We Are Lucky at Tedx

We were really excited that We Are Lucky Co-founder Lucy was invited to speak at this year’s TEDx Swansea.  We love TED and were really honoured to be a part of such a successful event in Swansea alongside some other great speakers.

Lucy’s talk was about about how design thinking (and design practice) can impact education – not simply in terms of the teaching of design – but more importantly in terms of how we approach the planning, organising and delivery of education today. She speaks about her own experience of an education that is driven by assessment of the ‘things that are easy to measure, not the things that really matter’ and the impact on her mental health, and proposes a different, kinder approach to designing our education system.

 You can watch Lucy’s talk here, or read the full transcript below:


“Imagine you are five years old. 

Your five year old self is just starting school.  School is amazing. it’s where you meet new friends, you find out incredible things and you get to be a person in your own right for the first time. 

You are five and you are awesome.

Think about what you are learning at school.  You are learning to read stories, you are learning to write your own stories, you are building things, imagining things, discovering the power you have within you.

But you also start learn something else. 

You start to learn how school works.

When I was five I started to learn one thing in particular about school.  

At five I learned that if you get it right first time then you get praised by adults.

I learned that if you get it right first time you get praised by adults and that that feels great.

So I kept on getting it right.

I was a grade machine.

And if I didn’t get the grade, well somebody would pay.  

And that somebody would always be me; because if you learn that the only thing those around you value is the outcome, the grade, the number of right answers, then you start to believe that the numbers are all that count.   

And I believed it all through my education.  

I believed in numbers when by the time I was in my late teens my life felt so out of control, when I felt so useless that I became anorexic.  When my first real knock came I didn’t have the tools to cope, because I hadn’t learned the things that really mattered.  I collapsed like a house of cards, and I clung to what I knew.  

I clung to the numbers – counting every gram, every ounce, every calorie, every inch, every day.  I was addicted to the numbers, and the numbers nearly killed me.  

I was the product of a system where my self worth became utterly dependent on how I and other people measured me, and how that made me feel.

Fast forward more than thirty years and the numbers have never been more prominent in education.  

Right now things are far worse for our five year olds, our children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces.  

Right now we have league tables, we have rankings, we have big data!

We have big data that tells us which are the good schools, which are the good teachers, which are the good children.

But hang on, which are the good children? 

The ones who get the good grades, the ones taught by the good teachers, in the good schools whose good data goes into the big data machine? The big data machine which spits it all out in a table? A table of who is good and who is bad based on who can reproduce the same answers.  A table that creates a panic, a clamour, a desperate rush to get your good child into the good school with the good teachers.

Surely there should be no such thing as a good child, a good teacher, a good school, because in defining ‘good’ we are creating ‘not good’ and equating ‘not good’ with failure, and so making failure so scary to the five year old, the teacher, the parent, the school, that that failure becomes the way they define themselves.

At five children know what’s going on around them.  They know that if they get it right they get a reward, and they start to learn that getting it wrong is something to be afraid of, that it has consequences.  But everyone gets it wrong. In fact surely the whole point of education is to get it wrong and keep getting it wrong until you get it right – that’s what learning is.  

But now it isn’t.  Because we’ve got the numbers. Measured and published so the government and the voters know how many ‘good’ schools there are, how many ‘good’ teachers, and where the ‘good’ children are learning.  We’re testing our schools and our teachers by testing our children.  And we’re testing the things that are easy to measure, not the things that really matter.

And what exactly do the numbers tell us?  That the gap between rich and poor is not closing, that the ‘good’ get better, and the ‘not good’ get worse.  The numbers aren’t working.  They’re not working for the teachers. They’re not working for the parents.  And most importantly, they’re not working for the children.  Because a stressed five year old can become a stressed fifteen year old who becomes a stressed adult and our overloaded healthcare systems simply can’t cope with thousands and thousands more people like I was who are suffering from mental health problems.  

Education, like health, is too important to be left for the market to decide on who wins and who loses.          

So what are we going to do about it?

