Designing Schools for the New Normal: An Interview with Dr. Justin Reich

Posted by Kaitlin Smith on August 12, 2020

In a recent interview, I spoke with Dr. Justin Reich of MIT where he serves as Assistant Professor of Comparative Media Studies and Director of the Teaching Systems Lab. Here Dr. Reich shares some of his expertise on teaching in the time of COVID, the use of design charrettes to devise holistic solutions to emergent challenges, and how educators can attend to and design for some of the unique vulnerabilities facing families in their communities.

KS: Can you share a brief introduction and speak to the nature of your work in the education space?

JR: I have been a high school history teacher and taught world history to freshmen and electives to seniors. And then I got interested in how students use technology in the classroom, particularly the way that technology was able to grant more autonomy and agency to students in their learning, as well as provide them more ways of developing and demonstrating understanding, getting really close to disciplinary source material on their own, and then publishing their understanding in different kinds of ways in the world. Most recently, I've run a lab at MIT called the Teaching Systems Lab, and we aspire to design, implement and research the future of teacher learning. We're interested in how teachers learn and get better, and then when the emergency school shutdowns came, we shut down most of the things that were happening in the lab and just tried to pivot, to support teachers with these particular sets of challenges. We realized it was going to be really important for lots of different stakeholders to be involved in the planning process for a couple of reasons. 

KS: Why is it crucial for multiple stakeholders to have a voice in planning what school will look like this year?

JR: The first thing is that school leadership cannot design everything that needs to happen in schools. The work of schools is too complex and too the superintendent can't figure out what the best configuration of desks is in the science lab and the school principal can't figure out what they should be teaching on October 14th in seventh grade Earth Science. The people closest to the work are going to have to invent most of the ways that a school reforms in a very local fashion. The second thing is that there are going to be some things that have to be decided and then shared across schools. There are going to be hard choices that involve complicated trade-offs, and we need people to buy into them and have a stake in them. The way you get people to buy in and have a stake is you include them in the design process. 

One thing that we knew was going to be hard about that is that oftentimes when schools do this kind of work, it's done in person. You have community meetings, you have design focus groups where you bring people into a room with post-it notes and markers and things like that. So we wanted to create a prototype of a process that schools could use that would include more people, both to model the practice of including people and to say, "Concretely, what would this look like online?” So we ran design charrettes, and three of them were with multi-stakeholder groups including superintendents, someone from the state, parents, teachers, and students...people who see the system from all different kinds of levels.

KS: I’d like to pause here for a moment and dig into what design charrettes are and what they look like in practice.

JR: It’s a term that comes out of architecture and refers to a period of time in which you bring people together to think about some kind of design. All charrette means is an intentional design gathering. In terms of what this looks like in practice, my Imagining September presentation features two reports: one report covers some of the design principles and specific ideas that people came up with, but the second report walks through exactly how we ran these meetings. For the students, we did a one-hour meeting. For the multi-stakeholder group that included some students, we did a two-hour meeting. We have online slides and online workbooks that walk people through exactly what kinds of questions we asked and how we facilitated their conversations and how we collected the data afterward. Not that people need to do exactly what we did, but we wanted to try to make it as turnkey as possible for people to say, "I want to do's the structure for doing this and some guidance." 

For the students, I would say we did two main things that worked. We asked them three questions in advance of which only two ended up being really fertile: “What do you most value about school and what would it look like to enact that value in a remote or a hybrid setting?” In an hour, we just spent about 20 minutes asking students to talk about what they value most at school and what they need the most. In one classroom, the overwhelming theme was about relationships. Students said that they need to feel like that there's a teacher who understands them and that has their back and can be there for them when they're confused and they miss seeing each other. Once we had surfaced all those needs, we got into smaller groups and we brainstormed solutions. 

When we did the multi-stakeholder group with adults, we made the conversation a little bit longer. We had two hours and asked them to prototype particular elements of school next year, and what came out at the end of that was basically a set of short stories. We hired professional illustrators to draw them up and then the next step was testing those storyboards by putting them in front of different audiences and saying “Which of these are most exciting to us? Which of these seem like they're best aligned with our community values and so forth?" And then part of what schools will have to do in the coming year, and why this can be a kind of ongoing process is, it's almost certain that all of the things that schools design are not going to work. The challenges ahead are too complex for policymakers or school leaders to get all the decisions right on the first try. Part of what will need to happen over the course of this coming year is to think about how we iteratively improve.

KS: How did your team manage and make sense of the volume of feedback you received from participants?

JR: As research progressed, we were particularly interested in what I might call tent-pole ideas or ideas that are big enough to organize lots of other smaller designs underneath them. So, for instance, there were some folks who said: "One of the hardest things about the spring was how much communication parents and students got from teachers." If you took seven different classes, it was like having seven different masters with seven different technology platforms and different logins. 

One idea was to really strengthen the role of advisories in school and say that every nine or 10 or 12 or 15 kids should have one adult advisor, and quite a bit of the communication, maybe even quite a bit of teaching and instruction should flow through that one teacher. A second idea was when an assistant superintendent said: "If we're going to use our school buildings, we want to make sure that half the time in our school building is spent on electives and extracurriculars and things that kids really love about school. We don't want to default to having it all be test prep, learning loss remediation kinds of things.”

KS: What strategies can school leaders and educators use if they're working in under-resourced contexts but want to derive some of the benefits from your methods?

JR: One thing is that when we talk about contexts being under-resourced, what that typically means is that they have fewer dollars per student to spend around education. The communities themselves are not under-resourced, however. All of the communities that our students live in are funds of knowledge and strength and resilience, and there is a lot to be learned. And in fact, one of the things that struck me is that sadly one advantage that teachers and under-resourced schools have is that they're used to solving impossible problems with insufficient resources.

A really salient difference to be attentive to in almost any of these conversations, though, is that people from different communities made up of different racial constituencies are having really different experiences during the pandemic. People from Native American, Black, Latino communities have more families that are essential workers, have more families that are living in close contact, have more comorbidities of a disease, have experienced more death and sickness and illness. And in almost every survey of parent and family preferences for next year coming out, you can see these racial divides emerging. Black and Latino families report regularly that they're more concerned about going back to school, even though in many cases, these same families are some of the ones who face the most connectivity and technology access challenges. Like parents everywhere, they care a ton about their students.

As people are thinking about doing these design charrettes, it’s important to reach out not just to people who are likely to respond to you. Reach out to families who don’t speak English, make sure you have a truly representative group as you devise a plan.


Facing History and Ourselves invites educators to use our Back-to-School 2020 Resources, complete with tools designed to help teachers attend to the unique challenges that have emerged over the last several months.

Access Resources

Topics: Back-To-School

At Facing History and Ourselves, we value conversation—in classrooms, in our professional development for educators, and online. When you comment on Facing Today, you're engaging with our worldwide community of learners, so please take care that your contributions are constructive, civil, and advance the conversation.


Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

Subscribe to Email Updates

Recent Posts

Posts by Topic

see all