When I was at school, science and maths were deemed the most important subjects to learn, and, according to my English- and music-teaching parents, they probably got more undue attention than they needed. And they were right. In the Scottish tradition of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the quadruplet of innovation means nothing without a dose of art, design, and, yes, culture. Today’s debates around STEM centre around how we don’t have enough science teachers, around how we are doomed if we don’t slash budgets elsewhere to fund the 20% extra in salaries that those STEM teachers in such a prophetic situation find themselves.
But the “necessary” slashes we’re making are in the very areas that will make STEM sizzle, and provide the economic resurgence countries like the U.K., the U.S., and many struggling nations in Europe require as we head towards a darker version of the 2020 vision than our city hall chiefs penned out back in the boom year 2001. When art and general culture fuse, we have design. Without an understanding of design, our academic successes in science, technology, engineering and maths will not be worth the oyster vellum certificates on which they’re printed.
What’s Changed in Stem, from Yesterday to Today?
Science, I loved, especially getting our hands dirty/burned/discoloured-for-life in hands-on experiments to explain theories, the theories often only hitting home after weeks of “mucking about” with different elements that, finally seen as a whole, revealed what made our planet work. Maths, for me, was science without the fun (and clarity) of a hands-on experiment, and I gave it up at the first opportunity, much to the disdain of the maths department who lost a student sure to deliver them a great result in the examinations.
The most technology I saw was in music and English: Even in a small-town west-coast Scotland primary school in 1982, technology was something you’d use to understand the world around you through video games like Grannie’s Garden, coding traffic lights on a BBC Micro for fun, making music with Cubase on the Atari, and when my high school got its first Mac in 1989, we’d use it to produce beautiful school magazines (The Pupil’s View). The most trouble technology got me into was when in a Milk Board newspaper production competition I came in second: They thought I must’ve had an adult help me with the “professional-looking” desktop publishing. I missed out on a trip to see some milking cows in Holland because of that.
So, I confess, I’ve been inculcated with a bias that, frankly, science, engineering, and maths don’t mean much without music, great words, and a splash of design flair. Yes: Colouring in was and remains the vital ingredient to understanding tricky concepts. Decoration is, as GETinsight regular Gever Tulley (August 2010) explains, a form of “conceptual incubation” that I need to make sense of what are increasingly abstract concepts.
Technology, of course, has had a prime role in reinforcing the importance of design in understanding science, maths, and engineering, and communicating that understanding effectively. Technology as a medium to learn about these areas, technology as a means to construct tangible models of the knowledge and understanding we have, whether that’s through the magic of 3D printing or simply sharing one’s ideas through a blog, online, and having them lauded, applauded, or altered thanks to the feedback our peers leave for us.
Engineering was seen as something you’d think about when you got to university, rather than something school could pretend to bring you any expertise in prior to getting there. Technology was part of the newly created Craft, Design, and Technology, and it was great: You’d design briefs, draw and sketch by hand, make wireframes of your projected plan of action, and then, amazingly, you’d be given the life-endangering tools, wood, metal, plastics, and other stuff to make your concept become a tangible thing. I still own my bookshelves, tangram, money box, and trowel. In the end, though, the key component that I keep from technology classes is a skill that has more value today than any other: design thinking.
Teaching the Next Google?
Most nations have at the heart of their STEM strategy a desire to see the country profit from “the next Google” or its equivalent in nano tech, biotechnology, the life sciences, or green energy. But, when Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, himself turned to the issue, addressing the Edinburgh-based Guardian Media Summit last summer, he pointed out that England had “stopped nurturing its polymaths.”
“You need to bring art and science back together,” he said. Britain, he believes, should look to the “glory days” of the Victorian era for reminders of how the two disciplines can work together.
Unfortunately, in the pursuit of STEM excellence of those “glory days” most governments — English, U.S., and Australian included — are reforming STEM curriculum to look like it did in the Victorian era, rather than trying to deeply understand the point and working out how creative science, tech, and engineering firms like Schmidt’s got to where they are today.
For the past 18 months, I’ve been working with colleagues around the world on what is, to education, a nascent field, but which is, in the creative world I’ve worked in for nearly the past decade, business as usual. The traditional subject domains design thinking stands to benefit most – science, technology, engineering, and maths — are also those who, time and time again, reject it the quickest as being “for elementary school,” a barrier when “they’re just stuff they have to know.” STEM, it seems from the majority of discussions I have with mathematics and science specialists, is a subject area that can only be taught through didactic lecture, plenty of worked examples, and some regular quizzes on retention.
Design thinking, on the other hand, is a process through which content is learnt on a just-in-time basis, rather than the just-in-case basis that most science and math theory represents to learners (just in case it comes up in the test, just in case you need it to get to university, just in case, just in case …). Design thinking has a distinct bias towards solving real-world problems, rather than pseudo textbook ones, and often we attempt to involve the students, through their own initial research, in defining what problem areas they’d like to explore and solve. Without a different approach, — and design thinking has been one stab in a different direction — school, and high school in particular, risks becoming one four-to-six year hiatus of “stuff,” learnt just in case it’s needed.
