The Problem-Finding Generation: “Melbourne, What’s Your Problem?”

180 students in 36 Design Teams, finding social challenges that matter and developing ideas to solve them — and over 120 kilometres of facilitator walking. Just another week at NoTosh.

Ten days ago Team NoTosh completed the facilitation of the week-long Brighton Grammar School Design Week, in Melbourne, Australia. Over two months, we’ve been crafting a week that aims to go beyond projects that feel good, but don’t make much of a difference to the local community. A core part of that is harnessing the scale of such a big school — we trained up a teacher team to facilitate the experience alongside us, and brought over 180 Year 9 and 10 boys together in 36 small teams to both find and then solve problems in Melbourne.

A selection of the teaching staff had already gained experience in working with NoTosh Design Thinking, as the concept of this Design Week had emerged as a “How Might We…” challenge during a ISV + NoTosh Design Thinking Incubator, where teams of school teachers learn how to plan and execute learning in ways that really put the actions and thinking of the student first and foremost, not content.

As a team, we all worked together to plunge the Brighton Grammar students into five solid days of design work as part of their Boys To Men (B2M)program. The B2M program exists as a series of diverse opportunities to help Brighton Grammar students become resilient, creative men who are socially aware and have the agency to turn social challenges into action. NoTosh was invited to introduce the boys to the power of Design Thinking and thereby empower them to find problems for themselves, design solutions and make the world a better place for others.

Led by the NoTosh philosophy that successful innovators are those that excel at first finding and then shaping problems, we threw the students into a problem-finding mode by provoking them with the question “Melbourne, What’s Your Problem?” For many of these students, life is what most folk would consider pretty good — a great school, supportive parents, a beautiful environment in which to live. So, finding problems in the world’s most liveable city means looking at things through many different lenses.

This Design Week required the students to immerse into their city and find problems worth solving. It concluded with student design teams pitching their ideas to the wider community, supported by low resolution prototypes that they had built. Immersion around potential problems is the hard part of design but the boys ploughed through this and as shown in the following images accomplished a great deal.

The NoTosh, BG Design Week

The journey of the design teams’ ideas were displayed in Project Nests. An important tool for making thinking visible, Project Nests are not mere “designy decoration” but serve to externalise the journey of the Design Teams’ ideas. With all ideas and information visible to the whole team, each member’s cognitive load is lightened and connections between ideas can be found much more easily.

Getting the team’s thinking out for all to see

But by no means was this an easy week for the students. Stepping from the early problem finding space with a well shaped problem is akin to slipping from a pool after a deep water plunge. Whilst it is an exhilarating experience it is one that is capped off by relief when the deep dive is complete. When asked about a highlight of the week, one student put it this way:

“The end result. It showed all of our hard work.”
Problem Finding

Design Thinking pushes participants through a phase of critical thinking where, with an open mindset, they are called upon to be observers of people and places, seeking out opportunity for making the world a better place. By patient exploration and quality questioning, meaning comes out of this initial chaos. Our professional hope was for the Brighton boys to view their city of Melbourne as problem finders, while keeping in mind that problem finding is not a way of engaging with the world that the typical student is used to. Schools typically focus on providing students problems to solve. To give them the responsibility (and tools) to find problems worth solving represents foreign waters for many. But it is also a space where student voice and choice is a vital component. Innovation is about driving an idea forward and therefore the students need to take ownership of the design process to allow this to happen.

Evidence of the success that the design teams encountered was displayed in the significant social problems they identified. These ranged from street design, traffic problems, pollution, recycling, cracked pavements to underutilised social spaces and inequitable schooling and housing prices. The identified ideas were, as you can imagine, extremely wide and varied.

With social problems identified and shaped, a jump was then made into the creative solution space where ideation and prototyping come to the fore. This is a space where rapid ideation allows hundreds of concepts to emerge, that when probed and played with, have the potential to lead to creative solutions to those wicked problems found during Immersion. For the student design teams this is a lighter space where they go for Moonshot Thinking and build to think.

Ideation

Prototyping is a powerful and energetic space of learning. By building to think, the students see their ideas take shape in the real world. Rather than being told what to think, the students are able to grapple with their own ideas and move them forward in concrete ways. This is a delightful space where it is fun to watch the students learn as they prototype and evaluate their own ideas. This is a great space to continue the fostering of 21st century competencies.

Low Resolution Prototypes

Design Thinking is a rich vibrant space where a constructivist pedagogy comes to life. By actively synthesing Immersion data to find real problems, then ideating on solutions and building prototypes, designers build a strong familiarity with the space they are working in. For the students at Brighton Grammar, all of this dynamic activity was meshed together by rich discussions, especially when the moment of pitching ideas arrived. To improve their prototyped ideas, each team had to identify experts in the wider community who might help them with their problem. They then made telephone pitches to these experts.

Pitching.

One particular design team phoned a local council to share their idea of redesigned traffic flow through the Brighton community. The response that they received over the phone was “That idea is far too ambitious.” Click! That was not quite the kind, specific useful feedback that we had coached to boys to expect. Compare that feedforward, feedback experience to a response of “That is a big idea, but you could trial it by closing down the area for half a day.”

You can sense the significance of the “learning by doing” involved in these pitching activities as the teams learnt to socialise their ideas. We were all impressed by the students’ willingness to test their ideas on the wider community. At this very point the boys realised that they were not playing at design; this was real design. This was a pivotal moment in the design week where the students really took ownership of their ideas. They had found their creative confidence.

Market Day

Towards the end of the week the teams of students were ready to learn even more from their prototypes by sharing their stories with the wider community. Brighton Grammar had invited local community members, including design and marketing experts, to attend an afternoon Market Day. My colleague Ian and I were proud of those teams who had for various reasons struggled through the week but suddenly found themselves in a space ready to show off and explain their prototypes. A few prototypes were very low in resolution but they still allowed the teams to feedforward their ideas and obtain important feedback.

Ian and I were also rewarded by the growing confidence of the teaching staff at Brighton who assisted with the facilitation and enabling of this week. Their creative confidence also grew during the week.

Schools are continually looking for new ways to to provide holistic, interdisciplinary learning; to turn constructivist learning into action. Educational goals aim to equip students with skills to enable them to actively contribute to the twenty-first century. Current narratives in education focus on the need to develop critical and creative thinkers, to develop global citizens who can venture into a world full of wicked problem, emboldened to solve them. In this jam packed week of design we think we took the students to this space by connecting them to real world problems. From a social justice perspective we hope that we took them to that space where designers think about not ‘what is’ but what ‘might be’: in this case it’s a better world for everyone.