iCubed: How design thinking develops lifelong learners

This post was first published on CORE Education’s blog. Click here to see the original.

In an interview with Jesse Mulligan on RNZ last month, Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine, said that we have to accept being “perpetual newbies” in this digital era. He argued that “We’re going to have to become lifelong learners. I think this is the major meta-skill that needs to be taught in schools.”

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) agrees: “The capacity to continuously learn and apply / integrate new knowledge and skills has never been more essential.” (OECD, 2012, p. 8)

Handily, for us here in Aotearoa New Zealand, The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa (TMOA) mirror these sentiments. No doubt we are familiar with the call to develop young people who are confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners.


Doubly handily, the NZC doesn’t just leave us floundering with the abstract notion of the ‘lifelong learner’, but gives us the key competencies as the means by which lifelong learners are developed. If you like, the key competencies are the ‘how’ to the ‘why’ of the NZC’s vision; they directly support it.

The ‘what’ is the ‘stuff’ teachers decide to do, guided by the essence statements of each learning area. And while there is a lot of ‘stuff’ competing to be on the list of things teachers could do, I’d like to suggest design thinking as a way to develop the key competencies, and thus nurture lifelong learners.

The ‘what’ is the ‘stuff’ teachers decide to do, guided by the essence statements of each learning area. And while there is a lot of ‘stuff’ competing to be on the list of things teachers could do, I’d like to suggest design thinking as a way to develop the key competencies, and thus nurture lifelong learners.

It’s difficult to capture in a succinct sentence what design thinking is. It’s a methodology, it’s a mindset, it’s a kind of inquiry process on steroids. David Kwek does reasonably well when he defines it as an approach to learning that focuses on developing children’s creative confidence through hands-on projects that focus on empathy, promoting a bias toward action, encouraging ideation and fostering active problem-solving” (Kwek, 2011, p. 4)


I like to think of design thinking as being a way to bring people together to explore, learn and co-develop solutions to real-world problems. I see it as having three broad phases:

  1. Immersion: researching, scoping, thinking, exploring, and, most importantly of all: empathising
  2. Ideation: synthesising, defining, brainstorming, creating
  3. Implementation: prototyping, pitching, gathering feedback, refining, problem-solving.

I call it I-cubed.

And I believe that as learners grapple with each phase of the design thinking process, they actively encounter the five key competencies: thinking, relating to others, using language, symbols and texts, managing self and participating and contributing.

By way of a brief example a few years ago my Year 8 English class was exploring how we might welcome new students into our school. We began by putting ourselves in the shoes of a new student. We close-read some passages, we role-played, we conducted interviews. We were using language, symbols and texts, relating to others, and thinking. After generating loads of creative ideas, we formed groups around those we thought might have the greatest impact. We made prototypes, pitched to each other and to key members of staff. We sought feedback, refined our ideas and worked together to find solutions. We were thinking, managing self, participating and contributing.

And while this is a highly surface overview of both the learning and the key competencies that were being fostered, it was clear to me that design thinking is a powerful way to develop creative, empathetic thinkers. And my students thought that too, as one said: “design thinking helps you to learn how to process ideas into something to help people”.

In other words, my students were being “critical and creative thinkers, active seekers, users and creators of knowledge, informed decision makers” (NZC, p. 8). They are lifelong learners.

I’m also presenting on this topic as part of CORE’s Breakfast programme. I’ll be in Dunedin on 8 November.



Other resources


Thinking Conditionally

In this blogpost I seek to bring together my key learnings from participating in Lifehack’s Flourishing Fellowship 2017. I’d like to acknowledge my employers’ support (CORE Education) in attending this programme.

I’m not really sure why I applied to go on the Flourishing Fellowship. I saw it advertised on Twitter and actually thought it would be more relevant to a friend of mine, so I sent her the link. But it kept coming across my radar, so I sent myself the details and let it hang out in my inbox for a while. When the idea wouldn’t go away, I decided to apply even though I had no idea what it really was, nor how it might fit with me. I don’t have anything to do with youth wellbeing. But they mentioned design thinking, which is my jam. And learning about Te Ao Māori, which is something I’m seeking to grow in. So, why not?

