Integrating Design Thinking into teaching: Nurture empathy, creativity and problem-solving skills through project-based learning
One size doesn’t fit all. In the rapidly changing modern world, we have to solve problems creatively and flexibly by harnessing the power of technology, knowledge, skills and teamwork. This principle applies to learning and education as well. As noted by James Heckman, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, education should not only focus on students’ mastery and application of knowledge, but also develop their non-cognitive skills, such as self-confidence, learning motivation, problem-solving skills, creativity and communication skills. Studies also found that these skills have positive impact on students’ future career success.
As such, DMHC Siu Ming Catholic Secondary School introduced interdisciplinary projects for Secondary 3 students in 2002, aiming to encourage students to apply what they have learnt and to strengthen their abilities to solve problems creatively and communicate effectively by working as teams. This year, the school tried to integrate design thinking into the curriculum and think from the perspective of students. “This great opportunity shows us that students nowadays are very creative, and that they are able to learn independently. They can solve problems by using their knowledge, practising empathy and observing. These skills are crucial to their future development,” said Lam Chor Sheung, the coordinator of the school’s interdisciplinary projects.
Encourage students to learn actively
When it comes to teaching, apart from passing the skills, imparting knowledge and resolving doubts, Ms. Lam believes that it is important for teachers to teach students about “learning to learn”, and this is the rationale behind the school’s interdisciplinary project-based learning initiative. “Conventional secondary education focuses on logical and systematic thinking training, and the learning process is usually led by the teachers. By simply sticking to a defined syllabus, this approach does not allow students to demonstrate their creativity, let alone developing lifelong learning ability. Therefore, we hope to encourage students to break free from textbooks and learn to learn through project-based learning,” Ms. Lam explained.
Jean Piaget, a Swiss child development psychologist, pointed out a century ago that learning should be an active process. The concept of Positive Youth Development that emerged later also advocates cultivating students’ essential interpersonal skills, attitudes, knowledge and experiences in education. By linking learning with what they will face in the real society, students are empowered to lead the learning process and explore different interests.
Concurring with this view, Ms. Lam wants to encourage students to apply their knowledge in mathematics, liberal studies and other subjects to solve various social problems with creativity, discovering a new learning experience outside of textbooks. “Their early project topics were mainly about science, such as making hand warmers and testing the water absorbing ability of different brands of tissue paper. But they later expanded their scope to include liberal arts as well. They would pay attention to current affairs and identify social issues before doing research, proposing solutions and finally presenting their findings. In other words, students only needed to use their brains instead of their hands,” Ms. Lam recalled.
Nurture positive character
In 2019, the school further introduced STEM elements to their curriculum, encouraging students to use their brains as well as hands, and to learn through practice. “As we are a Catholic school, we mainly want to nurture students’ positive character.”
Therefore, Ms. Lam has been exploring ways to enhance and improve the learning process. Last July, she joined the Design Thinking Certificate Programme for School Leaders organised by the Hong Kong Design Centre, where she was introduced to the concept of design thinking. “Although there were only a few workshops, I was impressed by the idea of empathy advocated by design thinking that encourages us to identify needs with a human-centred approach. If we solve problems with empathy, we can also promote kindness that makes the world a better place. And I think this is a value that students need to have,” she added.
In October 2020, Ms. Lam decided to give it a try and introduced design thinking into the project-based learning process. “I chose ‘healthy life’ as the theme, and asked students to focus on diet first. First, they had to think about how they could eat healthily. Then I asked them if they were to recommend their healthy diet plans to other people, who would they choose and how they could do it.” By asking these questions, Ms. Lam inspired students to contemplate these issues from their own perspectives, and the result was truly surprising. “Through such sessions, a student who cares about her father’s health realised that what he needed was not about changing his diet, but to improve his sitting posture and exercise regularly. So the student changed her project topic. Another student noticed that the stress faced by students taking the DSE exam would affect their health, so she developed healthy snacks for them,” noted Ms. Lam.
Learn from experience and improve teaching method
Ms. Lam is happy to see that the students could identify the needs of people around them through observation and empathy, and develop solutions with creativity. “We spent only 1.5 hours, or three lessons, to let students experience the essence of design thinking. This was a valuable teaching experience and is worth promoting.”
However, Ms. Lam admits that there are many challenges in practice. “For example, I notice that even though students can think with empathy, they don’t know where to begin when being asked to define the core of the issue. So they will need some guidance from teachers. Therefore, in order to implement design thinking education, teachers must first understand and internalise this concept, and find ways to guide students to think effectively. Meanwhile, we also need to allow more time for students’ discussion,” she added.
As we grow and learn, we have to learn through practice and make improvements. The same applies to teaching. Ms. Lam says she will continue to explore new opportunities to improve the curriculum by incorporating more design thinking elements, and hopes to nurture students’ empathy and benevolence towards the community at large and other people on top of teaching knowledge and skills. As a teacher, Ms. Lam shows her good intention to make the society a better place, which is after all the vision behind design thinking.