Design the Learning Ecosystem: Don’t forget ‘How’ after #StartWithWhy

design /dɪˈzʌɪn/ (vb) decide upon the look and functioning of a building, garment, object, system or experience

innovative /ˈɪnəvətɪv/ (adj) new ideas; original and creative in thinking

Innovative design is changing the the way we navigate our world, reimagining future opportunities, solving annoyingly small or significantly huge problems, or just plain helping people. Design thinking is applicable beyond buildings and objects to everyday life, designing experiences and systems.

It’s more than just coming up with the big idea, but implementing systems. Systems represent the conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools to make it work (Senge, 1990).

I love planes, I love flying. It’s a chair in the sky travelling near or even far away. We need to truly appreciate this innovative design.

It was a little over 30 years from the Wright Brothers’ powered flight innovation, to McDonnell-Douglas commencing the era of commercial air flight with the DC-3 in 1935. That’s not very long, from zero – no powered flight –  to sufficiently gaining people’s trust so that they could reach their destination safely by air. This innovative design was about as disruptive imaginable?

This plane, the DC-3, a fixed-wing propeller-driven airliner, revolutionised air transport in the 1930s and 1940s. It was fast, had good range, could operate from short runways, and was reliable. Before the WW2 it pioneered many air travel routes, transporting passengers in comfort.


How did this revolution in transport happen? McDonnell-Douglas’ 30 years of prototyping and testing discovered that the DC-3 needed five essential components for a successful flight:

  1. Variable pitch propeller
  2. Retractable landing gear
  3. Lightweight moulded body construction
  4. Radial air-cooled engine
  5. Wing flaps

Five years earlier Boeing introduced four of these elements, without the wing flaps, but found that the plane was unstable on take-off and landing. Illustrating the power of thoroughly prototyping and testing the design. (Senge, 1990)


We talk a lot about Simon Sinek’s simple message, Start with Why’, he’s created a movement around it. Of course, no one disagrees, we need to have clarity around the purpose of the design, there is no other place to begin. We can often visualise the What as we craft the vision. But I think the How is the like neglected middle child of the ‘Start with Why’ family. So, I’m going to start a movement:

‘Make Time to Focus on How’ 
(Clearly, not as catchy)

(Modified) Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York, N.Y.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the How, especially when it comes to designing the wholistic learning environment. How can we help to ensure that the ‘Why’ is realised and the ‘What’ is sustainable? By ‘creating time to focus on the ‘How’, that is, applying design thinking to the supporting systems and infrastructure.

This is how the idea of the ecosystem came about, the often unseen elements that create sustainability around the ‘Why‘ and make the ‘What’ look so good. I have identified four ‘How‘ elements of the supporting learning design ecosystem:

  • Teaching team cohesion
  • Physical space design & affordances
  • Inclusivity and diversity
  • Systems thinking

These are elements of learning design are not directly related to the pedagogy, but how the ecosystem supports the pedagogical approaches.  I’m currently testing this prototype as I work with schools. I am passionate about creating schools that are amazing places for learning – so these are my four.

How might you ‘Make Time to Focus on How’?
Identify your critical components for success.


Reference: Senge, Peter M. (1990). The fifth discipline : the art and practice of the learning organization. New York:Doubleday


Design the Learning Ecosystem: Don’t forget ‘How’ after #StartWithWhy