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31.12.2015 | Susan Crichton

Susan Crichton On Design Thinking And Curiosity

Innovative Learning Centre at the University of British Columbia, Canada

Susan Crichton

Susan Crichton is the Director of the Innovation Centre and the Director of Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on design thinking and the Maker Movement. She explores innovative uses of technology to foster creativity and imagination for educators.


Are schools teaching the skills students need?

It's interesting that you would say 'are they being taught skills?’ I'm not sure you teach skills, I think you allow students to develop skills. And it really brings the question - do you try and front load all the skills you think they're going to need or do you provide them just in time for when they're going to do something?

I think that what you're asking in that question is: is the curriculum really inviting kids to learn and develop the skills they need? And at this stage probably not, because I think the curriculum is behind where we need to go. But there are some places, British Columbia is one, Alberta in Canada is another, where the ministries have stepped up and they're moving the curriculum forward. In British Columbia we are just releasing a brand new curriculum, and so it remains to be seen - what will the skills be that the kids are invited to learn, and how will they gain them?

What are the skills students need?

Well it's interesting, what are the skills for the 21st century? We're fifteen years into the 21st century so it's sort of an old news question. In British Columbia right now we've actually just revised an entire curriculum and moved from Applied Skills to what we're calling Applied Design, Skills and Technologies. I think that's a huge step in moving to the right direction, and it's the heart and soul of the Maker Movement. It's saying that to really use a skill well or to gain a skill and to apply it to an interesting technology you actually need to involve the design process.

A lot of my work, and a lot of what I think is really interesting right now, is inviting kids and teachers to understand design thinking. So you actually think through in a process sort of way what you want to do, why you want to do it, what all of it is good for, and how you might make a change in the world that's worth making. Design thinking allows students to adopt a human centred approach to problems which encourages more optimism and hope in tackling 'wicked' problems.

How or when does learning happen?

I think the minute you have a little curiosity learning happens. I think you can try and make people learn but I don't think it works. The minute you trigger curiosity then people go crazy.

It could be at a dinner party and you say: 'well what was Finland before it was Finland?' You can either google it or you can have a conversation. If you're honestly curious you'll find the answer and you'll build that knowledge. You'll find a way to share it, and it becomes personal. I think this is what all of personalised learning is about - it’s empowering learners, empowering kids to want to learn and be curious enough to actually care.

And so all the stuff about real learning, authentic learning, really goes back to actually caring enough to want to learn. You can test people, you can quiz them, you can torture them, you can give them homework, but they're not going to learn it. They're just going to do it and hold it long enough for the test. But if you really want them to learn deeply make them curious, help them see a personal relevance and then help them to use it to do something that actually makes a difference.


What is the role of the teacher?

I think the teacher needs to be an excellent role model. If teachers aren't engaged in lifelong learning kids won't either.

Kids are amazing observers and they catch us as educators when we talk one way and we act another. What I'm hoping, as somebody who gets to work in higher ed and in the preparation of teachers, is that this time we do a better job and actually model the kinds of learning we want kids to have, and the kinds of knowledge we need them to develop. 

How can teachers be supported?

Teachers really need to be given opportunities to be learners. So a lot of what we've done with taking making into schools, which has occupied a lot of my time for the last while, is give teachers opportunities to be learners first and gain the skills they need to have to share with students.

Often we want teachers to teach in ways that they've never experienced as learners themselves, and then we wonder why they struggle to do that. So part of the maker movement and Taking Making Into Schools is we encourage teachers to become learners - to experience making, to go through the whole process of design thinking, prototyping, of wrestling, sharing, coming up with something, testing it and reflecting. Then we say to them: 'how did that feel?' and 'did that feel pretty good?' And you're in these PD sessions with teachers and they're absolutely wound up, they're highly excited, they're exhausted and they say: 'oh, I'd forgotten what learning was!'

If we want teachers to change, and if we want teacher education to change, we have to educate educators the way we want them to educate kids.


What are your views on PISA?

PISA is interesting. I was really thrilled to see they've added a creativity strand to it. Now I have a little more faith in it. I think PISA is testing what PISA needs to test. And those metrics have shown exactly what they needed to show. I'm not sure that has anything to do with learning. I think there's a huge disconnect.

We're recognising in the year 2015 of the 21st century that learning needs to be different and so everything needs to be different. The curriculum needs to be different, the ways we invite kids to work and gain knowledge needs to be different. More than things like PISA we need to return to things like Reggio, around how you make learning visible. How do I show you what I know? How do we invite children to make authentic and real demonstrations of their learning? Because when we see that, and when learning and thinking becomes visible, then I believe we truly can help people learn and learn deeply. Then educators can jump in and provide the support that students need to make that next step.

So the work of Elliot Eisner around making thinking visible, the work of Reggio in terms of making learning visible in those ways and documenting learning. I think those are huge. I think that’s much bigger than PISA. It really shows important uses of technology to create real portfolios that show what kids know and show how they learn.


What would the most exciting learning environment be?

I think the most exciting learning environment is a Makerspace, a multimodal Makerspace. Years ago we used to talk about 'Cognitive Construction Zones' as places where you go in, you're curious, and all the tools are there so you can just make meaning for yourself.

And that's one of the things we're trying to provide with mini makerspaces. Not complicated 3D printers, because there's really nothing more boring than watching a 3D printer print. The actual exciting part of it is the software when you're designing what it is you want to print. But it's equally fabulous when you're just gluing cardboard together and you're cutting things. And things that you've imagined in your head in two dimensions come alive in three dimensions. Or you start making ergonomic furniture out of cardboard that addresses the needs of a Special Ed kid who can use it as a physical support.

Those things make exciting learning environments, where the tools are there, the stuff is there, it's sort of like Stanford's D School but it's available to everybody. It's using recycling materials and found materials, and it just allows you to think in two dimensions and three dimensions and move space and thinking around. It's pretty thrilling when you go in with an idea and it becomes something. Like Eisner says: the minute it's tangible somebody else can comment on it and then you can start to make that thing better. That to me is a pretty exciting learning environment.

Personal memory

What was your favourite moment from your own education?

I wasn't a really good student myself. It constantly amazes me that I would somehow become a professor.

I think probably a favourite memory was in second grade, with a teacher who was truly a constructionist teacher. We made things, I can remember to this day sitting there and making a California Mission out of sugar cubes. Actually making it and understanding proportion and ratio and shapes. And getting to actually work with my classmates, with the teacher helping out. Doing these things where you ended up with something tangible.  

I think that is what makes really legitimate memories. When you've got something tangible that you can talk about and share, it's a little more real than the abstract stuff that a lot of testing is. Unfortunately a lot of school is abstraction.

The next 100 years

The next 100 years of Finnish education should... be the most exciting possible. It should be helping students make learning relevant, visual and important for themselves.

It should make a difference not only for the people in Finland but for the people all over the world, because heaven only knows there's enough problems to go around.

The next 100 years of education in Finland should make a difference.