I had a grand chat during my interview, and promptly got off the video call to realise that not once had I even mentioned ‘wellbeing’ which seemed to be the main thrust of the Fellowship. Ooops. Interviewing 101 fail. Somehow or other though, I got picked. So, three residential hui later, what have I learned?

Obviously I learned a heck of a lot more about what ‘wellbeing’ is. I would totally confess to having had a very one dimensional understanding of what this is: health. Okay, mental health and physical health, but health nonetheless. You can call it hauora if you like, but it’s solely in the realms of the Heath and PE Curriculum. Right? Even being exposed to the Five Ways to Wellbeing and Te Whare Tapa Whā didn’t especially shift my thinking.


Image source: Egmason, CC BY-SA 4.0

What is wellbeing? I came to realise that the clue was in the name of the Fellowship: flourishing. Thriving. For me, the key question of the three hui is this:

What conditions do we need to grow for young people to thrive?

And now I could see myself in this mahi.

An area of particular interest for me now is systems thinking, and it hinges on that word conditions. What are all the things that need to be in place: environmental, physical, cultural, societal (etc.) for young people in thrive, and in my context, thrive in schools?

This question has taken me to two places – and they are intertwined. The first is a question of how do we know what our system is doing?

IMG_2784 (1)

In the second hui Penny Hagen introduced us to a prototype of a framework which looks at mapping and mobilising conditions for youth wellbeing. The key questions are:

  • How are young people involved?
  • How do we learn and work together to offer best responses?
  • Do our environments show young people are valued and important?

I got very excited by the possibilities of this tool. For me, in the context of education, it is asking about the conditions for learner-centredness. For agency. And these must be crucial for youth wellbeing.

The second place the overarching question of the conditions we need to grow in order for young people to thrive is the knotty question of what we tend to call in schools “student voice”. What do young people tell us about their experiences of school and education? How do we ask them? What do we do in response to what they say?

One of my fellow Fellows offered this phrase: ‘Nothing about us without us’, which reminds me very strongly of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 12: ‘Children have the right to have a say in matters that affect them’. And yet, do we really do this in schools? One of my colleagues pointed me to this article by Rachel Bolstad of NZCER: “From ‘student voice’ to ‘youth-adult partnership” in Set, 2011(1), pp. 31-33. In this article, she argues for a shift away from “student voice” towards “youth-adult partnership” which has the potential to be more transformative: to actively “[enlist] young people to help shift the ways schooling is done” (p. 31). For me, one way to do this is to move from designing for to designing with, which I’ve mentioned before here and here. I could go really big here and mention important things like equity and power-sharing, but I think you catch my drift.

And I can’t help but wonder if the New Zealand Curriculum (2007) doesn’t call for us to do this anyway. The same colleague who brought the Bolstad article to my attention has also left me pondering this: the vision of the NZC is a statement of wellbeing. So how might we create the conditions in which young people thrive and become confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners?


A random personal blogpost.

Sometimes, if you listen carefully, the universe speaks to you. Sometimes, it needs to shout at me to get my attention.

So I haven’t been very good at keeping the “peaceful optimism” I envisioned when my word for the year found me. But I have recently had some experiences which have nudged me back on track.

I have come to realise that stepping sideways out of the classroom has been a more profound decision to make than I anticipated. I badly underestimated how much of my identity is caught up with what I do. By this I mean that by stepping out of the classroom, I lost sense of what I’m good at, the things I like to do, the nature of my passion for education.

Luckily, the universe shouted.

Firstly, it was the final night of my Lifehack Flourishing Fellowship. We were having a kai and kōrero discussion. We were asked to choose a value from the various cards that were strewn on the floor. I saw a word I did not know, so, of course, I had to pick it up. The value was mōhiotanga: wisdom, enlightenment, sharing knowledge with others.

Secondly, on our final day of the Fellowship, each person anonymously wrote an affirmation for the others. They were packaged up for us to read privately at a later time. Here’s a selection of mine:

img_2799.jpgWithout prompting, nearly half of my affirmations made some comment about wisdom, intelligence, smarts, knowledge.