Well let me tell what changed my thinking, what has slowly but surely broken down my pattern, my reliance on getting it right, my obsession in fact.

 I started to learn about design.  

Now when you think of design you may think first about its outputs – the object, the system, the image.  But I want to talk about the process of design – design as a way of thinking.  

Throughout my career I’ve always loved working with designers but I had never really thought about why.   Until, about five years ago, I started to really learn about how designers learn to think it became clear – and I started to want what they had.  

You see design thinkers learn to tackle complex problems where there will be more than one possible answer. Design thinkers learn not to expect to get it right first time.  They learn that by allowing themselves to generate ideas and fail rapidly, sometimes again and again and again, as they develop their thinking, their understanding.  They learn how to refine, resolve, reshape their ideas into something that works.  Design thinkers are curious, they observe, they listen, they share, they collaborate, and they know that they are not the expert in the issue they are tackling – they know that it is the people who are impacted by the issue who hold the insights that will enable them to create something better. 

For me this was a revelation.   

Where I had previously been surrounded by people who positioned themselves as the expert, for whom failure was an embarrassment, who couldn’t be seen to not know the answer, this was like entering a completely different world.

I believe that education really needs design thinkers, at every level in the system.  We don’t need to throw everything away and start again, but we need to challenge a way of thinking that has drifted away from its core purpose.  The numbers have become the most important output of the system, but this really shouldn’t be the case.  We need to remind ourselves that human beings are the real output of the education system, and that human beings are complex, fragile creatures, each one unique and precious.    

This is where design thinking can help.  By fully understanding the needs of everyone in the system, you can start to design approaches that don’t simply benefit those at the top of the food chain, those who are already winning.  And by accepting that there is more than one right answer, and that failure is to be embraced as a part of the process, you can be more open to ideas, willing to try new things.  

But to make this work we all have to support those in power through this process, and be active partners in it not merely observers and commentators on it. But the good news is that there is already a lot of this going on around the world.  There are several Governments that have become confident enough to develop approaches where the emphasis has shifted towards human need rather than narrow measures of output.  

And at a more local level, there is a groundswell of teacher designers who are taking design-led approaches to their practice (and teaching their students to value the process not just the output).  

In my own work I’ve been involved in projects that have used design thinking to help university students address the hugely scary question of ‘what am I going to do with the rest of my life’, and my latest work has been in designing a ridiculously simple framework that helps learners and teachers establish a shared recognition of the value of some of the key attitudes and behaviours that I wish I had learned at school, like persistence and resilience. A ridiculously simple framework that allows kids to not get it right first time, that rewards the learning process not just the outcome.

How did we do this?  By starting with the teachers and the children, learning about them and their needs, and by injecting joy and encouraging curiosity, through stories, characters, fun.  

And guess what happened.

The kids got – it – they jumped on it – they embraced it.  within a week.  They understood that the adults around them valued more than the outcome, they valued what the children bring to the process. They got it, and they’re 5.

Design thinking provides us with a legitimate alternative perspective from which to  approach some of the problems we have within education.  

It has changed my thinking, and I think it can have an impact on the way we all think about our education system.  It reminds us that everyone in the system counts.  

But I’m not an expert – and I will never pretend I am – I’m a learner, and I ask you to join me.  

Curiosity is the most powerful force that we can harness in education – so imagine you are a five year old once again – a curious 5 year old, eager to learn.  Let’s learn how to design an education that keeps that curiosity alive for every five year old, so they become confident, resilient, adaptable fifteen year olds, and healthy capable adults.  

There is no one right answer here, and that’s the point.   

The great social and civil project that is education will never be finished, and that’s a good thing.  

And the beauty of this is that all we have to do is to accept that we need to keep on learning, and surely that’s what education is all about.

We are creating a monster, an ugly market monster, where the difference between the good children with good parents who have the confidence and wherewithal to get them into the good school at all costs and the others, is growing.  Where we’re leaving some children behind.”

Find out more about TEDx Swansea here: http://www.tedxswansea.com