Design Thinking in Schools

This spin-off project was motivated by our curiosity around the topic of design thinking, after conducting the workshop “Priming the Classroom Experience“.

We sought to understand more about the current landscape of design thinking in the Singaporean educational sector, in light of the government’s push towards a more “design-centric” nation. Having graduated from the Industrial Design programme in NUS ourselves, this exploration was poignant for 2 reasons;

1) What could students learn or schools hope to achieve by training their students in design thinking?

2) Would our workforce benefit from such a skill that has been infused in our young?

These questions are rather large and vague, but we could start with some groundwork to see how this thread of knowledge is developing in Singapore.

The following are education-relevant excerpts from the original document published by Design Singapore, which can be read HERE.


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The Current State of Design Thinking

 

Curious about the status of “design thinking” as a subject or common knowledge domain, we set out to do some research, making inquiries to schools about learning more about their efforts first hand.

dic-cwss-gds-collabOur cold-email approach to multiple schools

We got replies from Commonwealth Secondary School (CWSS) and Greendale Secondary School (GDS), allowing us a visit to their school premises.

Our first visit was to Commonwealth Secondary School (CWSS), and we were greeted by their large Makerspace in the main foyer area, that was panelled with large glass fixtures and setup in a workshop format. We were told that this space was made to facilitate Maker Thursdays, which was their “creative jamming session”, where students get to do ad-hoc projects like:

  • 3D Printing
  • Cardboard Fiesta – Building of cardboard houses, vehicles, games
  • Fingerboard Mini Skate Park
  • Repair Kopitiam – Students learn to repair common household items brought in by the public
  • Wearable Electronics
  • Redesigning Tamiya Cars – Small electric toy vehicles

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We also learned that CWSS has a Design Thinking Curriculum that is taught from Secondary One to Three, moving from short design sprints and mindset-building sessions, to larger design challenges that involve the community.

In their syllabus and teachings, they stress design “mindsets” as their goal, to bring about:

1) the idea of experimenting
2) failure as a neccesity to success
3) empathy, putting the user first

They also have an Innovation and Design department, comprising of a handful of staff members, who are responsible for helping out the general staff with improvements that they might want to make in their own classrooms, drawing from an independent budget to make these changes. They act almost like an in-house design consultancy, which we found very interesting as a model.


Our next visit was to Greendale Secondary School (GDS), where we encountered a slightly different approach to Design Thinking.

 GDS has a special Design, Technology and Engineering programme, which focuses on the key aspects of each discipline to impart knowledge. Design thinking is just one of the facets of this programme, where they learn about the iterative cycle of designing as they complete a project.

They also host Singapore’s largest population of students who take Design and Technology as a subject in their Upper Secondary years (this subject is compulsory for all students in lower secondary education). There is hence a larger emphasis in their school on design education.

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GDS also has scratch programming classes, Arduino lessons and 3D printing courses, that complement the skill-set of a Design Engineer. To top it off, they also offer students the opportunity to compete for the Young Engineer Award.

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There is a very different emphasis as we can see between the two schools, although the interesting thing to note is that alot of these initiatives are spurred by the school leadership and staff, and not by the government.

If we were to visualize the two school setups, it would look something like this:

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Both schools are similar in that they integrate design thinking from the get-go into their syllabi, but they follow up that approach in different ways to bolster the education of their students. It remains to be seen how effective either model is, but we like the model CWSS has utilized, with dedicated staff members who function as an “in-house design team”. This ground-up model is organic and something that we feel might become the future of schools; with members who play a dual role and can empathize best with fellow colleagues.


Analysis of Current Methods

Design Thinking is fast becoming a buzzword in the educational sphere. As seen in the previous two examples of CWSS and GDS integrating design thinking into their syllabus, as well as creating other avenues for it to manifest organically, these two forerunners will soon be joined by the ranks of other schools looking to augment their school systems.

Companies are addressing this new development in different ways. Some come up with toolkits to empower educators, and others create design thinking games that can be more engaging to individuals. Given the complexity, ambiguity and fluidity of the design process, this presents a challenge.

Which part of the design thinking process is useful to students?
What is a realistic learning outcome of design thinking?
Is design thinking a relevant core knowledge/skillset for the future?
At what age is it appropriate to learning design thinking, given its high cognitive demands?