The video clip above explains what design thinking is through some of my team’s work in Australia. We’re grateful to our colleagues in Brisbane for capturing our work over the past 12 months with them. Behind this overview clip, and the four detailed clips that explain design thinking’s process of Immersion, Synthesis, Ideation and Prototyping, you will see how STEM teaching and learning of the kind Schmidt pleads leaders to instigate can be achieved so well:
- It provides a useful structure for the learner to know where they are in the learning journey without needing told.
- It provides choice to the learner in what they’re going to learn, and how – the student needs to work out what knowledge and understanding they’re lacking in order to achieve what they want to achieve.
- It places the responsibility for finding a compelling area to learn and an interesting approach to learning it firmly in the hands of the learner.
- It always presents the whole game of learning, the big picture, even if students have to learn some “expert elements” along the way, they see where they slot in to a bigger, more epic problem they are trying to solve.
- It provides ample opportunity for formative assessment, quite naturally, and at the instigation of the student rather than the constant reminding of the teacher.
- Design thinking turns learning into just-in-time learning, where its relevance and meaningful context make recollection and application second nature in other domains (such as summative assessments and examinations).
Immersion: Observation, and Empathy
Immersion encourages a wide and deep observation around an “epic” theme, offered by the teacher. This theme is broad enough to allow for tangential thinking; specific enough to allow the teacher to second-guess what kinds of curricular areas might be encountered. The immersion phase also develops the skill of empathy amongst students, as they try to better understand the problems they have chosen — problems that are often beyond the scope of their own environment — through the eyes of those who experience them day by day.
It’s hard to teach that empathy/observation part. Teachers want to cover what they feel they want to cover. But empathy and observation is going to go beyond what you need to cover in any six week period, because this isn’t a six-week project. It’s a way of working, a way of learning that frees up so much time later in the year or in the child’s school career, with enough cooperation between schools. I wonder whether this is why 3-18 schools, independent mostly, are able to better understand the potential time saving and the ability to reduce the repetition most school students have to put up with.
Synthesis is where the problem(s) we want to solve come to light the clearest, as students group their findings in order to bring out themes. The process also involves the physical space of school as the place where ideas are socialised for the first time, often with people from outside the class, or even outside the school, through a project corner.
Immersion encourages us to keep adding, adding, adding to the mess of knowledge and understanding we’re gaining on a given subject, and then the process of synthesis can finally take place, where some order appears. It’s a spell, between divergent thinking of immersion and coming up with ideas, where you’re naturally heading towards more convergent thinking.
Key to synthesis is the project Corner. While schools often have student work on display, it’s the final draft of their work. It serves no learning purpose as by the time it’s up the children have moved on to learning about something else.
Ideation marks a change in pace. Provided the immersion and empathy process has been wide and deep, there is plenty of fodder to feed ideas.
This is also the stage in the process where we move from divergent thinking to convergent solutions-based thinking — and it’s normally where the traditional process of learning and teaching has tended to begin. Through design thinking, this part of the process — “Here’s a problem, now solve it.” — is totally owned by wholly engaged students.
Design thinking, by its highly personalised nature, means that the teacher can offer fairly generalist structures for developing ideas and still be assured of a highly individualised experience for each learner.
Prototyping and Feedback
The final two elements — prototyping and refining — offer a chance to transform abstract thinking into tangible working models of a solution: physical models or a blueprint of a solution in all its detail. Prototyping is a great way of quickly showing the people you involved in the immersion and empathy stage that you’ve done something with their hard effort. It’s also a great way to test ideas.
In the classroom, it’s one of the principal places formative, peer-to-peer, and self assessment is illustrated in totally concrete (or post-it, or papier maché) terms.
It involves deep discussion, something that often feels it’s rushed or bolted on in a busy, content-filled traditional maths or science curriculum. Kate Campbell, one of our teachers in this work, put it this way:
I can sit there and try to create resources for them to get engaged and motivated, and get frustrated when it doesn’t happen. Whereas if I sit with them and talk with them and spend quality time with them working with them working towards something of quality that’s they’re learning and you’re enjoying the whole process of learning.
This view is backed up in WISE’s latest publication by Charles Leadbeater, “Innovation in Education.” One of the key pieces of advice for improving learning comes from a highly successful mathematics programme in South Africa. Maths is being best learnt at AIMS in Stellenbosch through discussion, getting students asking interesting open questions. This works because they are engaged, and the maths is personally relevant every time.
What can we learn from the AIMS example? We learn the same ethos of design thinking:
- Most innovators don’t sit in rows, they sit in circles, primed for conversation.
- Learning is an active process.
- Every learner is motivated personally by the discussion.