Future-proof children by teaching them Design Innovation

Why all schools should teach kids to Code, Design, and Make

9 min readMay 7, 2019


Living in a world where smartphones, computers, and smart systems have been so deeply woven into our daily lives, it is no surprise technological shifts have disrupted and transformed the education landscapes, but, not at a satisfactory rate. In a time of the rapid technological revolution, education has been the slowest to react.

Despite current efforts to introduce real-world problem-solving mindsets in schools, most of the mainstream curriculum and syllabuses are not up to date with the world children are experiencing today. 65% of the students in elementary schools are going to end up working jobs that do not even exist today and over 800M jobs will be lost worldwide due to automation by 2030.

Graphics by Codomo

According to the Future of Jobs Report published by the World Economic Forum in 2016, complex problem-solving remains as the top skill required in the workforce in 2020. This is followed by critical thinking and creativity, which made their way up to be the top 3 skills just within 5 years. This just goes to show how much the workforce needs creative problem solvers that we should be nurturing.

These estimated figures, as unrealistic as it may seem, are undeniably real when we look at the rate of technological implementation and commercialization just within the past 10 years. There is a pressing need to quickly evolve the way our society prepares children to take on challenges of the future.

Do not wait, start nurturing Gen Z-ers early

Industry experts such as Doreen Lorenzo, who previously served as the President of Frog Design for 7 years, are doing their part in proliferating Design Innovation (DI). They recognize the importance of teaching youths the importance of collaboration, critical problem solving, creativity, and empathy in today’s world through Design Innovation.

Innovators are nurtured, not born, and we should start nurturing these skills as early as possible. Harvard University’s Center of Developing Child states that children and adults alike, need the practice to develop and learn a set of core life skills to manage school, work, outside interests, and social relationships successfully.

These skills include planning, focus, self-control, awareness, and flexibility — also known as executive functioning and self-regulation skills. As the different areas of the brain mature during adolescence, their ability to function as an interconnected system improves. Practicing core life skills during adolescence helps the brain build the most efficient pathways to support these skills throughout life.

Source: Center for Developing Child, Harvard University

The brain is dynamic and changes according to what we do and experience, and the impact of experiences is greatest when specific regions of the brain are still developing.

Multiple studies and research referenced in this peer-reviewed research paper have shown that improvements in Executive Functions (EFs) were measurably significant and in some cases, large gains were documented when a certain intervention or program was introduced. Students who had undergone an intervention or program showed better executive functions than the control group and were able to consistently perform better in math and reading three years on. This goes to show how impactful it is to begin nurturing these skills, no matter its scale.

There are many different activities that parents and educators can use to boost children’s executive functioning skills at different stages of their growth. Most, if not, ALL of them listed in the report, involves learning the skills through play. Play is a developmental tool. Seen from IKEA’s 2017 Play Report, “desires for play and comfort help children to make sense of the world as they grow and develop”, “ it is driven by a combination of needs being met simultaneously”.

From our experience in designing and delivering multiple Design Innovation holiday camps to little ones as young as 6 years old; going through simplified design methods and activities in a playful but sincere manner do help to nurture their empathy to solve problems for others. They also deeply care about the problems that we showed them and albeit on a surface level, they were able to think from their user personas’ perspectives to generate creative solutions based on their understanding of those problems. Of course, they were just building their solutions using Lego EV3, but that really showed us and their parents the potential of a 5-year old comprehending human-centered design (HCD) and how it affects the way they think, feel, and do things.

Building core life skills through Design Innovation

The Design Innovation process trains and strengthens the connections between both hemispheres of the human brain. The more we use these connections, the stronger and faster they become.

The right brain is known to process visual, emotive, imaginative, and intuitive information. This is where empathy is harnessed to help children understand users’ perspectives and discover opportunities to work on. The left brain, on the other hand, typically processes information logically, verbally, analytically and orderly. This is how they learn to focus, plan, build, test, and critically assess their ideas.

1. DI enables youth to practice with real-life situations

Design Innovation encourages and exposes youths to real-life social challenges people face from different walks of life. A design innovation-focused course is based on challenge-based learning (CBL) principles. CBL is a method of teaching and learning pioneered by the education group within Apple. The goal is to make learning relevant to students by connecting large problems (i.e. water, plastic, and food) to experiences they encounter every day. A scaffolding of question-asking and exercises help students create implementable solutions to the challenge they face.

Both CBL and DI begins with an initial ambiguous challenge that encourages students to identify and define specific problems within a topic. Furthermore, students interact with these specific problems in a very real way inside and/or outside of the classroom. While using design methods to conduct interviews, analyze data, and test their solutions, they learn how to distill information and design objectives based on their observations and interactions with real users.

