The Instructional Power of Creativity, Design and Empathy in High School Curriculum

Written by Charles James

website testimageIt is time to connect our classrooms and students with the world.

Food for the Soul

When you walk into the large basement of the church and look at the faces and ages of the group, you are looking at the reality of homelessness in Washington, D.C. Each person’s story and struggle vary. As part of our school’s Identity and Service Learning class, ninth grade students from St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland are dining with the meal participants as a way to hear and understand the stories and apply a creative and empathic design process to solve some of the challenges they hear about. One student, (we will call him) John, is speaking with an elderly gentleman named, (we will call him) Adam. As they talk, the conversation stops abruptly as Adam rifles through his backpack in search of his nitro-glycerin tablets. The students sense the urgency of the search and once the tablets are found, they hear the story about the medical necessity of the prescription that Adam was so keen to find. After about an hour, lunch and conversation come to an end. If the service learning experience ended with that single interaction and lunchtime conversation, there is no doubt that the stories the students heard elicited strong emotions. But schools today must do more than simply illicit emotion – they must inspire creativity and engage students in the process of empathic design.

Our philosophy is a simple one:

Design is the process. Creativity is the mindset. Imagination is the root. Humanity is the purpose. Innovation is the result.

In its truest and best form, this process is best applied to human need. The service learning class addresses meaningful problems in our community. We use empathy to guide research and creativity to design solutions. Through the design process, students can give tangible expression to the meaning they experience. Schools should be the place where students’ creativity is combined with deep content, relevant skills and innovative finesse.

Once back at school, students process what they saw and heard from a systemic policy perspective and a more personal perspective. Students grapple with a host of questions. “What do we need to solve this problem?” “What skills do we need?” “How can this person’s life be made better?” In John’s case, the design process produced an easy access pill case that Adam could wear on his wrist. John had been disturbed by Adam’s frantic search for his nitro-glycerin tablets. Designing a solution became John’s project and his ongoing connection to Adam.

The Theory and Art of Moving Cemeteries

In education today, universities are making a decisive shift toward education that is more socially minded and connected to communities. The class at St. Andrew’s operates on the belief that high schools, too, should be at the vanguard of change. We introduce a style of authentic social engagement that can help students develop the creative and academic acumen necessary to solve social problems. For schools with local ties to partner organizations and communities, this course offers a framework for making instruction more authentic, creative, and engaged with the needs of local communities. Encouraging empathic engagement in this way brings out the best in our students, allows for creative thinking, and nurtures the well-being of all involved.

Such change at the high school level is not easy. An old saying goes “it is easier to move a cemetery than change school curricula.” The decline of critical and practical thinking in many high schools comes from the decades-old predominance of test-based evaluation, a lack of authentic applied learning projects, and the absence of real sustained community engagement. The next generation of high school instructional innovation will not come simply from new technologies or textbooks, but rather from creative energy and social engagement with communities beyond the classroom.

Research in neuroscience repeatedly supports the idea that the design process builds plasticity in the brain and develops the capacity of students to creatively ponder challenges and seek solutions. Students’ concern about the world and other people is nourished and animated by the expressive side of the design process. Design thinking in our schools is perhaps the best hope education has of linking the academic world of knowledge with the necessary 21st-century skills our world and workforce demand. Solving a problem for someone else requires students to explore materials, construct a solution, and in so doing, rewire the brain’s neural pathways. The link between the pairing of creativity and empathic design is mutually beneficial for both learning and brain development.

According to Ronald Kotulak in his 1996 book Inside the Brain, an enriched environment that includes creative elements like design thinking can produce a 25% increase in the number of brain’s neural connections – both early and later in life. Neuroscience research suggests that the brain learns best when confronted with a balance of stress and comfort: high challenge and low threat. The brain needs some challenge, or problems that generate stress sufficient to activate learning. Too much stress and the body’s atavistic responses take over. Too little stress and our brain becomes a spectator. Relaxed-alertness is one way scientists describe the balance. This means educators need to create places that are safe to learn, but also have the capacity to authentically engage.

When learning results in actionable plans and models, students find reasons and ways to learn and care. That care takes many forms. Students have designed special menus for Loaves and Fishes, a local organization that provides meals for men, women and children living with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other life-challenging illnesses. When students heard that the range of options for diabetic meals lacked variety, a group designed a new set of meals that they field tested and provided to the non-profit’s chef. Another group when hearing about how an elderly gentleman had difficulty taking food back to his transitional housing shelter on bike, designed a cart for the bike. The group also discovered that many great ideas are already invented and wound up purchasing a bike cart for the man on Amazon.

Solving authentic problems is the nexus between learning, feeling and making. At such a juncture, learning becomes as much concrete as abstract, and as much cognitive as it is exploratory and emotional. The design process encompasses the flashes of insight that links mind, eyes, heart and hands – using the dynamism of an individual’s cognitive power to solve all sorts of problems. The brain, when allowed to design and problem solve, creates coherency and meaning. And that is what our schools really need.

Ⓒ Charles C. James 2018

About the Author:

Charles (Chuck) James is an educator and curriculum development specialist in science and design education. Chuck’s experience education spans three decades and includes work as Director of Education and Public Outreach for the NASA’s Astrobiology Division and Carnegie Institution’s CASE program. His instructional work in Design, technology, and innovation, includes creating curricula for The National Science Foundation, NASA, The American Geologic Institute, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the American Chemical Society. He is a Director of St. Andrew’s D! Lab and faculty member at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning in Potomac, Maryland.