A parent of two young children, trained as a scientist, and currently a biotech consultant. I’ve spent the past few years exploring innovations in education and am curating a newsletter of “ideas to consider and things to check out” for engaged parents.
Like many parents, I’ve felt a vague sense of panic about the cookie-cutter arts and crafts projects that most young children are introduced to in preschool. The act of gluing together pre-cut shapes and googly eyes to create the same final product as all your classmates seems to provide little more than an opportunity to practice motor skills and the ability to follow instructions (oh and to sit in a chair long enough to complete the task!). These ‘make and takes’ (as an arts educator once described them to me) were one reason we chose a Reggio Emilia -inspired preschool for our kids.
Through the preschool and the wonderful Artful Parent book and blog, I began to value the process, not simply the product of our preschoolers’ creative output. BUT I struggled with this shift in focus from product to process nearly as much. A simplistic “process not product” approach leaves parents and teachers paralyzed by an “anything goes” and “it’s all art” mentality, making it difficult to formulate meaningful feedback, or to help children develop specific skills or learn how to use art tools for genuine self-expression.
So I was relieved that Erika Christakis, of the Yale Child Study Center and an experienced preschool educator (and parent), addressed this issue in a chapter titled “Natural Born Artists” in her new book The Importance of Being Little (February 2016).
“The problem with our catchy [‘process, not product’] phrase is that [it] doesn’t go nearly far enough. It’s encouraging that we no longer force every child to produce in lockstep the exact same construction-paper Thanksgiving turkey. Even the dreariest early childhood programs have generally moved beyond pure mimicry as a pedagogic strategy, and one of the basic evaluation criteria for preschool pedagogy is the absence of a model of what each art product is supposed to look like.”
And thankfully, she provides some thoughts on how to emphasize process without abandoning constructive guidance and leadership:
“The irony never ceases to amaze me: educators are willing to provide direct instruction in almost every imaginable arena except teaching children how to use art tools, the one set of tools that all preliterate children should know how to use but might actually have trouble figuring out on their own. We hide our lack of leadership behind the guise of fostering self-expression when, in reality, we haven’t given preschoolers the tools and space to express themselves!”
“But imagine what happens,” she adds, “when a teacher treats a substance like real clay deliberately, showing the children how to attach two pieces of clay together by making a wet substance called “slip”. She could show them how to hold the cutting and shaping tools and how to put the clay away and keep it covered so it won’t dry out, inviting the children to understand its properties and how they change under different conditions, experimenting with more or less water, more or less pressure – all before even thinking about making something out of it. This process takes time and requires confidence in the teacher and the child.”
“The purpose of this exercise is not to teach children how to make clay alligators and coffee mugs. The purpose is to teach children a predictable cognitive sequence they can apply when they encounter anything new: Observe, question, explore, reflect. Repeat.”
It’s critical to pay attention to this with preschool-age children, because as children get older, the majority get more goal-oriented and creatively inhibited. I’ve heard many arts educators bemoan the fact that by the time children reach middle school their creative confidence is often very low. At home, I’ve seen our 5 year old already focus her art making on the product and on adult expectations (because of her more traditional preschool start? her intrinsic goal-oriented nature?), compared to our 4 year old, who is still happy to make meaning from his elaborate color creations that have no identifiable shape.
Studies using measures of creativity have shown that creativity drops most significantly between kindergarten and third grade. Older children often provide expected responses and stop before original ideas emerge due to peer or adult acceptance pressures. And even if a child is lucky enough to be in a program that supports creative learning, it’s worth keeping Erika Christakis’ reminder in mind, that:
“…there are no limits to how [you] interact with [your] children away from preschool. Studies show that even the best teachers have a relatively small impact on children’s outcomes compared to genetic, familial and environmental influences.”
There’s so much more to discuss about this topic (and Erika Christakis’ book), but for now, I’m working on the first step: encouraging more authentic art making processes for my kids and letting them explore a variety of high quality materials to make something that has meaning for them.
Design thinking can be a powerful tool for innovation. While creators in many fields use some variation of this methodology already, it’s worth considering it in the context of children, in whom executive function skills (higher-order skills such as planning and organizing) are at a formative stage.
As IDEO CEO Tim Brown acknowledged in a recent HBR article, design thinking is no longer the fresh, new approach it was a decade ago. With entities as bureaucratic as governments and schools implementing it, it has spread far beyond its initial domain of product design (arguably losing its street cred along the way). But design thinking has not yet become entrenched in the mindsets of our youngest creators, for whom it could be a particularly powerful tool for creating and solution-finding.
What is it again, exactly?
Design thinking is a mindset for innovation, popularized by the design firm IDEO and Stanford’s d.school (both founded by David Kelley). In a nutshell: a process for delivering creative solutions. While most frequently applied to product design, design thinking can be a powerful framework for problem-solving and creating anything. It’s been around since the 1990s, has already helped hundreds of businesses innovate, and is now poised to do the same in fields as far-removed as healthcare, education and social enterprise.
While there is an ongoingdebate about its relevance and effectiveness, and following the process in a limited, dogmatic way is likely counter-productive, I believe it is still an approach that can prove useful to parents and educators in raising lifelong creators.
Design Thinking. Image courtesy IDEO
While design thinking encompasses more than the step-wise process above, let’s focus on this framework for now. Each step adds unique value when designing products and services to address the needs of specific users. Empathizing with the end user, defining the problem based on an understanding of users’ needs, ideating by generating a large quantity of possible solutions, rapid prototyping and then testing prototypes to generate feedback allows for an iterative creative process. As far as design projects are concerned, implementing each step in the process can help children find solutions to a variety of problems.
