Designing the Future of Education that Works for Africa, By Adetola Salau

While design thinking isn’t the magic solution to transforming education, it does have a significant role to play in creating these new models of education and preparing students to be future ready. Let’s bring back some of the joy in learning.

You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today. – Abraham Lincoln

We can all agree that our schools haven’t kept up with the pace of global changes. Yes, it is easy to lay all of the blame on the “industrial” framework that was laid done when schools were first designed or make lists of the skills we need to be future ready. The actual creation of new models for learning is the real challenge.

The truth is, this is the most critical task that we have to achieve – the evolution of our systems of learning to support and engage the next generation. There is no stability in our rapidly changing world as there was in the past. As business and government systems change at accelerated paces, we need people who are equipped to redesign and rebuild our systems. One clear fact is that learning is a skill needed throughout life, not just during school years. Unfortunately school leaves a lot of our students either stressed out or bored.

So, the main question is: How do we redesign our educational systems to engage our youth to both navigate an unknown and complex future and meet the challenges that accompany it?

A tool that we will deploy to aid us in addressing this complex situation is design thinking, which has recently received a lot of attention in the world of education, although this hasn’t been used to address complex challenges.

Basically, design thinking is a human-centered approach to problem solving that has been created by utilising the mindsets and methods of a designer. It has been used to develop new products, services and complicated systems, such as schools. The process behind design thinking offers an integrative approach to designing many aspects of a system so that all the parts infuse.

Explaining this with real world examples would make it more pragmatic. These wilI demonstrate how we could design the future of education.

In a previous article, I wrote about a supportive principal who allowed me to test out my theory on including educational technology in teaching 9th graders. This same principal realised that the pool of students we had came from our neighbourhood, with low ranking students who desired more for themselves beyond what they had been told to expect all their lives. He wanted to design a quality school that would be a model for other schools to follow and disrupt the belief that nothing good could be derived from these students. He engaged the parents of these children in various meetings, reminded them that these children were their future and got us the teachers to spell out the challenges we would face in the classroom with them. He got us to admit that we all desired change in the country and both groups expressed they needed help in knowing what to do from each other. We then got feedback from our students about how they desired their learning to be different from the traditional model of rote learning; they wanted their imaginations stoked.

The application of design thinking isn’t limited to the design of schools. Educators in their classrooms are also making design decisions every day.

This wasn’t a straight forward process; we researched various ideas, got creative due to the constraints of the systems we were in and voila, we had a new model for our school. We created a blended approach where our students were no longer passive receivers of information; we encouraged the development of a self-directed drive for learning, where we supported our students in the knowledge garnered to meaningful, real-world situations. It is a credit to this wonderful principal that he mentored over five principals and educational consultants (including myself) from the innovative approach he undertook to create solutions to the educational challenges in their community that year. He has grown to become more of a designer than an administrator.

The application of design thinking isn’t limited to the design of schools. Educators in their classrooms are also making design decisions every day. I worked with a teacher who took things into her hands about designing new solutions to challenges in education. We both taught at a middle school, it was classified as a crisis school, which meant we had a lot of oversight and trials. She noticed that her students were struggling with mathematics as the concepts we taught didn’t connect mentally for them.

She wished they could work on the things they cared about instead. Charlie wanted to help make the experience at school different for her students, but knew that she understood that she couldn’t change the entire model of school. She did however realise that she could do things differently in her classroom. In my book, Re-engineering Minds for Innovation, I wrote about her story in great depth in one of the chapters. Her innovation led me to see the solution and the confidence one has when one designs solutions. She infused my mindset with the possibilities of design thinking into collaborating with other teachers, inspiring them to be designers of the interactions in their classrooms and across their schools.

These stories represent, to me, the heart of what’s needed for the future of education – a system that fosters capabilities and resilience that allow people to work around the rapidly changing world that they are a part of, by continuously re-designing what we would like it to become. While design thinking isn’t the magic solution to transforming education, it does have a significant role to play in creating these new models of education and preparing students to be future ready. Let’s bring back some of the joy in learning.

Adetola Salau, Carismalife4U@gmail.com, an advocate of STEM education, public speaker, author, and social entrepreneur, is passionate about education reform.

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