Learning for life:
The universality of design pedagogy

Arundhati Mitter writes about how design thinking needs to be considered in new light in education to explore and apply oneself effectively in the 21st century

It is a dimly lit gallery at the National Crafts Museum in New Delhi. I am huddled on the floor with a group of wide-eyed 9 year olds from a local MCD school along with their Teach for India fellow. From a circular partition suspended from the ceiling, larger-than-life wooden masks surround, staring down on us. A soft, rhythmic beat of the drum is playing in the background like a musical score to this theatrical prelude. Our attention is on a series of masks – popular characters from the Indian epics. We are discussing their expressions and the qualities they may possess as characters. We turn our attention to a female mask – which is meant to depict Sita from the Ramayana. Everyone has heard of Sita. When asked about the qualities they associate with her, children come up with the words like devoted, kind, caring, beautiful and other similar positive adjectives. One little boy at the edge of the group raises his hand with excitement. He has a word to contribute as well. The word is ‘greedy’. We all turn to him with surprise.

‘Greedy? Interesting that you think her to be greedy, why is that so?’ I ask him.

‘It’s in her eyes,’ he answers. ‘Like there is something that she wants and must have – perhaps she felt that way when she saw the golden deer in the forest?’

This incident is now filed in my memory as one of intrigue and awe. To be able to push beyond the traditional understanding of a character, specifically map emotion to narrative, use visual study as a trigger to assess and provide clear reasoning are some key applications of critical thought, creativity, open-mindedness; skills that have come to be synonymous with 21st century education. To see this child demonstrate the same within an open enquiry of an exhibition was indeed heartening. It led me to reflect on the skills at play for all learners both in the past and present context.

 My induction into the world of an educator-facilitator has been an informal one, a journey I am still on. Interestingly, it has hurled me onto a path of some unexpected discoveries and deliberations, specifically on contextualizing the role and value of design pedagogy.

Image courtesy: Flow India

Today India is slowly waking up to the need of aligning itself to the paradigm shift in educational practice worldwide. In the last century, the concept of learning went through several changes, coming to rest on the dominant theory of socio-constructivism. It is believed that ‘learning is shaped by the context in which it is situated and is actively constructed through social negotiation with others.’(1) In other words, learning is constructive, self-regulated, sensitive to context and often collaborative. The Centre for Educational Research and Innovation documents in its research findings that ‘the ultimate goal of such learning – is to acquire adaptive expertise ‘ that is, the ability to apply meaningfully learned knowledge and skills flexibly and creatively in different situations. This goes beyond acquiring mastery or routine expertise in a discipline. Rather, it involves the willingness and ability to change core competencies and continually expand the breadth and depth of one’s expertise,’(2) thereby making learning lifelong.

Various pedagogical approaches such as experiential learning, enquiry-led learning and project-based learning are being used to develop adaptive expertise. It is interesting to note that the fundamentals of design education are not very different from such enquiry-based frameworks. Big-picture thinking, real-world exploration, horizontal link formations, process driven outcomes, sharing and reflection are some of the commonalities that such pedagogies share. On close examination one may realize that design-led businesses demonstrate some of the best examples of adaptive expertise in the projects they undertake for various industry verticals. Thus it appears that as a developing discipline, design has been putting to practice, for over more than half a century, what elementary education is merely waking up to in the last two to three decades.

The significant and yet underutilized framework of educational goals known as Bloom’s Taxonomy also holds an interesting revelation. Developed in 1956 by an American psychologist, Benjamin Bloom along with his collaborators and revised subsequently, this hierarchical model of skills and abilities classifies educational objectives into levels of complexity and specificity moving from simple to complex, concrete to abstract. Thus while ‘memorize’ and ‘describe’ are located at the base of the pyramid, ‘design’ finds itself at the apex, receiving due recognition for its complex and multifaceted processes at play. (Refer to the taxonomy diagram). Here again, the all-so-familiar design process involving the skills of research, evaluation, prototyping, developing and others that we often take for granted is evidently one of the most composite examples of higher-order thinking and learning.

It is not surprising how today many school systems are making a strong case for inclusion of design thinking-led pedagogy in their classrooms. However, one can’t help but wonder if design practitioners themselves are aware of the pedagogical intellect that underpins their practice. The understated nature of this methodology does little to endorse the strength of its foundation. Support for its advocacy could eventually provide the fundamental link to bridge the industry’s rather myopic understanding of the discipline.

(1) & (2) Hanna Dumont, David, Istance & Francisco Benavides (Eds.), The Nature of Learning: Using research to inspire practice, OECD Publications 2010

by Arundhati Mitter

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