5 Design Principles of Schools that Foster Human Flourishing

This piece was originally written as a thought-piece for Education Elements.

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After interviewing hundreds of parents, teachers, and students across the country, we’ve found almost everyone wants the same things for kids they care about. We want “our” kids to flourish — to have productive work, meaningful relationships, creative self-expression, good health, and to participate civically in their communities.

While we broadly agree on the ultimate goal, what we seem to struggle with is what this means for school design. This is partly because we have the metaphor all wrong. We often talk about school using manufacturing or engineering metaphors — “improving productivity”, “increasing efficiency,” and “learning engineering” are terms sprinkled throughout the rhetoric: the “output” is learning, and the metric is test scores.

But school for flourishing is more like gardening than manufacturing. This is because:

Growth is over the long-term and non-linear

What happens in a day or hour might contribute, but the real outcomes we care about happen slowly, over time, and there are dormant periods followed by spurts of growth.

What students need to grow is already inside them

In manufacturing or engineering you take discreet elements and make a new whole. In gardening the elements for successful maturation are already in the seed, the gardener provides the environment. If you place an acorn on concrete and it doesn’t become an oak tree it’s not because there’s something wrong with the acorn — nearly every acorn has the potential to grow into an oak tree — you just have to plant them in the right soil. The same is true of children.

You cannot control the outcomes directly

In manufacturing you can spot the defect and fix it with an intervention to come out with a perfect, defect-free product that is precisely the same as the last one, every time. But with gardening, as with humans, we want beautiful variation of outcome.

You cannot manufacture a human just as you cannot manufacture a tomato. You have to cultivate them.

This doesn’t mean schooling is not technical — it is technical and it is scientific! It’s just that we need to focus on designing the environment rather than designing the plant, on cultivating rather than producing.

Humans, like all organisms, respond to their environments. Just like plants need the right mix of sun, rich soil, and water, humans need the right physical and social environment to grow to our full potential.

Because humans are not plants and instead are sentient, social creatures that, unlike other animals, have a “self”, we also have social-psychological needs that are nearly as important as our physiological needs.

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Social psychological needs include Autonomy, Competence, Relatedness, and Meaning. These social psychological needs must be attended to when we design for growth and flourishing. They are nearly as important as physical needs to promote well-being and motivation.

However, also like plants, things in the environment can inhibit our ability to fill our core needs. Research shows that limiting factors include chronic stress, shame, scarcity, alienation/anomie, and psychological threat.

Each of these undermines our ability to meet our core needs, and thus our ability to develop and grow to our full potential.

If we don’t design schools to fulfill our core needs, and remove the limiting factors, students will not grow to their full potential.

A good analogy might be when you put a plant in a pot that is too small. The plant might stay alive, and it may even grow some new leaves, but it won’t grow as much as it could have if it had been in the right-sized pot with the right care.

So, how might we design environments to cultivate flourishing individuals and thriving communities?

There are five core design principles that emerge from research and practice.

1. Safety: Rules, Boundaries & Consequences

Creating a safe environment is first and foremost. This seems obvious, but it is a precondition that not all schools are able to meet. Safety is both physical and psychological, which means it must both actually be safe and also feel safe. To feel safe, there need to be clear rules and fair consequences.

2. Connectedness: Positivity Resonance & Belonging

Humans are social beings! People in a school environment need time and space to truly connect and know one another as whole human beings. Designing for connectedness looks like creating time and space for authentic connection — between students and between adults (and between students and adults). Authentic connection is likely to be fostered during open playtime, during teacher meetings that allow for creativity and open conversation, and in school rituals that actively foster relationships.

3. Slack: Sufficient Time-Space for Reflection, Planning & Responsiveness

A perception of scarcity inhibits our ability to be creative, empathetic, or plan long-term — all things educators need to do well! The antidote to scarcity is slack. Slack is feeling you have more than you need of a certain resource.

Designing for slack at a school level means adults have sufficient time to plan, to reflect individually and together, to try new things, evaluate effects, and to deal with unanticipated crises. This means having sufficient time to absorb unexpected demands, detours, or delays without causing panic, and still being able to meet deadlines. Slack has to be built into the schedule at the school and the classroom level (while I focus on time, this is applicable for all resources).

4. Autonomy Support: Freedom, Self-Direction, & Choice

At the most basic level, “autonomy support” means allowing for meaningful choice and self-direction. For students, designing for autonomy support is related most directly with pedagogy — to whether there’s “choice and voice” and ability to pursue things that are of interest to them. But this is important for educators as well as students. If schools aren’t empowering for teachers, it cannot be for students. This means the school administrators need to provide teachers the opportunity to evaluate options, make their own decisions, take initiative, contribute to important group decisions, and be self-directed.

5. Democratic Voice: Participation & Voice

School is our primary collective socializing institution. School is where students learn our collective norms and how to interact with and collaborate with one another. Part of what we hope to socialize into is a thriving democracy. Designing for democracy means practicing its key skills, like deliberation, perspective-taking, and collaboration. This requires educators and students have meaningful roles in key aspects of how the school is run — the governance, rule development, discipline, and maintenance.

**Looking for something a bit more in-depth? Read more here.

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Erin Lynn Raab, Ph.D., is passionate about creating a more just, equitable society through a schooling system organized for human flourishing and a thriving democracy. She earned her Ph.D. at Stanford’s GSE, and is the Co-Founder of REENVISIONED. For more details on anything above, read the long version, the summary, or watch here.

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Solving systemic problems to create a more just, loving world. Transforming education for human flourishing and thriving democracy. Co-Founder @ REENVISIONED.

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