Skills in play: Focus, Flexibility, Awareness

2. Being in teams helps them spot and plan for emotional triggers

Collaboration is a major component of DI. The impact self and social-awareness have on students’ ability to work in teams are huge. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) takes place naturally when students work together because there are bound to be disagreements within teams, which may potentially trigger some intense emotions. It is then and there where students have to manage their own emotions and learn to take preventative actions — taking a deep breath, stopping to think, focusing on long-term goals for the project when such a predicament arises. It also empowers youth to become more self-aware and develop coping strategies for the heat of the moment.

Skills in play: Awareness, Self-Control

3. They take on the user’s view

DI is a human-centered approach to problem-solving. Youths are encouraged to ask people they trust in how they cope with the problems they face. Often, we teach them to empathize and emulate the pain that the users go through. Being able to experience the problem brings their understanding to a whole new level. Oftentimes, they have a breakthrough in understanding HCD after emulating the scenarios their users go through. From the emulation experience, they internalize the importance of being in the shoes of users in the DI process. It drives their DI process as they develop acumen in discerning others’ perspectives and motivations when they solve problems or suggest potential solutions for their audience group.

Skills in play: Awareness, Flexibility, Self-Control

4. It keeps them focused on personally motivating goals

Adolescence is a time for finding one’s place in the world; for forming a consistent sense of self that will serve as a framework for making choices now and in the future. DI encourages youth to discover their passions. Students get to work on topics they deeply care about e.g animal cruelty, single-use plastic, etc. Within the projects, they have the opportunity to identify what they are good at and what they like to do, be it design, coding, or making. This makes up half of the Ikigai lifestyle value that many entrepreneurs live by. The ability to figure those two parts about themselves is a great feat. It truly empowers young people to strengthen their self-identity, think long-term, and practice goal-directed behavior.

Skills in play: Planning, Flexibility

Ikigai concept

5. Growth mindset is embedded within the process

The whole basis of a growth mindset is the ability to change and adapt through learning. Individuals with growth mindsets embrace challenges, persist in the face of challenges, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism, and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others. Besides understanding users, the DI process encourages students to take on problems with an indirect and creative approach. Students have to craft viable solutions for a certain problem without a step-by-step guide. It means that as a group, students have to be self-directed and flexible in their ideation and prototyping approach. As they prototype their designs, youths are encouraged to generate a wide range of ideas, test it with users, gain feedback, and iterate their design by learning from their mistakes and failures. With the fail fast, fail forward iterative mindset ingrained in the process, the growth mindset is enlivened.

Skills in play: Flexibility, Planning

Current efforts in Singapore

As we move into a world where we foresee computers taking over a significant part of the workforce, it is imminent that children develop competency in comprehending complex systems and content to combat challenges and seize opportunities that arise as a result of the advancement of technology.

By building their core life skills and mindsets early, they will be more prepared for the challenging creative work that is awaiting them. Parents, educators, schools, the government, and the corporations in Singapore have all realized the need for DI to be within the school’s curriculum and are initiating multiple programs and competitions that teach DI and Entrepreneurship for K-12 level students.

The access and introduction of creative, versatile, and affordable educational technology tools such as the Micro:bit in schools is one of the main propellers for primary and secondary schools to begin implementing DI-based curricula. This is because the government and school officials all see value in the learning and application of key 21st-century skills such as programming, but the Micro:bit is merely a tool, programming it on its own it does nothing. The full potential of a tool is realized when it's put to use for a purpose. That purpose is to solve problems creatively, which is where HCD comes in, students have to know what kinds of problems they can solve and who will benefit from it.

In the last 4 years, governmental organizations such as Design Singapore and the Education Technology Department of Ministry of Education have been doing their part collaborating with institutions and companies like ourselves to conduct Design Thinking workshops and events for both teachers and students. JP Morgan Foundation is among the many corporate foundations that are partnering with institutions and non-profit organizations to conduct competitions that are DI-centric. These joint efforts from the public and private sectors are paving the way for Innovating Education and Educating for Innovation, join in the DI in education movement today. 👊

Want to start introducing Design Innovation in your institution?

You can do that easily with Rolljak, a gamified platform with guided design challenges. Rolljak seamlessly integrates relevant design principles and methods to supercharge your student’s creativity through play. Our distinct design challenge game modes involve widely used ideation techniques to amplify divergent thinking skills. Try out Rolljak for free here!



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