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How young people are shaping social change despite Covid-19 challenges

Blog

  • Creativity
  • Curriculum
  • Design
  • Youth engagement

The RSA Pupil Design Awards is over for another year and, once again, we’ve been struck by the creativity and confidence of young people in employing design for social change. This year, they’ve also demonstrated remarkable resilience.

To say the past five months have been challenging for pupils and teachers would be an understatement. They have been adapting to remote learning and worrying about the implications of missed hours of teaching and learning, while facing the health, social and economic anxieties of a global pandemic. Yet despite this, we’ve seen thoughtful and optimistic ideas from a diversity of schools, rooted in a desire to make a positive difference to their communities and the natural environment.

We are always impressed with the teachers and young people we work with at the RSA, but it feels particularly important to recognise their achievements during this moment. This is a crisis in which schools have gone above and beyond to ensure the best possible outcomes for their pupils, and in particular the wellbeing and safety of the most vulnerable children.

Understandably, not all schools that originally signed up were able to continue with the competition. For those that were, we had to react quickly to adapt the programme. We kept the following aims close as we endeavoured to keep things moving for pupils and teachers.

Aims of the Pupil Design Awards

The Pupil Design Awards aims to broaden definitions of how design can be applied and to introduce social design to teachers and pupils. We encourage pupils to think not just about whether their proposal makes a positive difference to society and the environment, but how it does this.

We also aim to give young people opportunities to connect with communities, something which felt increasingly vital as school closures became more inevitable. We asked teachers what support they needed to help pupils apply design thinking in a social context and provided training webinars for schools.

As well as the importance of being able to communicate the impact of an idea, we’re also keen to understand how a young person has reached that point – their ‘design thinking journey’. This thinking is crucial for achieving the third aim of the competition. We strive to boost the creative confidence of young people by encouraging pupils to challenge their own ideas and assumptions until they’ve reached an idea that fully addresses their brief. We also encourage pupils to feel confident in communicating that iterative journey.

Judging and selecting our winners

As pupils worked on their proposals from home, we were able to provide online mentoring support from previous RSA Student Design Awards winners. Furthermore, we created a supportive online judging process that enabled students to comfortably and confidently share their work.

We were thrilled to see so many original ideas, such as Bluetooth-activated air diffusers, medical equipment made by repurposing chemical compounds in chewing gum, and reusable multipurpose clothes hangers. You can (and should!) read more about our winning projects and feedback from judges.

Supporting young people to make positive change

Beyond these brilliant ideas, the diversity of the responses, and the fact that we received as many entries as we did, tells us so much about the spirit and willingness of young people to engage in creative social action projects. Pupils were articulate, confident and thorough when communicating their ideas to judges during interviews. Despite setbacks, it’s clear that young people across the country are eager and able to make change happen today – they just need the support in doing so.

There is therefore a case to be made for embedding these opportunities into the school curriculum, particularly for pupils who wouldn’t ordinarily have many creative opportunities outside of school. As my colleague Colin Hopkins has recently argued, curriculum is one area of education policy that the Covid-19 crisis has catalysed a need for change in. We see this predominantly in terms of a shift towards building skills such as creativity, critical thinking and systems analysis – all of which are developed through the Pupil Design Awards.

Next steps for the Pupil Design Awards

For now, we’re enthusiastic about starting the competition again with schools in the autumn. Whether around public health, educational equality, racial justice or climate action, we can’t wait to engage young people in the most challenging issues of the day. We’ve seen the benefits and potential of working online to support teachers and are keen to further connect them with design professionals, and support greater collaboration between schools and the design world.

Teachers and pupils are now beginning to break up for their summer holidays. While the difficulties experienced this year are likely to continue into September, we think now more than ever it’s important to promote the benefits of design thinking, to give all young people the opportunities and skills to shape social change.


Find out more about the Pupil Design Awards and sign up for the 2020/21 competition.

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