And then there’s this:


And suddenly I felt back in tune with myself. I had done this survey before. These strengths have not changed. I am a nerd, a cautious nerd, but a nerd nonetheless. I like to read and think and listen and question and discuss and teach. Staying true to these things and using them as reference points to help me make discerning choices will keep me in alignment with myself.

Co-design for Wellbeing

The seeds for this idea have come from many nurseries. One in particular I would like to acknowledge is my place on the Flourishing Fellowship, offered by Lifehack HQ.

Thanks to NetSafe, I have started to think about digital citizenship in the context of wellbeing. In case this isn’t a logical connection for you (because it wasn’t for me), let me offer these thoughts. Digital citizenship is more than cybersafety, although that is an important aspect. Feeling safe and knowing how to keep yourself safe online is crucial. Being online and being a digital citizen means being connected to a community or communities. It entails being respected and respectful. Sharing and contributing. Giving of yourself. These resonate with my understanding of wellbeing, and I can see connections to these concepts and the Mental Health Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing:


In schools, as a gross generalisation, I think we have a tendency to do ‘to’ our students rather than ‘with’. And I think the area of digital citizenship is no different. You may recall that I’ve been thinking about how we seek technical solutions to people problems. And that I frequently urge people to sit deeply with ‘buzzwords’ to think about the vast implications these have for our practice. And that I’ve had a bit of a shift in my design thinking methodology to incorporate co-design.


What if co-design was not just a process to create learner-centred initiatives, but also an empowering methodology by which youth wellbeing was fostered?

The excellent NetSafe Digital Citizenship Capability Review Tool holds student-led digital citizenship initiatives as the ideal for schools. It suggests practices such as: “Our students are active partners when we plan, develop and review digital citizenship and wellbeing” and “Our students drive initiatives that promote the relationship between the positive use of digital technology and wellbeing“.


I would like to develop (or be part of a team which develops) a resource to support schools and their learners to co-create student-led digital citizenship initiatives.

My hunch is that this will have greater impact than other digital citizenship programmes. That co-designed initiatives will be more sustainable. That these initiatives will lead to a more embedded approach to digital citizenship. That co-design develops the key competencies of the New Zealand Curriculum. And that co-design fosters learner agency.

My secret desire is that learning to co-design might lead schools to reflect on their ‘learner-centred’ practices and explore ways in which working with young people shift power structures and genuinely foster agency.

My wonderings are encapsulated in this image, which I gleaned from our second Flourishing Fellowship hui:


and how I might tap into these aspects of expertise, especially mātauranga. What does digital citizenship look like in kura? I need to test my assumptions about learner-centredness, because they are entirely based on my observations of and experiences in English-medium schools. I don’t want to add chocolate sprinkles on the top, I want mātauranga to be a fundamental ingredient to this digital citizenship cake – without which it will not rise.

So, here’s the invitation. How can you help me? What do you know? Who do you know? What can you suggest? What are your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions? Please let me know by commenting below or tweeting me: @AKeenReader.

Tech Solutions for People Problems

In this blogpost I mention serious issues such as bullying, accessing inappropriate material and plagiarism. It is not my intention to minimise these as the potentially harmful concerns they are. I mention them to offer another perspective from which to consider these issues, and others like them. If you would like help with online abuse, and are based in New Zealand, may I suggest NetSafe as your initial port of call.

With the increasing number of devices in schools, there can appear to be an increasing number of problems that need to be addressed. And with firewalls, filtering, blocking, plagiarism checkers, monitoring software, and more, there are technical solutions to all kinds of problems schools and their learners can face.

It seems reasonable. Because learners can access the internet, they’re more likely to be distracted by Facebook or other social media platforms; they’re more likely to stumble across inappropriate material; they’re more likely to copy and paste from one site into their own work.

Back in the day, I could have copied my friend’s assignment, or her older brother’s assignment from when he did the course, but now I can access a thousand papers from a thousand writers from across the globe at the click of a button. It’s more tempting, and heck, just a lot easier.

