What Schools can learn from the London Tube

Like many lessons from history, it takes cross-disciplinary thinking and rule breaking to solve new problems for a new world.

As someone who is hoping to change schools to better prepare children for the way the world is and not was, I’m always on a look out for analogies that might help a few more educators and parents understand both the reasons for change and/or practicalities for achieving it. This attempt is inspired by a quick design talk by Yale University’s Michael Bierut: “The genius of the London Tube Map.”

The London tube moves more than 3 million people a day across a complicated system with very little hitch. Few transport types can claim such success in a confined space. All subways are generally successful because they use maps that break nearly all understood mapping conventions. It took an unconventional approach and much rule breaking before people were equiped properly to deal with a new context.


In the talk, Bierut explains that while existing maps failed to help tube riders, it took Harry Beck, an electrical engineer and not cartographer, to empathise with the actual situation to solve a major problem. Beck realised that existing map rules and perceived wisdom about what maps should provide needed to be significantly challenged if this new situation was to be resolved.

What was important to travellers in older transport systems, like landmarks, scale, coordinates, and positioning, were less or not important in this new context.

Bierult lists three key points that made the map so successful:

  1. Focus on who you’re doing this for [actual over perceived needs]
  2. Simplicity: What’s the shortest way to deliver the need [declutter]
  3. Think and work cross-disciplinary: “Who would have thought an electrical engineer would solve the cartographers’ most complicated problem.” [Silos make things harder]

A map for school change?

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

My mind currently applies the school change perspective to many things I read and watch. To me, Bierut’s rules seemed a natural fit for people looking at school change. Ensuring teachers are regularly engaged in dialogue about what is happening in the world and the new challenges children will face during the next decade and within their lifetime. There is much debate about how significant shifts in lifestyles and industries will be during the next decade but people on both sides of the “decade debate” do agree that when the current 10-year-old is 30, priorities and challenges will be very different indeed. Here is my reworking of Bierut’s rules for school change:

  1. Focus: Educators and school leaders need to display awareness in their decision making of the current challenges facing young people and not continue working on previously applied wisdom and guidelines about what school should be.
  2. Simplicity: Don’t let historically held beliefs and priorities clutter your situation. Work with the full school community to remove unnecessary material.
  3. Cross-disciplinary: True sense of the world can only be made in cross-disciplinary situations. Let’s be fair to children and allow them to see things in context and stop the repetition in existing factory schooling.

I hope this helps some educators build a stronger argument for how to approach school change.

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