AMSTERDAM -- On a typical Tuesday morning in the 8e Montessori School in the north of Amsterdam, two boys let out a cheer. They've just flicked a switch on their prototype river clean-up device, setting in motion its battery-powered cardboard wheel.
"The funnel is high to catch the floating plastic but allow fish to swim underneath it," explain its enthusiastic inventors, Mees and Sven. Like the rest of their class of 8- to 10-year-olds, they were inspired by a play about ocean pollution that kicked off their "design-a-thon" class.
"When we discussed what issue we would tackle, we immediately thought of the plastic soup (the expanding volume of plastic in the world's oceans)," Mees says. "It is a really big problem. It is nice to be able to think of solutions and actually be allowed to build them."
Creating is just one element of the "design thinking" classes now installed in 400 Dutch primary schools. In education, this approach focuses on identifying new challenges as they develop and finding potential solutions. As Harvard's Graduate School of Education notes, this framework can be used to design specific courses or for group projects.
Having empathy and critical thinking skills are crucial for this educational approach, says the program's inventor, Emer Beamer. An Irish native living in the Netherlands, she founded her nonprofit organization Designathon Works five years ago. Since then, 23,680 children have worked with design thinking principles and the project has already spread to more than three dozen other countries.
"In every session, two things happen," Beamer says. "The kids always love the actual making of things, and the adults in the room are always surprised at what their pupils are capable of."
Focusing on students' critical thinking skills is part of a larger global trend. According to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization in Washington, D.C., many countries are shifting their education goals to keep up with rapidly changing societies and workplaces.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development launched the Future of Education and Skills 2030, an ambitious project aiming to help countries answer questions about some of the most daunting challenges in education, such as preparing students for jobs, technologies and societal changes not yet imagined. Beyond math and literacy, children need to develop "transformative competencies," states the OECD in a note outlining the vision. "When students create new value, they ask questions, collaborate with others and try to think "outside the box" in order to find innovative solutions. This blends a sense of purpose with critical thinking and creativity."
A widely recognized problem in education is that these new skills do not fit the traditional grading systems. Measuring teamwork or problem solving skills is not as straightforward as taking a math exam or reading test. Rating scales called "rubrics" are being introduced, including in the Netherlands, but they are much more time-consuming for teachers to assess.
Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD and special adviser on education policy, predicts that continuous learning will become the norm within schools -- not least because future employers require it. That, in turn, will create a challenge of fostering today's students into becoming dedicated learners throughout their lives, he says.
"The dilemma for educators is that routine cognitive skills, the skills that are easiest to teach and easiest to test, are also the skills that are easiest to digitize, automate or outsource."
"Educational success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge to novel situations," Schleicher wrote in a manifesto.
Spillover Benefits of Learning Critical Thinking
Curriculum change already is underway in the Netherlands. Beginning in 2020, the Dutch government will require all primary schools in the country to offer dedicated science and technology education.
Lessons provide "meaningful context for the development of both numeracy and literacy skills and 21st century skills," according to SLO, the Dutch knowledge center for school curriculums.
Remke Klapwijk, a researcher at the Delft University of Technology, is part of a team that is midway through a five-year study called "Codesign with Kids, Early Mastering of 21st Century Skills," in which they assess the skills of primary school children in various schools in the South Holland region. Their research so far shows that pupils develop empathy and creative thinking skills by following dedicated design thinking classes.
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"We see the effects spill over into other areas of their learning as well," Klapwijk says. "It is crucial that children understand what they are learning while they are doing it. Once they realize that working on a technological design project teaches them empathy, they play and interact more kindly with classmates, too."
Klapwijk says that schools that integrate 21st--century skills into their curriculum also measure positive results in more traditional courses. Studies such as one by the Smithsonian Science Education Center support such findings. The Smithsonian report concludes that its findings "unequivocally demonstrate that inquiry-based science improves student achievement not only in science but also in reading and math."
In Amsterdam, visual arts teacher Anita Drachman has seen some of these effects in the classroom at the 8e Montessori school, where she works. This year, she was able to bring a design thinking program to her school and show colleagues how this could work in practice.
"It is powerful because it allows us to bring our traditionally separate disciplines together. We create a much more holistic way of learning," Drachman says.
Boosting the Incentive to Learn
In the classroom, this becomes apparent as soon as children start designing their creations. In small groups, they follow a visual brainstorm tool to narrow down their idea. Discussing real-world sustainability problems, they come up with products to help solve the issue. They use math to determine whether a plane could fly on solar panels, biology to understand how best to protect wildlife and nature, and science to find materials suitable for filtering water in an apartment building.
Throughout the session, pupils are encouraged to do web searches and use a dedicated YouTube channel with age-appropriate instruction videos explaining how to connect a switch and connect a set of battery-powered wheels to a milk carton. Using waste materials and basic hardware, pupils connect wires, LED lights and motors to their prototype. After several hours of building, they present the workings of their idea to teachers and classmates.
The application of theoretical knowledge to real world problems creates a much stronger learning incentive for pupils, says Designathon founder Beamer. "We connect to children's innate curiosity and empathy. There isn't a child who doesn't have an idea, and there isn't a child who doesn't want this idea to be heard and seen."
Beamer also advocates for the inclusion of children in decision-making processes, including on policy-making level. "I sometimes say that children are the last frontier of emancipation."
Critics may argue that the complexities of developments in genetics, robotics, nanotechnology and IT are beyond the capacity of school-aged children. But Beamer is adamant that the sessions tap into a crucial part of children's learning: imagination.
"When you do the same exercise with adults, they can take a long time to come up with ideas because they see obstacles and limitations," she says. "We often think that we have to make things small and local for kids to understand. But they are often better than adults at thinking big because they don't see boundaries. All we need to do as adults is to fill in areas of expertise they do not yet have and help them focus."
Danielle Batist is a Netherlands-based journalist. You can follow her on Twitter here.