Had a recent interesting conversation with Martin Rayala, who is spearheading an effort to bring more design education into schools at the K-12 levels. Rayala, whose website “And design” (anddesignmagazine.blogspot.com) is definitely worth checking out, is one of the leaders of a small grassroots group called The International Design Education Alliance for Schools (IDEAS). The group will be going to Washington, D.C., on April 13 to hold a forum on the future of design education, with representatives of the Obama administration expected to be in attendance.
Rayala believes that kids should be taught about design—and should be taught how to think like designers—at a very early age. “The world is going to need more and more people with the skills to identify problems, visualize solutions, and then start prototyping and implementing those ideas,” Rayala told me. “We’re going to need these kinds of creative problem solvers to improve our cities, to deal with environmental issues—but we have to start giving more young people the basic skills to do this.”
I shared with Rayala my own view that it seems as if kids already do start out thinking and behaving like designers—and somewhere along the line, the education process moves them away from that kind of behavior. For example, designers are adept at “asking stupid questions” and looking at the world around them with a fresh eye; and who does that more naturally than children? Designers also tend to be very close observers of human behavior, as are kids. And designers are good at connecting ideas that might be seem to be unrelated, which kids do all the time. Designers sketch and draw a lot, as do children. And designers tend to build things, only to break them down and start building all over again—another childlike behavior. Above all, a good designer likes to experiment and generally is not discouraged by small setbacks along the way—the same quality that enables kids to be such great natural learners.
So where does it all go wrong in the education system, in terms of moving kids away from some of these inherent tendencies? When I talked to Richard Saul Wurman about this, he noted that early on, schools seem to teach kids that it’s wrong to ask a lot of questions; smart students are supposed to raise their hands with answers, not with more questions, Wurman noted. Another design educator I spoke with, George Kembel of Stanford University, pointed out that our current education process also seems to discourage the experimental, test-and-learn approach to making things. We’re taught that the school project or term paper must be “perfect” before we show it to anyone. No rough sketches or flawed prototypes allowed.
Rayala is hoping that by bringing more design education into schools, students can get beyond memorizing rote answers for tests and start doing some more interesting things—“like looking at the world around them and figuring out how to change it,” he says. That could include changing their own schools: Rayala believes that if we teach kids how to design, one of the first things they’re apt to do is design a classroom environment around them that is more inventive, expressive, and interactive. Then, once they’ve redesigned their world, maybe they can come and help the rest of us fix ours.
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