Reflecting on the strategic project on Design Thinking

Beatriz Acevedo

Category: Anglia Learning & Teaching

5 December 2019

Exciting adventures take time to evolve and it’s normally after living them that we realise how wonderful they’ve been, how much we’ve changed during that time, and that the people at the start of the journey are often different to the ones writing today.

This is the case with our Anglia Learning & Teaching funded Strategic Project on Design Thinking to develop teaching and learning materials for a potential Ruskin module on design thinking.

Let me start from the beginning… as you may know I am an artist and an educator. I’ve been working in the Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) Business School furthering a number of Learning and Teaching projects on sustainability, cross cultural management, leadership and organisational learning. In all of these projects my magic power has brought creativity and art-based methods, to spark new ways of understanding abstract concepts, and encourage personal engagement with the pressing matters of our society and planet.

This combination makes sense if you think of me as a 'Creative Oracle'; empowering students, organisations and communities to re-spark their creativity in understanding ill-defined problems and devising alternative solutions. However, this clarity in my mission is something that did not happen overnight but by digging into the “itch” of merging my artistic practice with my mission as an educator.

The good news is that one is never alone in these questions, and I had the good fortune of meeting the talented Dr Michelle Fava who had been working on integrating drawing as a key part of cognitive and learning processes. Michelle has a very fresh approach to creativity, while keeping a strong belief in our power and responsibility to act in our communities. Although our paths had crossed before and we even thought about writing a book together, it was thanks to Chris Owen, former Head Cambridge School of Art, and Dr Andy Salmon, former Deputy Dean, ALSS, who saw potential in our partnership in relation to Design Thinking.

It’s been a long journey: it started by reacting to the World Economic Forum Report, New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning through Technology (2016), where creativity, interdisciplinarity and resilience are the most important skills to develop in our graduates… yet, when you look around, the culture of specialisation and atomisation of the subjects don’t allow such cross-fertilisation of ideas and knowledge. Moreover, when we wanted to create an interdisciplinary module, we were faced with so many barriers, we almost gave up.

Enter Sharon Waller (Director of Anglia Learning and Teaching (AL&T)), who supports avant garde projects as long as they resonate with the ARU Educational Strategy and the outcomes are clear.

We applied for and received an AL&T Learning and Teaching Project Award (LTPA) to fund us to 'test' the prototypes of the Design Thinking workshops with students of the MSc in International Management, coordinated by Dr Swetketu Patniak. Our work proved that students (and organisations) were hungry for this type of cross-disciplinary, out-of-the-box way of learning.

I took the next step and applied for AL&T Strategic Project funding which is available to University Teaching Fellows to engage in intensive, small-scale pedagogic research projects with full support from AL&T's Centre for Innovation in Higher Education (CIHE). It gave us the time and resources to experiment and develop our ideas.

From 2018 to 2019 we designed a prototype module of Design Thinking, as a test of the ideas that informed the Ruskin Modules. Indeed, it was inspired by the spirit of John Ruskin where education and art are both sides of the same coin; the Victorian philosopher/educator/critic/artist advocated for the role of art and creativity in a moral education, where participants were able to become the best version of themselves, play a role in society, use their skills for good, and become happier! Is this not the same purpose of our current Anglia Ruskin Graduate Capitals framework for employability? Ideas come and go, but the principles remain the same.

What I want to say in this blog is that all of this has been an ongoing playful experiment; yes we had objectives, aims, outcomes and performance indicators, but the whole spirit was to create a space to experiment, to fail, to discuss and to reflect about what is possible in education.

We’ve been very lucky to have had the freedom to experiment and discuss the pedagogical aspects of the experience and are grateful to Drs Simon Pratt-Adams and Emma Coonan, CIHE, who patiently listened to our doubts and frustrations as well as our ecstatic excitement.

The secret, perhaps, is that there has been a spirit of 'what if' in the whole process, while keeping a strong grounding in the pedagogical foundations of everything we have done. Moreover, not only have we fulfilled our brief by responding to the original objectives but created innovative outcomes like a visual interface for the module Canvas site, integrated all the elements of the active curriculum, highlighted the employability value of each of the sessions, and offered a clear/visual map for students to go through the module. Further, we have realised the barriers that we, as innovators, face.

For example, we wanted to invite students to co-create the Design Thinking module, and yet, we were rushed (by ourselves mainly) to go through the content, rather than spend time in the co-creation. On the other hand, we realised that students of this generation are not afraid of creativity – they live it every day! But what we need to provide is to make sure that this is not just 'fun' but 'serious fun' in the sense that each of the methods used offer enough freedom to play, without losing sight of the pedagogical foundations and learning aims of each of those 'fun sessions'.

Another key aspect for us was to break with the pattern of focusing on the assignment, but to assess the reflection during the journey. This perhaps was a major realisation for the participants, who regaled us with amazing testimonials of how this break was unique and beneficial for their own development.

As for Michelle and me, we have grown more confident about our powers and ability to merge the artistic with the pedagogical foundations; strengthened our friendship and partnership that continues despite the fact that we are now working in different institutions and; demonstrated the potential of interdisciplinarity and creativity in education that is firmly grounded in pedagogical research yet flexible enough to change during the process. Most importantly, we feel that we are part of a strong pedagogical community here at ARU, and the role of AL&T and CIHE in this endeavour is significant.

At every event I have attended this year, including seminars about distance learning, symposiums on storytelling, and conferences about employability, I have realised that we are doing something right here at ARU, as the questions and interactions with other academics and professionals continually prove. Not only are we on the right track, we're quite advanced, and I can proudly confirm that we are a community of educational innovators and trailblazers, with an incredible potential for influencing the world around us and our sector. We just need to believe it.

Our Strategic Project Report on Design Thinking includes clearly specified indicators and outcomes, and testimonials about the impact of the project on participants. And, very excitingly, it will become a Ruskin Module open to all students starting in 2021.

If you are thinking of developing a strategic pedagogic development idea that is still not well defined, or feels too risky, visit the CIHE website, or contact myself ([email protected]) or Dr Emma Coonan ([email protected]) to discuss.


The views expressed here are those of the individual and do not necessarily represent the views of Anglia Ruskin University. If you've got any concerns please contact us.