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Design and empathy in a 21st century education

Toddlers at play have got it, design students are re-learning it and multinationals want workers who have it.  Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Fellow Terry Deen discusses the skillset he is exploring at the Smithsonian Design Museum in New York...

Working with the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s (CHSDM) education team has enabled me to research and engage with best practice design education.  I believe that design thinking has the potential to teach 21st century skills and that empathy is a catalyst for quality design education.  Recent professional reading has led me to the work of economist and cultural theorist Jeremy Rifkin.  In light of recent economic disasters, Rifkin’s Empathic Civilisation (2010) proclaimed that ‘we are homo-empathicus’.  Researchers from the fields of cognitive neuroscience, child development and behavioural psychology, have found that mirror-neurons in the brains of humans and our fellow mammals are driven by empathic inclinations for collaborative learning.  This inspiring scientific knowledge has reaffirmed my belief that empathy is integral to the design process. 

On one hand it is understandable to feel a sense of envy when observing the educational opportunities on offer to today’s homo-empathic students.  The existence of online design education communities such as the Asia Pacific Design Library’s (APDL) DesignMinds and the CHSDM’s Education Resource Centre (ERC) evidence the benefits of education in the digital age.  On the other hand, current data heavy systems, mean that students are encountering standardised testing more frequently than when I went to school fourteen years ago.  Australian and American educators share the challenge of balancing innovation with standardisation.  In both countries, data-driven debate over ‘quality teachers’ has limited public awareness of the demand for 21st century skills, the shift from STEM to STEAM, and the multi-disciplinary scope of design education.

21st century skills of empathy, collaboration, leadership, communication, perseverance and creativity are the essential skills of toddlers at play, just as they are the sought after skillsets of multinationals seeking the competitive edge.  So called ‘soft’ skills, or worse yet, ‘non-cognitive’ skills are now viewed as vital for success in a 21st century economy.  The three cross-curricula priorities of the Australian National Curriculum (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives; Asia and our engagement with Asia; Sustainability, ACARA, 2013) exemplify the need for learning through perspective taking.  Design thinking offers teachers across all educational silos a means of engaging students with curriculum in a manner that recognises their need to develop 21st century skills and values their homo-empathic nature.

We are better at what we do, when we understand: our audience, our customers, our collaborators, our neighbours, our users.  Design places the user at the heart of the design process.  Design education teaches students to engage collaboratively to meet the needs of users.  In my experience, to design quality education, teachers must do the same.

As I near the half-way point in my Cooper Hewitt fellowship I am refining my own processes as an empathic thinker and as a design educator.  Whether I am reading about mirror-neurons, collaborating with colleagues, advocating for Queensland design or delivering professional development; my role as the Queensland Cooper Hewitt fellow has shifted my perspective and strengthened my drive to teach through design.  Design thinking is cross-disciplinary, complementary to existing pedagogical frameworks and pertinent to the delivery of the Australian National Curriculum.  Most importantly, design education increases and sustains student engagement in the 21st century classroom.  I look forward to collaborating with APDL’s DesignMinds and supporting the growth of design education throughout Queensland.

Terry Dean
Terry Deen has taught Art, Design and English to middle and senior school students in urban and regional Queensland schools.  Since 2011, he has worked within the Art and Design department at Kelvin Grove State College, a large and collaborative faculty with a tradition of leadership in Queensland design education.  Terry is the recipient of the 2014 Queensland Cooper Hewitt Fellowship, a role which sees him working alongside the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum’s Education Team on New York City’s iconic Museum Mile.




Feature photo:  Terry Deen and a new exhibition at the Smithsonian Cooper Design Museum, NYC