Teaching Students to Change the World

I am surrounded by 80 students from 33 different countries who together have the chance to design their own educational experience guided by the principles of design thinking, mindfulness, and international negotiation.

I’m in Japan representing DC Design, the company I founded to teach people the skills needed to not only design the world around them, but also solve the problems facing their countries and communities. This is my 4th summer in Japan designing the International School of Asia, Karuizawa (ISAK) summer school experience, which serves as the test bed and cultural foundation for the first international boarding school in Japan. ISAK is in it’s 3rd year, having expanded the concepts gleaned from the summer school experience into a full year format.

One of the foundational elements of ISAK is enabling students to experience the messiness of the creative process. We see ourselves less as teachers and more as guides who help students discover the reasons why certain ways of operating in the world are more effective than others. They learn teamwork, they learn grit, and they learn that controlled failure can be our greatest  teacher. Students learn these lessons by designing actionable solutions to real-world challenges that come from their own communities, including Kenya, Singapore, Malaysia, USA, Mexico and beyond. Before coming to ISAK, students are given the assignment of identifying problems within their own communities, and as they do, they select one that personally and specifically impacts them. They also interview someone else who has experienced this problem. These personal experiences serve as the foundation for the problem-solving process DC Design teaches at ISAK.

Students work with one another in small groups to conduct empathy interviews and select one student’s problem to solve. As students present challenges like mosquitos in the Netherlands, bullying in schools, teenage alcohol abuse and addiction to technology, they refine these into specific problems. Taking an actionable point of view, they realize that mosquitos aren’t really the problem; instead, the things which mosquitos prevent them from doing are. As the class digs deeper, the students see that addiction to technology isn’t a problem in and of itself. The problem is that addiction to technology prevents us from focusing on the things that are most important or most needed. These are the insights they walk away with: that the first problem we identify is usually not the real problem; that for every problem, there is usually a deeper, more human problem beneath that one, and that by identifying these deeper problems and their underlying context, they can produce solutions that exceed even their own expectations. 

Solving these human problems inevitably carries the challenge of working in teams. The students, as we all do,  hold subconscious biases and behavioral tendencies when working in groups. As I lead them through a session on team dynamics, it becomes clear to them how disruptive certain ways of interacting in groups can be. I ask each of them to write a characteristic of a teammate who is difficult to work with on a post-it note. As they write words like “always interrupts,” “doesn’t contribute,” and “shoots down other people’s ideas,” the center of each table begins to fill with notes. I ask each student to pick up a random note and read silently. Whatever trait the note contains is the characteristic they are going to embody for the next exercise.

I ask each table to collectively choose a team name in 3 minutes. As we process that experience, they tell me how challenging it was to agree on anything and how frustrating it was to be cut off mid-idea, or to feel like they were doing all the work. We repeat the same exercise, this time listing and acting out positive traits and asking students to be mindful of any negative traits they are embodying. After three minutes one student says the following: “We were able to come up with 4 different team names and then combine them into one this time. Last time, we couldn’t even get one idea we all liked.” This highlights the change in perspective that students will carry with them as they work on other projects throughout the summer, and hopefully as they move beyond ISAK’s walls as well.

They experience the different stages of the design process, ideating on solutions to problems, prototyping testable models and receiving feedback on those models from the students that are most affected by the problems in the first place. The feedback they receive encourages them to change their designs. This is where they learn of controlled failure and how it has the ability to correct their course and ensure they are designing solutions that respond to a real human need. As they present their solutions, they tell us about the blueprints they’ve created for actionable solutions back home, including a website that addresses body-image issues by advocating to reform school uniforms, a student-run organization that supports victims of bullying by making sure every student has a peer ally, and a campaign to attract a high profile celebrity to speak and sing about the problems of teenage drunk driving. We emphasized that their goal was not to create “magic wand solutions” but solutions that they could actually implement back home and it is clear from their solutions that they truly grappled with the realities of the world they inhabit. Several students have also launched plans for carrying out different design projects back home.

In education, the facts and figures that we teach students are important but it often feels like we’re trying to cram as much information into students as possible so they know where they should go and what they should do once we’re done teaching them. We’re focused on preparing them for the challenges of the world as it currently exists, but I don’t think that’s the real problem we need to solve. The world students will graduate into is vastly different than the world that currently exists. What design thinking offers students is a framework for continuing to discover who they want to be and what they want to create once the teachers and the parents are no longer watching over them every day. And isn’t that what we’re really trying to do? Isn’t our goal really to foster the development of autonomous, self-confident, and empathetic young adults who know how to solve the unforeseeable problems that will arise throughout their lives?

I think so.