A design for life
Posted 03/06/2019 10:21AM

ES Design Lab with teacher

By Jessica Thompson, Newswire

From kindergarten to grade 12, the importance of design is abundantly clear in the International School of Beijing (ISB) curriculum.

"At any given time, elementary students may be working in classrooms or the Design Lab on sketching and making physical design prototypes or learning to solve problems through coding or graphic design," says Sam Griffin, Upper Elementary School Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM) Facilitator at ISB.

According to Griffin, there are many exceptional facilitators who champion design at ISB.  

"In our Lower Elementary, our teachers are supported by Angela Maez (STEAM Facilitator at ISB for Kindergarten to Grade 2) who works with teaching teams to plan and deliver rich design learning opportunities," Griffin says. "Bec Taylor (Lower Elementary School Librarian) is another longstanding supporter of Lower Elementary design who works with Angela and me to ensure our units are suited to the needs of our youngest learners."

Good design employs a cycle in order to identify and understand a problem and the people affected, generate a range of divergent potential solutions, plan, develop, test, and refine prototypes and present design concepts to the community in addition to identifying any further steps.

Design cycle

The introduction of this design process to students occurs early on at ISB.

"We begin introducing the students to the design cycle in kindergarten," Maez says. "We feel it's important to introduce the cycle to them early because we want our learners to use design thinking habitually."

According to Maez, during this time in their early education, the school poses questions in order to help deepen students' understanding of what they're learning, which inherently helps them understand the world around them.

"Eventually, we want them to start asking themselves the same questions we pose in order to help themselves make sense of their world," Maez says.

According to Griffin, the integrated design units in the Elementary School are a key area in which teachers can apply ISB's L21 framework and prepare students for the challenges of the future.

"Design projects and design thinking are emerging as a driver for contemporary student learning," he says.

These projects give students the chance to practice self-direction, working on personalized projects to develop transferable skills and dispositions. They help students practice and develop empathy, understanding real-world problems from the user or the audience's perspective. These projects inspire collaboration both in critiquing and supporting one another's work. They also help students develop communication, interpersonal, problem-solving, presentation, and reflective skills.

The discussion of a new design process occurred in 2016 when a committee of ISB stakeholders wanted to create something based on precedents employed by MIT, Stanford and Google – just to name a few.

"This was an important step for our school because it demonstrates that we value design as an important tool for our learners as well as a way we can hopefully make a difference, locally and even globally," Griffin says.

At any given time, he can be found in ISB's Design Lab supporting student design projects, working with teacher teams to develop design lessons or units, or in classrooms supporting student learning with design thinking strategies.

"My main objective is to excite students about the potential of design," Griffin says. "Regardless of students' interests, skills or dispositions, there are so many fun and rewarding ways that they can engage with design."

With 20 years of experience working as a designer and design educator, Griffin prides himself on being an advocate for design thinking – combining iterative, collaborative, and reflective strategies to problem-solving. During his time at ISB, he has been monumental in bringing that passion to the school.

"The best part about seeing things in this way is that as great as ISB's students, teachers and staff already are, everyone shares a vision of continual improvement," Griffin says. "Design thinking can help achieve this."

ES Design Lab with students

An example of design thinking in ISB's curriculum

In grade 2, it started with the driving question, "How can we as second graders reduce the impact of waste at ISB?"

There was a discussion in which students had the chance to suggest ideas, with each homeroom settling on a specific area of focus, whether it was packaging, food waste or water usage.

"From there, teachers supported students to explore various interconnected concepts and problems, developing a case study for a specific aspect of sustainability at ISB," Griffin remembers.

Students conducted investigations, collected data, interviewed stakeholders and were visited by community experts to understand the problem at hand and work to find solutions.

Students then designed solutions such as awareness campaigns exploring communicative design, systems, and tactics to solve the problem, such as composting. Finally, students came up with product prototypes.

"This was our first attempt at an in-depth integrated design unit and while it's been exciting to see the positive responses from students and teachers, we have identified areas for future improvement," Griffin explains. "In this sense, the design of our integrated units is in itself, a process."

Both Maez and Griffin witnessed how quickly the children became inspired.

"This initiative was so beautiful because the driving question left the lines of inquiry open for each class to choose their path independently," Maez says. "The students not only benefited from this unit, our entire school community benefited from their learning."

According to Griffin, this process is actually more important than the finished product.

"Authentic design is about a process much more than it is about the finished product," he says. "When our students practice design, they undertake a collaborative process of creativity and critical thinking that can at times be ambiguous, open-ended and 'messy'."

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