Vasiliki Akritidou, Director of the Design for Change Program, Vega Youth Center / Design for Change, Belgrade, Serbia

With an interdisciplinary background in Architecture and Visual Anthropology, Vasiliki decided to dedicate herself to working with the youth and to non-formal education. She has almost 15 years of experience in creating and facilitating training courses for young people and youth workers. She discovered Design Thinking six years ago and fell in love with it because it combines empathy with creativity, both of which have always been her focus. Since then, she has been designing and facilitating Design Thinking workshops for children, youth, educators and youth workers, and the most important part of her work is training teachers to use the methodology in project-based instruction. Viewing life as a playful experience through which one can constantly learn is her most powerful weapon that makes her happy, strong and optimistic, even in difficult moments. She is passionate about Design for Change because it helps her spread that attitude among children and young people. She is the Design for Change partner for Serbia and works hard to inspire teachers to use the methodology in schools and empower every child in Serbia with the “I CAN” mindset.

 

Instilling a desire to learn in young people has become a difficult task in the contemporary world. Children grow up in a world of instant answers (Google offers them in seconds), instant solutions (YouTube has all the tutorials you need) and instant gratification (all you can imagine is just a click away on Amazon). Desire is driven by scarcity and having the world’s knowledge so easily available in the palm of your  hand has resulted in children and young people losing the desire to learn…at least the way formal education has been addressing learning until now, which is through academic knowledge and acquisition of grades.

Life Skills in the Digital World

Fortunately, learning is a lot more than that. If the paradigm of non-formal education is applied, learning has a much broader meaning incorporating critical thinking, social and emotional intelligence and awareness, intercultural understanding, learning to learn and other life skills important for becoming an active citizen. The issue of developing these life skills has not been sufficiently addressed in the digital world: watching more informational videos does not make you a critical thinker and chatting with your friends on Snapchat does not develop your social intelligence. Since life skills are rare in the digital world, the need for them is increasing and igniting the desire for learning in this broad sense is getting easier.

The problem of formal education nowadays is that it keeps offering non-desirable knowledge, without placing sufficient emphasis on the much needed and desirable skills necessary for developing active citizenship. The Design Thinking movement, launched in 2009 in India, has been trying to fill this gap by offering a simple framework that can be used in the classroom to offer meaningful teaching with a focus on teaching children to feel good and do good.

Design Thinking – A New Challenge

With a simplified Design Thinking process consisting of four simple steps: Feel, Imagine, Do and Share, Design for Change has been proven not only to develop the life skills that students will find necessary, such as empathy, collaboration, leadership and more, but also raise the level of positive feelings of hope and optimism, as well as of motivation (https://www.dfcworld.org/SITE/Research).

In the Feel stage, students become aware of their surroundings and identify what bothers them and does not coincide with their ideal world. Children are going through a major mind shift. As we do not often give them the possibility to decide on what they are to study, offering them the chance to take responsibility for this process is their main motivator and sparks the desire for learning. As early as the beginning of the process, they raise the level of their own social and emotional awareness by acknowledging their values and comparing them with the reality of their environment. After listing a number of challenges that they previously identified, they make a joint decision and vote for the challenge they consider the most important and the most motivating. This requires an exchange of arguments and sometimes making compromises in order for the team to function and for students to develop collaboration and leadership skills, critical and analytical thinking. With the mentorship of their teachers, children analyse their assumptions on the subject and conduct interviews. Expert opinions are taken into account but the most important facts come from interviewing the people who are part of the challenge or are directly affected by it. In a world that moves at a fast pace, the Feel phase teaches patience and asks students not to jump to solutions (as people are inclined to do when faced with a problem) before they examine the legitimacy of their assumptions and develop empathy for the people involved in the challenge. By conducting an analysis of their findings, students pinpoint the source of the problem and redefine their challenge statement. Follow-up discussions during which the students reflect on each activity help them acknowledge their newly developed skills.

The next step, Imagine, lets creativity flow. Having a well-framed problem generates “How might we…?” questions that are a call to action. These questions are used as prompts for brainstorming sessions that invite students to let their imagination go wild and think of as many ideas as possible. The first twenty to thirty ideas come from memory areas of the brain and it is only if we aim for quantity that we discover innovation. When a brainstorming session is done correctly, divergent thinking is promoted and ideas pop up without censorship. All ideas, even the most unrealistic or nonsensical ones, are considered valuable and are written down in the form of a list because they have the power of creating new associations in the minds of the group members who are brainstorming. Here children discover the power of cooperation and learn that ideas can be interconnected and belong to everyone, while they allow themselves to make mistakes and be spontaneous. This is a powerful lesson for children who are very sensitive when it comes to being acknowledged as authors of their own ideas and those who are reluctant to express themselves out of fear of ridicule.

After a long list of ideas has been created, it is time to switch on the convergent thinking mode and choose the best idea. This is done in a methodical way, according to the criteria decided on by the students, such as how impactful, realistic or innovative the ideas in their list are. They then create prototypes of their idea in the form of a physical model, a storyboard or role-play. The prototypes that help the team understand their idea better are presented to others who can provide feedback.

Having incorporated the feedback obtained from the people who interacted with their prototype, the students move to the Do phase. This part of the DFC process distinguishes it from typical project-based learning. Design for Change projects are not simulations of reality and do not stop at the idea or prototype level. Instead, they connect the school to the community and give children the opportunity to implement their ideas in the real world. In order for ideas to become reality, students need to unleash their organisational skills, to consider their resources and to manage their time. At the same time, this step might force them to lower their ambitions in order to complete a realistic action. Simple solutions might be chosen over more innovative ones, but the important lesson here is that a small action that is carried out results in a bigger change than a big idea that never gets to be put into practice. Moreover, implementation offers satisfaction and develops the “I CAN” mindset, enhancing self-confidence and maintaining the motivation for future actions.

Finally, in the Share step, kids reflect on the whole experience, undergo self-evaluation, to become aware of their knowledge and learning and organise activities to promote their work and inspire more children and teachers to create positive changes. They create a three-minute video that explains the four steps they went through and upload it on the global online platform of the Design for Change movement. The video becomes one of many  thousands of testimonies DFC is collecting to prove that children CAN change the world NOW!

“I CAN” Mindset

Working closely with teachers, from kindergarten to high school, for the last three years, we have seen that the ones who systematically follow our instructional material report a transformation, not only in their students but also in their own “I CAN” mindset. In a country like Serbia, where teachers work with minimal resources, Design for Change offers a hopeful framework that reignites the desire for learning and empowers teachers and students to feel good and do good.

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