Four Lessons from My 10 Years Designing for Youth

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Ten years ago I began Educate! with my Co-Founders, Boris and Eric, based on our shared belief in the power of a quality education, the potential of young people, and the absolute necessity of a skilled and empowered youth generation to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

Over the past ten years, I’ve been proud to design and direct the implementation of our programs in schools in East Africa. 2019 marks an exceptional milestone for our team – a decade of operating our flagship Educate! Experience program in schools across Uganda. Not only have our programs scaled dramatically since 2009, including launching operations in Rwanda and Kenya, they have also evolved strategically, reflecting the unique challenges we have faced and exciting innovations we’ve made in response. 

One of the things I’m proudest of at Educate! is that our program design is deeply rooted in continually identifying and incorporating creative ways to leverage people and resources to create the greatest impact. Taking this opportunity to reflect my own journey with Educate!, I’ve identified a few key lessons that have informed my personal approach to design. This approach has evolved over the past ten years and informed the design principles we live by at Educate! to remain laser-focused on creating meaningful and relevant impact. I hope these ideas are helpful not only for those designing programs for youth, but also for anyone looking to empower and inspire people around you.

Lesson 1: Empathy is key

Empowerment is the delicate balance of giving people support and encouragement but also giving them space to learn for themselves and challenges to grow. Perhaps you have struggled to strike this balance yourself with a friend or family member who won't take your advice, a co-worker with destructive habits, or an unmotivated student. In these relationships, it can become easy to slip into the judgement of others. But great designers, teachers, managers and coaches remember that people do not respond to "pushing" or "fixing" or "correcting". All of us as humans respond best to compassion.

I try to begin all my designs by taking a moment to check myself and ensure that I am coming from a place of compassion. How does my target audience act when they're at their best? Can I see the logic of their action, even if I disagree? Have I made the same mistake before too? How would I want someone to "help" me if I were in that circumstance?

One might still do or say or write the wrong thing; but, if you act from a place of genuine compassion, it will not have been a wasted effort.

Lesson 2: Less can be more

“How do we improve our programs?” “How do we improve our own performance or the performance of others?” “How do we work faster, smarter, and achieve greater scale?”

Much of the language around improvement, strategy, and innovation is deeply misleading. Far too often it seems that the key to being better is doing something "more". I have found the opposite can be true. Many of my greatest improvements, strategic insights, and creative solutions have come about when I actually simplified something that was too complex for others as well as myself to understand and implement successfully.

For example, our practical, student-centered pedagogical format – Skills Lab – is as simple as this: Build, Practice, Present. In this lesson plan template, teachers first lay a foundation around a concept for students (Build), student practice implementing or investigating the concept in groups or alone (Practice), and then students synthesize and summarize their learnings back to the teacher and the class (Present). This simple format is easy for teachers to remember and adopt in their lesson planning, and consistently leads to learner-centered and experiential classrooms.

Lesson 3: Perseverance is not cliché

Lately, I’ve heard people say that talking about perseverance and “not giving up” has become cliché, or overused. Silicon Valley encourages us to “fail fast, fail often”. We all rationally know that missing a goal one time or not meeting the exact target is not a cause for crisis. But when we are actually confronting failure, how many of us become overwhelmed and demotivated anyway?

As a teacher, mentor, boss, trainer, and teammate it is important to remember that failure is hard on an individual emotionally, no matter how big or small the failure actually is. So it is never cliché, obvious, or unnecessary to say: don't give up, hang in there, you can do it. Great designers, and great leaders, ensure that individuals are set up for early successes to boost their motivation to take on harder and more difficult tasks. This is equally relevant to designing lesson plans for students that give them the tools and confidence they need to overcome failure, and for anyone managing a team to accomplish an ambitious goal. My teams haven’t always met our targets, but when we’ve missed the mark, we’ve made it a priority to still celebrate our effort and the lessons we learned.

Lesson 4: Listen for your innovation

Henry Ford, the inventor of the mass-market automobile, once stated: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse.’”

There is a spirited debate between whether innovation is spurred by responding to external feedback, or if innovation is a result of the visionary insight of gifted individuals who can see what others cannot.

The truth is that it isn’t one or the other. Ford made millions by famously ignoring customer input but also lost millions by failing to continuously innovate on his automobile to meet the new, changing needs of customers. I’ve seen this in my own work – sometimes we design a new model or pilot in direct response to user (student/teacher) feedback, and sometimes a member of the Educate! team has a bright idea out of the blue. However, the best innovations – the most successful solutions we’ve developed – have been a blend of both.

It’s possible to prompt this kind of blended inspiration. For example, in our termly Internal Advisory Board meetings in Uganda, we bring Educate! Mentors from across the country together to share their feedback on the program model’s successes and challenges. Brilliant ideas like Mentor “Project Days” have come out of this process. The key is to listen less to people for specific answers. Instead, listen more frequently and deeply to understand peoples’ underlying needs and values.

 
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