What if they’re not working on a design challenge?
For more open-ended projects of self-expression such as making art, the latter three steps, re-phrased as Ideate → Create → Reflect provide a more general framework, which most creators probably use already (instinctively or intentionally). While this is not the same as design thinking, having an iterative process with some of the same core steps seems essential to successful and sustained creativity. The methodology, particularly if practiced with intention, can bring focus and discipline to any project and help creators of all ages.
Ideating — brainstorming many ideas, and documenting them — is a useful starting point for any project. Creating using the mindset of rapid prototyping (in the case of art or other creative work — generating several drafts, sketches or models) can help children cycle through the process faster and overcome perfectionist tendencies. Reflecting is an essential step which develops critical thinking, and without which learning is incomplete.
Why are these processes important for children?
Besides the immediate benefit of increasing the efficiency and quality of the output, there are likely long term advantages to using this approach, particularly when incorporated from a young age. The design thinking process can empower children by providing an active, problem-solving toolkit, which they can then apply to find solutions to a wide range of problems. On a related note, it can help instill a ‘maker mindset’ which will be increasingly important in the future.
Learning to reflect is arguably the most important step in the learning process, and particularly easy to overlook with young children (a problem compounded by their prolific output!). But, as John Dewey noted, “We do not learn from experience; rather we learn from reflecting on experience”. This isn’t always easy to do (even for adults) let alone teach young children, but is essential to the creative process and to achieving mastery. By regularly including the reflective step in any creative work, it can become ingrained in one’s mindset. While “learning by doing” and “project-based learning” are terms nearly as over-used as “21st century skills”, their potential is limited if reflection isn’t integrated into the methodology.
Perhaps most importantly, awareness of and consistent use of this mindset can help children think about learning itself. Developing skills of planning, executing, and critical thinking /reflection will serve them well regardless of the type of work they choose. In other words, learning “how to learn” or “a way to work” will have far greater value in the long term than any content our children memorize, and this is the greatest possible advantage of using a design-thinking like approach from a young age.
“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” — Margaret Mead
The Reggio Emilia approach, which has increased in popularity in the U.S. in recent years (despite starting 60 years ago in post-war Italy), incorporates hands-on learning through long-term projects, and includes a reflective practice which relies on extensive documentation and reflection (primarily by teachers, only occasionally the child). It is based on following the interests of children using different forms of representation (drawing, sculpture, story-telling, dramatic play, music, dance, among the 100 ‘languages’ its founder Loris Malaguzzi wrote about) and encourages an experimental approach.
High/Scope is a newer approach based on the Perry Pre-school Study conducted in the U.S. in the 1960s. It explicitly includes a methodology of work (the “Plan → Do → Review” sequence) as a driver of pre-schoolers’ daily routine to develop Executive Function skills. As described on their website, “Executive functions include being able to break down a task into its components, organize a plan of work, follow through on it, and reflect on the success of one’s efforts.” By using the Plan → Do → Review sequence as a tool for developing these skills, High/Scope programs aim to make this process second nature.
Tools of the Mind is another early childhood curriculum developed in the 1990s based on the work of Lev Vygotsky (and covered by Po Bronson in Nurture Shock). The Tools curriculum is focused on developing self-regulation and executive function skills by developing children’s mental tools, so they are in charge of their own learning by working in an intentional and purposeful way. Children form detailed play plans and scenarios before engaging in make-believe play with others for extended periods. While engaging in play, they follow the rules which they’ve developed for each role, and finally assess whether they acted as planned. Learning plans are used for specific learning goals and reflection is incorporated into the routine.
Do any of these make an impact?
Whether there are meaningful, long-term benefits of using any of these methodologies in terms of outcomes is a fair question and I’ve only just scratched the surface of this topic. Both High/Scope and Tools of the Mind cite several studies which have shown positive impact on students, but it’s a complex issue. The Reggio Emilia approach doesn’t follow a strict curriculum and is intended to be modified to suit individual communities’ needs, making it challenging to make conclusions regarding impact. But I think most parents would agree that focusing on methods of ‘learning about learning’ and emphasizing skills such as planning, executing and reflecting would serve us all well, and certainly be better preparation for real world success than pure content based learning.
Ideas to try at home
So much to do, so little time! Same here! But as engaged parents, it’s worth at least being aware of and reinforcing processes that help children learn how to think and work. The key is making this mindset integral to how we approach any new challenge. By changing our work habits and process, we could all arguably innovate more regularly and rapidly. Instilling a similar process in our children’s work could transform the way they create.
For an example of how parents bring this approach into the home, the book and blog by Lori Pickert are a great resource. The former Director of a Reggio-inspired school, she currently homeschools her two sons (and I highly recommend the book for all parents). While not specifically about design thinking, it illustrates some of the same principles such as the feedback loop of ideating, making drafts and representations, reflecting and iterating. The book also has great suggestions about how to speak to children about their work and how to mentor them. Most of us aren’t going to home-school our kids, but being aware of these approaches can help us guide their school work and encourage their interests in a more productive way.
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Some Great Reads if you’re interested in exploring further:
These sources are a great introduction to issues covered in this edition:
A beautifully illustrated journey through different cultures which includes celebrations (India’s spring festival of Holi has a gorgeous two-page spread), natural wonders like the Northern Lights and adventures such as a canoe safari down the Zambezi.
Not related to Design thinking, but a wonderful addition to your home library.