There is no right answer, and it seems that design thinking in the educational sector is in its very nascent stages. Here we explore the few different ways it is done.

Toolkits

The Design Thinking Toolkit for Educators by IDEO was created to empower teachers around the world to design for their students’ needs on an ad-hoc basis.

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Having learned the Human Centered Design Process ourselves in the University, pioneered by IDEO, the Toolkit for Educators seems like a natural extension of it. Their toolkit is extremely sound and methodical, and works for any educator in any context, who is motivated to bring a positive change to their classrooms. The approach is friendly, the resources needed are light, and the

From what we found out in our first workshop and with observations in Canberra Primary School, Singaporean educators are most often than not starved for time, overloaded with work, and unable to engage in a process as detailed as what IDEO prescribes. Some of them do make micro-improvements to their classrooms and methods of welfare to students, but are done in practical, off-handed ways that do not involve planning, user behaviour mapping or tools from the Design Process.

For example, a particular teacher we interviewed (who we will name Sierra to preserve anonymity), sprays a fine mist of spearmint-flavoured water onto students as they enter the classroom on a hot, humid day to cool them off.  When asked why, Sierra tells us that it is a reasonable, simple solution she came up with to perk her students up in class. There was no real step-by-step process of finding the problem, creating an opportunity statement, ideation and prototyping. She pretty much just jumped straight into what she saw as a solution.

It is intriguing to think of the outcome, if Sierra was handed the Educators Toolkit instead…


Games

Other companies have embarked on a different angle; by bringing design thinking to students in the form of games that can be more engaging to individuals. “Gamification” is a recent trend that is also picking up speed in different industries, education being just one of them. The idea is that adding a gaming layer onto the content that needs to be taught will increase the engagement of students with the content and the rate at which they internalize it. Very generally, imparting knowledge in the form of a game creates a more fun and memorable experience than sitting in a classroom and being lectured for hours by a teacher.

The Khandu Cards is a Kickstarter project launched in early 2016 as a way to guide students through the design process.

The game consists of 4 decks, each corresponding to a stage in the design process. Starting with the selection of a challenge, children choose (consciously or randomly) several cards from the other three decks that correspond to the tools that will be used to solve the challenges.

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Each card contains a tool, along with an icon and a small description. They are designed to stimulate creative thinking of children, and help them to solve problems and generate ideas in a fun and creative way.

The way they segment the cards into the different phases of the design process is interesting, as it gives the users a visual indication of the sequence in which they are to approach the game. The friendly icons with instructions on the reverse also humanize the process, and make it easier for kids to want to play this game. It acts as a simple, non-commital type of game to expose kids to design thinking.

The Extraordinaires Design Studio game is a sketching game, centered around ideation and product design. Much like the Khandus card game, it brings users through the design process step-by-step and encourages them to sketch out their ideas using the Extraordinaires as their muses.

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The interesting part about this game is how they utilize magical “personas” as the characters to design for in the game. The usage of empathy as a core function of the game is great, given that it is an essential skill to have during all parts of the design process. Kids are encouraged to design for and ideate based on the needs of these characters, and come up with out-of-the-box solutions. This exercising of divergent thinking is also an important part of the design process, which we feel this game has incorporated very well.

 


 

Design Thinking Boardgame

 

The following slideshow presents a brief walkthrough of the game and its mechanics.

This was used in the pilot trial with Canberra Primary School.


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First Pilot Run of Design Thinking Board Game

We conducted a pilot run of the Design Thinking Board game with 15 Primary 6 student leaders from Canberra Primary School. The students were tasked to pick from several preset design challenges and complete the challenge by navigating through the board game.

The primary aim of the session was for us as the designers of the board game to identify areas for change, improvement, and refinement. We also intended to expose the students to design-thinking in a completely new approach that is based on collaborative game mechanics instead of traditional instructional methods. By emphasizing on the element of fun through role-play, we hoped for the students to advocate their experience in the session to their peers.


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Students taking on different roles and working together as a team to complete Checkpoint activities in the board game.


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Some Quest cards required the students to go around the school to interact with relevant stakeholders of the design challenge by interviewing, soliciting feedback, passively observing, etc.


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Students work together in their own teams to evaluate, prototype, and present their ideas.