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The Importance of Right-brain Thinking in Education

How teaching design to middle schoolers clarified one teacher's definition of the discipline.

Here is what I can say about my first semester teaching design to 6th and 7th graders: It was not a train wreck. I knew a lot about design, and I knew a lot about leading a group of people through a design process. But I knew next to nothing about inner-city middle school students, or teaching them. Mistakes were inevitable.

The idea that design education could and should start earlier is not mine; designers love to talk about this idea. I had been talking about it for years, but I had been talking to designers—not to teachers or students. To find out what this concept might actually take to achieve, I needed to stop talking and do something. I needed to build some empathy in context, and I needed to build a prototype.

I like to think of a prototype as any action that helps you answer your questions or test an idea. Teaching the class was that for me. A prototype isn’t really research (which can also answer questions) and it isn’t a discussion (which sometimes helps you ask questions); it is an action. It’s out there. A lot of people hate prototyping because this kind of experimentation can make you vulnerable: They often fail or at the very least have the potential to fail, and knowing you’re going to fail is not really in anyone’s comfort zone. But how often and how much do you learn from the safety of your comfort zone?

I signed up to teach through a remarkable organization called Citizen Schools. Citizen Schools is a national organization that provides figurative scaffolding for people like me who want to teach (in the form of helping with lesson plans, sourcing materials and, thank heavens, classroom behavior management). Professionals and hobbyists can literally teach anything they know using the tools provided by Citizen Schools. In other classrooms across the middle school where I was teaching design, other Citizen teachers were instructing kids in gardening, claymation filmmaking, mock trial law, and robotics. It was really something.

So how do you introduce design thinking to 6th and 7th graders who have never heard of design? I should have seen this as a poetic kind of challenge—a what-is-the-meaning-of-your-work kind of moment. Instead, as I built a loose lesson plan, I just felt ticked-off that I hadn’t chosen to teach knitting. I love knitting, and demonstrating it would have been easy and honest. With design I wasn’t even sure what I was selling. A process? A philosophy? I had to remind myself when you prototype, you often have to learn by doing. So I went for it.

I decided to take my students through one design challenge over the course of the semester. My constraint was that it had to be a problem that was happening in the school, not something like world peace or hunger. Each week would build on the week before and would rely on skills (which I presumed they had) such as writing, drawing, building, and verbal communication.

A lot of it went well. The kids chose a great design challenge: The lockers at their school were off limits to students because a few bad eggs had been using them to stash drugs and weapons. Students had to carry all of their books and belongings all of the time. Our challenge was to make that schlepping easier. We researched the problem, interviewed experts, and walked the school making observations, and taking pictures of ways students were working around the problem. The final prototypes were of a backpack that was also a filing system, and a website where you could design your own backpack with special features like hidden pockets to stash phones and cash to prevent theft.

The kids were great. They were earnest and curious. And to say they captured my heart would be an understatement.

However, teaching them revealed a stark illustration of the situation we’re facing in education, at least from my point of view as a designer. The skills or intuition I assumed they had for drawing, observation, and building were alarmingly underdeveloped. In short, any in-born human willingness to experiment, cut, glue, break, build, or paint, had atrophied.

I had set out to teach design as a problem solving process (which it is!) but along the way I had forgotten that it is also a frame of mind—and I mean that almost literally. In design, thinking “differently” is paramount. Often, that is achieved through expressions like building, drawing, tinkering. Using your hands to build, draw, and tinker takes the problem out of your head, or as some science might indicate, from one side of your head to the other. The education system, for myriad reasons valid and otherwise, has abandoned “right-brained” skills. Our culture of education has never put a lot of emphasis on these things, but as budgets for the arts, physical education, and drama dwindle, it seems to be getting worse. This is not just affecting students’ ability to make a drawing or perform a play, it is affecting their ability to solve problems of all kinds because it limits the practice they get at engaging these other parts of their brains. That engagement is what leads to new thinking. That engagement is creativity.

So, this coming semester I’m taking a different approach. I’m going to focus on building a little confidence in those right-brained activities. The working title for the class is, “Thinking with your Hands.” I haven’t finalized the curriculum yet (if you have suggestions I am eagerly taking them), but we’re going to build things, draw things, break things and act things out. We aren’t going to worry about solving some big problem over the course of 10 weeks, other than the problem facing so many school kids and most of the adults I know: Thinking differently gets hard when you don’t practice.

Kate Canales is a principal designer at Frog Design and an enthusiastic volunteer at Citizen Schools.

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