Why design thinking should be taught in every school

20 Apr 2018

Patricia Flanagan. Image: TechWatch

Silicon Valley’s creative process, design thinking, is uncovering gems in Northern Irish schools. TechWatch editor Emily McDaid spoke to Patricia Flanagan to find out more.

Patricia Flanagan is an expert in design thinking, having been introduced to the methodology in Stanford University’s d.school. She’s now spreading the message around Northern Irish businesses and schools.

I wanted to go behind this fad, to see what deeper meaning it can have for educating our young people.

“Design thinking is essentially an approach to solving problems, which allows everybody, for the time that they’re engaged in the process, to build their own confidence in themselves as a creative thinker,” said Flanagan. “It’s about finding innovative solutions. No idea is bad in this process.”

Apple has long been considered a pioneer at making design the very heart of its business, rather than an afterthought. It’s hard to argue with a success trajectory that’s built Apple into one of the largest business in the world.

Design thinking flourished for decades in the creative arts, and is now used extensively in the commercial world. Flanagan noted: “Product designers, filmmakers, artists and architects used this process for years, but then a company called Ideo realised that this approach could be used in lots of different industries.”

She explained that design thinking isn’t one thing, it’s two things: “Both a mindset and a process.”

The five-stage process of design thinking involves:

  • Empathy: Where you really get into the mindset of the user that you’re designing for – trying to walk in their shoes, as Flanagan explained
  • Defining the problem: Or, “gathering insights from their perspective to ensure you’re solving the right problem”
  • Ideation: “This is when we allow divergent and convergent thinking without restriction, generating lots of creative ideas,” said Flanagan. It’s important to note, at this stage, no idea is a bad idea!
  • Prototype: Narrow ideas down to what is “realisable and actual”. Create a prototype cheaply and without expense so you can test it with the end user
  • Testing: Test your prototype and loop back

Flanagan said that attitude is hugely important to the process. “Being very curious, optimistic, happy to deal with ambiguity – be prepared to have a go.”

Here in Northern Ireland, she has deployed the approach with 11-year-olds through a programme by Work West, at CBS Glen Road for boys and St Louise’s Comprehensive College for girls.

Flanagan said: “First-year students are at a wonderful age for this. They don’t have to be ‘cool’ yet. Our nine-week programme is called Thinc Schools, encouraging them to think creatively.

“Firstly, we ran through the five-stage process quickly, where they had the chance to design a toy – this was a high-energy session.”

She continued: “The next stage was to gather insights about their school, and they were divided into teams of ideally around six students. They learned to listen to each other, talk to each other, find out what it’s like for others; what are the things they felt could be improved at school for them.”

What sort of feedback came from this?

Flanagan said: “The toilets, they disliked. They said the school food wasn’t great. There was a lack of play space. It bothered them that the school uniform isn’t waterproof. And finally, and importantly, they have limited access to drinking water.

“We distilled that feedback down to define the problem, turning these statements into ‘How might we’ statements.”

How might we give students easy access to drinking water?

The students then built prototypes of their proposed solutions, which Flanagan happily noted were “made of junk”, as prototypes are meant to be quick and easy to test.

Basic business concepts were introduced, and students were asked how they’d commercialise and market their solution, if it was to become a product. Flanagan said: “So, in the future, if they’re doing a young enterprise programme, they have those skills in place.”

I’m sure you find this work fulfilling.

Flanagan has clearly been touched by these students. She said: “To see these kids, and hear the feedback they give from their hearts … Some of them aren’t brilliant spellers – even lifting a pen, a Sharpie or a Post-it is a big deal for kids who aren’t confident about their literacy – but it’s about getting their ideas out, having a voice, teamwork – and there’s no judgement.

“That’s a very different approach to standard education.”

Could this be taught in every school?

Flanagan said: “The kids are so hyped and buzzed after these sessions. Their confidence is hugely improved; they believe in their ability to be imaginative and to find answers to problems for themselves. That in itself tells me we need to do this with every young person. But I’m not saying it’s easy to do.”

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland