Transforming education and designing a sustainable future with Dr. Leyla Acaroglu
Join us on this week’s episode for a conversation with Dr. Leyla Acaroglu, Chief Circular Designer for Circular Australia and founder the Experimental Knowledge Lab, the UnSchool of Disruptive Design, and Swivel Skills, on redefining sustainability, design, and education.
Leyla will share her journey from industrial design to sociology, emphasizing the global impact of design decisions, her unique, ethical, and slow-growth approach to entrepreneurship and highlight the power of constant evolution.
In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:
UnSchool recently celebrated its 9th birthday – congratulations –, and I heard you described that one of the UnSchool’s aim was to undo the damage caused by traditional education systems, which I love, and I want to hear more about that.
Maybe could you tell how the UnSchool came about and how their approach is a counter to traditional education systems?
I’m a very kind of chaotic learner, I like things fast and dynamic and experiential, and I really struggled in school to learn in the traditional way. Until, eventually, when I went to sociology school, I discovered that I really did like learning, I just had to learn in a particular way.
That really challenged me in my own learning journey, and when it came to thinking about how to give professionals the tools to understand their own agency – which is the ability for an individual to identify the power and influence they intrinsically have in the world – and then to be able to deploy tools to enact or expand that over time, we would need some deconstruction of the opposing force, which is our education system.
Having created my own flow, I started to see that there was a huge opportunity in giving people some of these tools. And those tools are things like understanding, recognising cognitive biases, looking at the system… Starting with the whole versus the parts, using systems thinking, starting to understand things like gamification and game theory, which are the things that motivate us, the tools of sustainability, life cycle thinking, as well as environmental impact assessment… I created this formula of different tools that I had learned, explored, and experimented over the years.
We created the Disruptive Design Methodology, which is formed by these 12 parts of high-level theories and concepts that underpin the applied DD method over a few years of experimentation with community members.
We started over 10 years ago, and that evolved over time to the UnSchool, which ran many experiential knowledge programs until COVID. We also ran these fellowship programs all over the world: Brazil, Malaysia, South Africa, North America, …
We would run these very immersive experiences, which we were fortunate to have over 500 people, while now we have around 10, 20 something thousand people in the online school who come to do individual classes. We have over a hundred points of entry: You can get free resources. You can do short courses. You can do the entire Disruptive Design methodology. You can track to be certified as an educator in our methods. The idea is that the option is there for people to find what works best for them. I try to design it using all different types of educational format and, for me, it’s been one of the most amazing things.
I have been fortunate enough to meet so many people from all over the world who are like proactively applying change, and they’re doing great things, which is incredibly inspiring.
When I look at the news and see how messed up the world is, I have this kind of optimism counteractor that helps me remember of all the individuals out there doing amazing things that are helping to make the world work better.
And it really is just a critical mass thing here: The more people we can get switched on, equipped, engaged, and participating in designing the future that is going to be better for all of us, the more likely it is we are going to get to that outcome, and the UnSchool is really a place for people to do that.
You once described the circular method as designing with the future in mind right from the start, and I feel like that ties in absolutely to redesigning education. What role do you believe higher education either can play, in a more idealistic sense, or currently plays in advancing this transition forward?
It is so important, but the issue that I see with higher education is that it’s a very old business model and it’s very slow to change. Curriculums take years to transform in a traditional academic setting, which is very painful because the world moves very fast. If you just look at AI, for example, the conversation was completely different six months ago. The same applies with sustainability, with ESG, with the circular economy, with any of these not going away.
We have seen a lot of slow movement in higher education, even things like MBAs, where people go to learn the skills of managing a business, for example, are still not teaching how and what ESG materiality assessment is, which is literally now in the law in the European Union for companies to do. There’s this real disconnect between what industry or what community, what government, what’s needed and what the academy is teaching. It’s important that we demand the skills be implemented, both from the students facing side of things, the educator side of things, and also business.
If you are a big engineering company, you are going to have some relationship with an academy. You have this influence to be able to say: “These are the skills that we need coming into our workforce”, and the academy needs to respond. But the model is very slow and very hierarchical. Those systems are very rigid and they’re almost designed to not change.
I have worked with some progressive universities in different ways, but it’s always a hero within the organization who is driving that change. And that poor hero often gets completely burnt out, but the students benefit so much from that kind of forward, positive thinking.
Interested in more Insights like this?
Head now to our episode How universities can contribute to a more humane society to hear all about the evolution of education, the power of interdisciplinary collaboration, and the pivotal role universities play in fostering a more humane and compassionate society.
You can also find a collection of some of our most forward-looking content on Higher education in the 21st century: Where are we heading?.
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