Let’s Focus on the Student Experience (SX) When Improving Our Schools | Mark Engstrom | 4 Min Read

August 31, 2022

“The art of communication is the language of leadership”

James Humes

In 1993, Don Norman was working at Apple and decided to streamline language for his team. They were throwing around phrases like “experience of the user” and other clunky verbiage to describe the experience of those interacting with their product. He decided from that point on they would say and write “UX” so that everyone could quickly and clearly convey the concept of “user experience” (watch Don explain how he came up with the phrase and how it’s misused today). 

This simple shift in language has transformed the computer and design industries and helped them to focus on the UX. For example, Google’s first “Things We Know to be True” is: “Focus on the user and all else will follow”. A simple change in the language caused a widespread revolution in the paradigm.

I propose that education is now at a similar juncture as Apple was in 1993. 

When I was a young administrator, I was lucky enough to have dinner with the Educational Consultant Simon Jeynes. At that point in his career, he had visited over 100 campuses helping schools improve. I asked him what was the biggest mistake schools make and he said:

“Adults sit around a room and make decisions that are easiest for them. Very few administrators are focusing on what’s best for children.” 

It was a watershed moment in my career and two decades later, I feel that many schools are still in that mindset. It seems to me that we are primed for a change in language. 

The phrase “student experience” is beginning to pop up in education more and more. I see it primarily in job titles (e.g., at Northwestern State University, Achievement First, and New Harmony High School), but those jobs are as diverse as Counselors, Deans, and Directors. It isn’t uncommon for the early meanings of a phrase to be varied and these roles play that out. What I’m proposing is an embedding of the idea into all conversations regarding school:

  • Planning a unit? Plan for what the student experience will be like at the same time as you plan for what the teacher will do. Jeff Robin, formerly of High Tech High, always said that understanding the student experience requires the teacher to do exactly what the students will do first.
  • Professional Development work? Clarify how contributions will improve the student experience. If there is no projected improvement, then why are we doing this?
  • Designing a new building? Well…you see the pattern. Design with the student in mind, the user. 

What if we take our cue from Don Norman and Apple in the 90s and embed into education the language of “SX”… the student experience? 

Once we’ve accomplished the shift in language, we’ll be primed to more swiftly and intentionally change schools with children in mind. It can start with scheduling, budgeting, and buildings and will end up with stronger documentation that serves our students the best. For example, wouldn’t it be great if we had a platform with links where a graduating senior could see their progress in essay writing from third grade on? What if the progression of scientific inquiry over the course of the student experience came with photos of science fairs, dissections, and presentations TEDx style over the course of thirteen years of schooling? I believe a change in language today could foster those longitudinal changes moving forward.

I could see variations where we specify SLX: student learning experience, FAX: family admissions experience, etc. For now, it would be a great step if everyone who is focused on making schools a better place for children would make discussing the student experience so common that saying and writing “SX” becomes the norm on your campus. It will take strong leaders to be a part of this shift towards being more student-centered and that shift begins with a focus on talking more often and more succinctly about the student experience. We owe it to the children in our care to focus on exactly that.

In pursuit of answers,

Mark Engstrom

Lead Questioner

Socrates – Head of School

Socrates – Head of School is an educational consultancy that uses the power of questioning to offer professional development for schools.

Mark Engstrom is from New Orleans, Louisiana, and was a full-time classroom teacher for fifteen years before moving into administration. He has an M.Ed. in International Teaching and an M.A. in Cultural Geography. Education has landed him in Korea, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, and various independent and public schools in the United States. Mark has written blog posts for EdSurge, Getting Smart, and Blendmylearning as part of the effort to move schools forward. In addition, he has presented at OESIS, the Association of American Schools in South America, Association of International Schools in Africa, and consulted for Independent School Management. Moving forward, Mark hopes that Socrates – Head of School will spark schools to focus on students as they think about the why, what, and how of leading and learning.

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