of you have rules or practices at your school that don’t really  make sense?  This is a mindset of thoughtfully challenging the way we always do it.  It is about questioning rules, but first knowing the ins and outs of why the rules exist. Some of these might be written rules, but more than likely many may just be common practices that have existed at your school site forever - it’s just the way we have always done it.  Try creating a list of “the way we have always done things” see if you can identifying the underlying assumptions and ask WHY?  Why do we require students to walk in straight lines?  Why do we give a spelling test every Friday?  Unfortunately, some of our accepted practices have been created over the years for the convenience of the adults and have very little to do with what is best for students and learning.  Questioning long held practices & the intentional breaking of some rules open possibilities to yield greater ownership of learning for students.

Three ideas - that if put into practice will help you shift your role as an educator.  A shift that is going to be required from all of us if we are ever going to move beyond our current circumstances and allow students to have more ownership in driving their learning.   With intentional practice, we can shift our mindsets and start approaching our work as designers where the possibilities are limitless.  

As we see educators taking on new roles let’s remember that the “new needs friends” - we need to support them, encourage them and shine the spotlight on their work. If you are a teacher wanting to make the shift… Just start.  Start by observing in another classroom at your school for an hour.  Start by sitting alongside a student for a morning to understand their experience.  Start by questioning a “rule” in your classroom or school  collaborating with one student on something they find interesting. The shift to a learner centered model is going to take collective attention, conversation, and action as individual teachers embrace, learn and grow into these new responsibilities.  Let’s support and applaud the teachers who are refusing to drive the train and are instead choosing to focus their energy on designing new directions and opportunities.