Back in the day, when I was bullied in high school, the bullying pretty much stopped at 3:30pm. There were a couple of incidents where my rather determined bullies made some cruel late-night phone calls – to the landline, of course! – but once I left the school gates, I left the bullies behind. Not their words or their harm, unfortunately, but that’s another story for another time. Now, between my smartphone and laptop or tablet, I’m pretty well constantly connected to all my friends… and to all my bullies too. There’s little to no escape, and little to no refuge.

Back in the day, we could look up the rude words in the dictionary or encyclopedia and have a nervous giggle about what we found. Now, even an innocent key word search in Google can result in unexpected and unwanted material.

Image by Kwi, Public Domain

To my mind, the thing technology has done is to increase access and volume. There is easy access to more information than you can shake a stick at. Technology has not created plagiarism, bullying or offensive materials, but it has increased significantly my likelihood of encountering these problems.

So technology is not actually the problem. The problem is with the people.

This is why technical solutions, like the ones mentioned above, will only ever go so far in addressing the issues. Ultimately, the problem lies with the mindset and choices of the individual concerned.

If I have an assignment that piques my curiosity, is open, authentic and relevant; and I understand about intellectual property, creative commons and have critical research skills, then, plagiarism checker aside, I will be more likely to create a response that is genuinely my work, and accurately attributed in the places where I have built on the ideas of others.

If I have empathy for my fellow learners, live in an open, accepting and respectful culture, and understand my rights and responsibilities as a (digital) citizen, then, monitoring software aside, I will be more likely to be a positive, contributing member of the various communities I belong to.

If I have am (digitally) literate and fluent, am supported by excellent teachers and librarians, and have robust research skills, as well as having good support networks, then, firewalls and filtering aside, if I come across offensive material as I learn, I know where to go and what to do about this.

Seeking technical solutions to people problems results in a false sense of security, and, I would argue, less capable learners. I’m not necessarily endorsing a firehose approach where filtered water is better, but I am arguing for looking at our philosophies and our teaching and learning practices. The internet is always on. And our hearts and minds are too.

Mentor, mentor, on the wall…

CC0 TobiasMuMo

Something I get asked a lot in my work with teachers and leaders across Aotearoa New Zealand is how to ensure people are ‘on board’ with the planned initiative for the school. It isn’t uncommon for leaders to say in hushed tones, “We have a … range of staff at our school, Philippa,” as if that were a situation entirely unique to their context, and not the reality of every classroom and every staffroom everywhere. In fact, the principles of Universal Design for Learning encourage us to recognise the diversity of people and to embrace this as a strength. Isn’t wonderful that we’re all different, with our own backgrounds, stories, brains, and ways of learning?

But I hear the sense of frustration for what it is: the desire of the passionate to share their passion. And I don’t have answers, nor, more’s the pity, a magic wand. But I do have some thinks, mostly due to reading Simple Habits for Complex Times by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnson, having my own mentoring relationship through CORE’s uChoose programme, and exploring some of the work of Joan Dalton.

So here are a few things I’ve learned and that mesh with what I consider to be respectful practice.

Garvey Berger and Johnston remind us that we’re not logical beings like Spock from Star Trek. So outlining cold facts about why I should embrace a new initiative isn’t all that likely to be effective. Rather, we need to engage people’s emotions. The way to do this is through story and metaphor. These draw people in and help them to get excited about new directions. Garvey Berger and Johnston actually suggest that the kinds of metaphors that are useful are those to do with journeys – but not destinations. And that giving people the sense that they’ve already started the desired change is important.

I really focus on keeping in mind that everyone is the hero of their own story. This helps me to be curious about what stories other people tell themselves about their actions to frame themselves in this way. Seeking to hear and understand other people’s stories is crucial, in my opinion. And this does take energy, empathy and time.

Which is where I bring the following strategy from Joan Dalton into play:

  • Listen
  • Pause
  • Paraphrase
  • Inquire

For me personally, this is aspirational, but I know that on the odd occasion where I’ve managed this, it can be quite powerful. My goal is to support educators to reflect on the decisions they’ve made and to consider these deeply. What worked? What didn’t? What could I do differently next time?

