The Problem Finders: Design Thinking for Genuine Epic-Scale Problem-Based Learning (Ewan McIntosh)

I have seen and heard Ewan McIntosh speaking on many occasions, but all on videos or podcasts, so I am really looking forward to seeing him live in this keynote session. The description of the session reads:Project-based learning has been let down in too many instances with “fake”, academic, theoretical problems that need solving. The learning processes involved are at best fuzzy for most educators: what is “collaboration”, “student-designed” and “student-led” learning?

  • See how research on great learning blends with creative practice to open up new exploratory, student-led learning.
  • Learn from the creative practices of some of the best media and tech companies in the world, with whom Ewan McIntosh has spent the past five years. What makes creative people creative?
  • Find out what the independent and collaborative learning skills and processes these growing creative industries, and other business, require. (source)

Ewan started by admitting that he is nervous because many of the thought leaders he follows are here! He points out that there is a mix of business, academia, schools sector etc, which, in part makes it quite a challenge.

The presentation then moved to notions of success, and how we measure it. Is it money, happiness, the concrete ‘outputs’ they produce? Business feels they have nothing to learn from education, and education are not at all keen about being put within a business framework. Success is, in part the unpacking of mystery, into heuristics (gut feeling that something works), and synthesising our own ‘algorithm’ (up front awareness of what those heuristics imply, and what we need to do to build on them).

Agents provocateurs are essential for creativity. And making learning whole is essential…what is the point of the learning? What are the goals? Ewan said that one of the reasons that he learned French was to meet French girls; and he did – he is now happily married and have three children!

Ewan suggested that challenge is important for learning. Another key factor was collaboration; there are no things around, even jeans or a shirt, that don’t represent collaborative effort (as opposed to team work). Responsibility and respect are also necessary for learning. Young people also want real things they can get their teeth stuck into. “Worksheets are really boring”.  A couple of very entertaining examples were presented to show how ‘irrelevant’ and confusing many worksheets are. You can pretty much pick on any subject and find these pseudo problems that are totally out of context, and not at all experiential. Choice is the final, and the most important aspect of successful learning. Do your students always have between 3 and 20 choices when they are learning?

The curriculum is the first thing that is cited as a reason that choice can not be given. Ewan asks “have you read your curriculum?”. The duplication that goes on is often massive, so something like a learning wall can provide a creative way of removing the “repetition, conflict, and the stuff that is done again and again to no effect”. There is less racing toward the clock.

“Imagine a kids project defining your school mission statement” (Ewan gave the example of the Levi advert when they first started selling black jeans – “when the world zigs, zag”).

Nouvelle affiche Dada 2.0 - 200811posterdada.jpg

Nouvelle affiche Dada 2.0 – 200811posterdada.jpg (Photo credit: Abode of Chaos)

Ewan discussed four ways of thinking about how technology is often used in education. These were “Substitute – Technology acts as a direct tools substitute with no functional change”; “Augmentation – technology acts as a direct tool substitute, with functional improvement; “Modification – signififcan task redsign”, “Redefinition – Technology allows for the creation of new” meanings.

Build in provocation and certainly don’t come up with questions that are Google-able. You have to work quite hard to find questions that are not Google-able. Students can do the initial Google search on the answers that can be found online, and the rich thinking and learning happens around the (fewer) questions that are tantalising, and often personalised.

Drafting is very different that prototying. You build low fidelity prototypes – it happens really on in the research process. Handing the whole research process back to the students is important – take the teacher out of the picture. Empathising is the first stage. This is the stage where students jump in; they don’t have to be taught the subject beforehand. Many things students already know a wide range of things and skills, the majority of which can be applied to questions and projects. Things such as ‘master classes’ for just in time learning, rather than just in case, which are optional, can also be effective.

Design thinking – “so what, who cares?” to test an idea. Research and practising skills, often with collaboration to ‘pool’ skills froms a wide number of resources. Taking time to analyse and evaluate is really important. And building confidence around these skills, ideas and thoughts are all part of the transformative process.

Ewan’s talk had all the right ingredients: humour, stories, authentic examples, provocations, things to go away and think about, and some practical skills to take away.

Image – Nouvelle affiche Dada 2.0 – 200811posterdada.jpg (Photo credit: Abode of Chaos)

About ictenhancedlearningandteaching

I am a director and consultant at Ethos Consultancy NZ ( I have a keen interest in all aspects of ICT Enhanced Learning and Teaching (ICTELT) where the focus lies on ways of scaffolding and empowering learners. In particular, I am interested in the way that creative, blended approached to Academic Professional Development can create trust, rapport and encourage reflective practice. As such, ICTELT is approached from facilitation, design, evaluation and assessment as opposed to the tools and what they can offer. I am a strong advocate of the potential of Web 2.0 to empower learners from all walks of life and cultures, especially after my experiences working for 6 years in the Middle East. In particular, I am interested how ePortfolios can be used in the VET sector (especially where Literacy and Language challenges are faced), in Recognition of Prior Learning, and in authentic, applied assessment. I have been involved with designing and developing ICTELT approaches and programmes for ten years. Following research informed approaches and design, I apply a qualitative, iterative process to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, programmes and tools, encouraging learners' voices and input from all stakeholders.
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