Earlier this week I spent the morning at the Ipsley CE RSA Academy, a middle school in the West Midlands. I was working with a group of year 8 students (aged 12 & 13) on their Pupil Design Award project entries.
One of the first conversations I had with a student went something a little like this:
Me: So, how’s your project coming along?
Him: Shrugs, and looks like a) he would rather be anywhere else in the world and b) I am a boring old woman. He is only 13 – I try not to take it personally...
Me: What’s wrong? Why aren’t you enjoying the project?
Him: I’m not interested in it. Long, dramatic pause… I’m not interested in ANYTHING.
Me: You must be interested in SOMETHING. What’s your favourite thing?
Him: Computer games
Me: Great! So why don’t you design a computer game?
The idea of bringing his interests and hobbies into his school work had not even crossed his mind, but it was like a light bulb had been switched on. For the rest of the hour long lesson he was hard at work with his partner, brainstorming, sketching ideas and coming up with a fantastic concept for a game, which would be designed in collaboration with the older generation in order to educate youth of today about modern history.
His wasn’t the only brilliant idea in the room: We had a solar powered ‘fun bus’, which a student was working on “because I just really, really like busses”, and a group of label and fashion conscious teens designing a weather-sensitive branded hoody.
It became increasingly clear during my afternoon at the school that the kids who were answering the design briefs with a product or subject they were genuinely interested in were engaging with the project more than others.
This sounds incredibly simple, but by giving the kids back a choice (the ‘power to create’ maybe?) it seemed that they would better engage with the design process.
In the most recent Design & Technology Association magazine, Andy Mitchell comments on the importance of setting students design challenges which are “real, meaningful [and] provide opportunity for real design decision making”. Projects which provide “a range of starting points that result in risk taking and innovation” that requires a more “iterative” approach, “kicking into touch the artificial linear model that has become so prevalent”.
I couldn’t agree more. We still see so much of this ‘linear’ model in D&T education. Prescriptive projects such as ‘design a clock’ (which I vividly remember working on in my D&T classes over 10 years ago) are still prevalent, and while these projects do involve some design decisions as well as teaching valuable practical skills, there is no opportunity for the kids to take real ownership of the content. They have no power.
But I think that there’s more to it than that. The Design Commission’s new ‘Designing the Digital Economy' report touches on ‘Fusion’ learning - teaching a mixture of complementary skills which would all be applied in the workplace, rather than learning on a very isolated subject by subject level. An example of this is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), and Rhode Island School for Design has taken this one step further, campaigning for ‘STEAMD’ – a mega combination of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Maths and Design.
Last night I was having a conversation with my Dad (a designer himself) about Fusion learning. He told me a story about when he was at school AGES AGO (sorry Dad!) and just 10 years old. He was in the B stream - the ‘lower ability’ group. He enjoyed art but really struggled to engage with subjects like Maths. This was recognised by (a seemingly very forward thinking) Mr Perkins, who worked with my dad to devise his very own special project which he could do instead of his regular lessons. He decided that he wanted to make a scale model ‘dolls house’ of the classroom annex – the key here being that he was given a choice.
He went on to meticulously measure every part of the classroom, draw an accurate plan, and convert these measurements to scale before designing, building and painting a model. He had applied a huge range of skills from Maths, Art, Design and Technical Drawing into one project, and it hadn’t felt like a ‘lesson’ at all. 50 years on, this still sticks out as his favourite experience at school. I argue that this is because he was given the power to choose what he wanted to create.
If we could combine this idea of fusion learning with the Pupil Design Awards’ ethos of giving school kids the choice of brief, medium and subject matter, I believe we could not only better equip students for the realities of the working world, but also engage them with subjects that they had previously written off.
I’d love to hear about any practical examples of fusion learning and giving students wider choice – feel free to write in the comments below, tweet me @hilarychitty or email me Hilary.firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to know more about the Pupil Design Awards, get in touch, or download the project pack.