I feel privileged to mentor some fine educators and am on my own learning journey about how to fulfil this role to the best of my ability, but it is an honour to be gifted with their stories and to hear of their challenges and their successes.

For … With

Last week I went to the Wellington EdTech MeetUp where, among other speakers as well, I listened to a man named Rahman Satti. He spoke about his experience working with refugees and new migrants in Germany in 2015. And of course, we’re not talking about a small group of 15 in a community, but a whole country working with an influx of one million displaced people.

One of the ideas a group had was to create and build an app for refugees and migrants. It would be multi-lingual with the aim of being a kind of ‘one stop shop’ for all kinds of things new people to Germany might need. It was well-intentioned and thoughtful. But it didn’t fly with the people it was supposed to help. There were numerous reasons for this, as there always are, but the point Satti was making was that the app with designed for refugees and new migrants rather than designed with.

Instead, Satti and his group approached the refugees and new migrants as co-designers, as crucial, as agentic, and as fundamental to the design process as they were. One of the first learnings Satti and group gained was that the refugees and migrants didn’t like these labels. They wanted to be known as new-comers.

This idea of co-design, of designing with rather than for, really got me thinking. When we design for, we run the risk of re-creating existing power imbalances despite our very best intentions. Whereas, when we design with, this is empowering for all involved. I think this holds great potential within a school (or a Community of Learning) for open, flexible, genuine learning for all involved – no matter their shoe size (as Keryn Davis might say.)

Co-design calls on us to hold our ideas lightly and to be ready to challenge and confront own assumptions. To put aside what we think “should” be.


I wonder if we might have a tendency as adults who work with younger learners to want to “just” help and that this might mean that although we intend on designing with – this could come with an unintended superiority or paternalism/maternalism, to want to do ‘for’. Perhaps as adults we might need to do some ‘unlearning’ first and to remember the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, where children have the right to be heard, the right to be taken seriously, and the right to be treated with respect. (There are also some cool NZ resources on working with children from the NZ Children’s Commissioner: an explanation of the children’s rights, and some ways to engage with children.)

Which leads me to wonder:

  • How might we approach learners as co-designers?
  • How might we create a safe space for co-design? (The principles of Universal Design for Learning could be awesome here.)

And then further, given my current interest in school libraries: What might a co-designed school library be like?

  • What do learners value in their school library?
  • What innovative ways could they see the library space being used?
  • By whom?
  • At what times?

What rich learning is possible if we design with rather than for.

Believe: My Word for the Year 2017

Okay, so confession time first: I was not great at relishing last year. As is often the way of New Year’s resolutions, I started with a hiss and a roar, and then it faded almost as quickly as it began. However, I already have higher hopes for this year’s word:


Firstly, on a strictly pragmatic level, I have higher hopes because this word came to me several weeks ago – and I’m still remembering it in February.

Secondly, and more importantly, I think ‘Believe’ will stick better this year simply because my thinking around this word has already evolved.

Originally, I conceived of the word in the context of ‘believe things will get better’ (which makes it sound like I’m having some kind of crisis – which I most decidedly am not). But this meant that I was having hamster-wheel thoughts about how things would get better; the steps I would take to ensure this happens; the people I would talk to; how those conversations would play out… etc, etc. I feel exhausted just writing that, and I’m kind of picking it wasn’t a joy to read either.

But then I had a kind of, well, epiphany, I guess – to go with the religious connotations of my word for the year. If I believe that things will get better, then they will. I don’t need to spend time and energy worrying about them. This then, leaves time to have time. To be here and present in this moment without worrying unnecessarily about the future. And in this way, for me, ‘believe’ has evolved into a kind of peaceful optimism which I fervently hope persists.


So I recently saw the film Arrival. I really enjoyed it. In case you’re not familiar with its basic premise: a bunch of weird huge pod-like structures have descended from a planet unknown in cities around the world and there’s a rush to figure out who these aliens are and what they want. Our heroine, a linguistics professor, works conscientiously to learn the aliens’ language in order to best understand their intentions. It’s a story of language, culture and time.

For me, it’s a ‘first contact’ metaphor and a reminder that language, worldview and culture are inextricably intertwined. That we cannot understand another people without knowing their language. And that language is not neutral. It conveys our values, beliefs and understandings about the way the world works. In the film, without giving away spoilers, the crucial understanding is about time. The film deliberately plays with the white, Western, belief that time is linear, to clever effects.

But it less about time that I’m thinking about here, and more the concept of how language imbues culture.

B. Navez CC BY-SA 3.0

I’ve been privileged recently to be on a writing team. The task has been to use plain English words to capture ideas that will help schools identify their strengths and weaknesses in a particular area. On this team has been two exceptional Māori educators, and they have, in a respectful yet insistent way, challenged me to consider my use of inclusive language.

You see, I intentionally used the word ‘school’ in the previous paragraph. Ordinarily, with the sincere desire to be inclusive, I would write ‘school/kura’ so that Māori medium learning environments would be captured. But ‘kura’ is not a synonym for ‘school’. A kura has its own way of being, its own processes and educational aspirations for its learners – its ākonga. And for me, this is the real challenge of living in a bicultural country that privileges Pākehā over Māori. With the very best of intentions, I adopt (co-opt?) Māori words and phrases into my lexicon, but without the understanding of the cultural concepts these kupu contain.

As we were working as a writing team, trying desperately to express abstract ideas in practical, functional English language, every now and then one of the Māori educators would say: “Vanilla!” as a reminder that we were using exclusive language that conveyed the assumption that how English medium schools operate are the way all educational environments work, and this is simply not the case. It’s been a real wake-up call for me.

Returning to my regular work, I was reviewing another piece of writing I was working on. Again, something intended for use by schools/kura. I had been very happy with how the work was progressing. As I looked at it again with fresh eyes, I heard my colleague in my head: “Vanilla!” I could see that what I had written was totally Pākehā-centric and that kura would not be able to ‘see’ themselves in it. I was excited by my self-realisation, but equally frustrated that I did not know how to un-vanilla my writing.

For now, though, I am pleased to have this new perspective and this reminder as a call to personal action. I have been wanting to increasing my knowledge of te reo Māori, but now I know I must. I cannot understand the Māori worldview without doing so. This is my own arrival.

A Keen Reader

These are not new ideas, but they are new for me and have really got my brain pinging.

When I was twelve we had to do some work experience, I guess as part of a ‘careers’ unit. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I sure spent a lot of time reading, so my Dad arranged for me to spend a day in our local library.

A whole day with books? Bliss.

From that day forward, I volunteered in the library all through high school, eventually getting a proper, paid job that saw me through five years at university up until I went into  teaching (English, of course!). For me, libraries are a safe space of sanctuary. Quiet, relaxing, replenishing, and jammed-packed with new ideas, arresting stories, pathways into worlds unknown.

So it’s kind of embarrassing really, that it’s taken me this long to connect my passion for libraries with my passion for future-focused education.


But I’ve been thinking about school libraries in particular, and how they can be a living representation of the vision and pedagogy of a school. Is the library a storehouse of stories, ideas and information – a whare pukapuka – a traditional house of books?

To me, this would represent an industrial age model and understanding of knowledge. Knowledge as a noun: the facts and tales we need to know to fill our place in society and be a successful worker. In this model, the library is a place of knowledge curation.

Or, is the library a place not only of knowledge curation, but of knowledge creation? Is it a place to showcase our learning and the learning of others? Is it a place to connect ideas and test them out? Is it a whare mātauranga – a space that seeks wisdom, not only offering things to think about, but things to think with?

Because to me, this would represent a future-focused model and understanding of knowledge. Knowledge as a verb: the building blocks of ideas that we develop, connect, unbundle, remix, and play with. The life-blood of the life-long learner and the creative, critical citizen.

Is the library an innovative learning environment? Chock-full yes, of great books, and also a gallery, a makerspace, a design lab, a studio… Is it a place of ‘shhh…!’ – a holy space of study, or a place of ‘sh…sugar!’ – a stimulating space of discovery? How does your school library reflect your vision for teaching and learning?