Development in Asia: Promises and Peril
Asia, a continent rich in history and heritage, has been on a steady path of growth after centuries of colonialism and decades of civil and regional wars. Based on Asia’s rapid development over the past three decades, Lee and Hong predicted a 16 percentage-point increase in the region’s share of the global economy by 2030.1 The Asian Development Bank expressed an optimistic 7.2 per cent economic growth for South Asia in 2018,2 and a recent publication from the World Bank predicted another year of positive growth for East Asia and the Pacific for 2018.3
Despite the impressive pace of growth, much is still wanting if this conglomerate of diverse nations is to achieve sustainable develop- ment in today’s increasingly disruptive global economic climate. Take education as an example: many education systems in Asia still rely heavily on rote memorisation and place high value on academic exams which are viewed as indicators of students’ “success”, while many OECD countries have shifted to project-based learning.4
Lastly, academic plagiarism is still an all-too-common problem in Asia, even among university students.5 Because education is the lynchpin of societal progress, the traditional education approach prevalent in Asia will soon become obsolete, if it has not already. To ensure continued fast growth, this generation of young Asians — our future workforce — are in dire need of skills training in collaboration, com- munication, creativity, and critical thinking — commonly called 21st century skills.
Developing 21st Century Skills Through Design Thinking
In 2017, I had the opportunity to deliver youth leadership programmes in collaboration with local NGOs in under-resourced communities in China, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Myanmar through the JUMP! Foundation. Youth undergo an intense week where they learn to design community improvement projects, and in the process think critically about social issues, creatively come up with solutions, and hone their skills in communicating with various stakeholders and collaborating effectively with team members. We have received con- sistently positive feedback so far and have seen projects designed by youth being successfully implemented in their communities as a direct result of this programme.
A major component of this programme is training youth to apply design thinking — a practice common among high-performing com- panies such as Apple and IDEO — in solving their community issues. Design thinking fundamentally differs from traditional problem- solving in a few ways. First, design thinking is intensely human- centred, with empathy being the foundation of design. Rather than analysing the problem solely through research and theoretical spec- ulations, designers also talk to a variety of stakeholders as a way to uncover hidden insights and root causes of an issue. Second, design thinking is biased towards action; rather than trying to come up with a “perfect” product, designers like to create prototypes early on and test them with the users in order to continuously improve their product.
Even though our particular programme is delivered outside of schools, it is entirely possible to apply design thinking in formal edu- cation settings. Because design thinking is a mindset and a method, it is widely applicable; students can work on cross-disciplinary in- school projects that combine English, social studies, art, business, and mathematics. For teachers and administrators, they can utilise design thinking in restructuring curriculum and students’ overall school experience. The section below breaks down the process into its components, with a few suggestions for guiding students through the approach.
As the foundation for design thinking, empathy requires the designers to see beyond one’s own perspective and examine an issue from others’ points of view. At this stage, students immerse themselves in understanding a particular problem. After doing some preliminary reading on existing literature and research, students can identify the various stakeholders and experts related to the issue and conduct interviews in-person or via email and phone. This step requires great communication skills in order for students to develop a wealth of knowledge and insight on the issue, which serve as the groundwork for their project.
As students learn to empathise with the experiences of various stake- holders, they begin to be able to redefine the initial problem in terms of people’s needs that are yet to be fulfilled. The new problem state- ment often starts with “How might we…” in order to clearly identify a stakeholder group for whom students will focus their efforts, and an actionable goal to be achieved. This stage demands that students think critically beyond the surface of the problem, and examine deeper needs that will ultimately improve the situation in a more effective and sustainable way.
This stage is all about creativity, open-mindedness, and risk-taking. Students are to brainstorm a myriad of ideas that would fulfil the re- defined need and suspend their judgements. Teachers can introduce various brainstorming tools for this process and should encourage out-of-the-box thinking and a large quantity of ideas. Facilitation may be needed to ease students’ anxiety about coming up with the “perfect” ideas, and to ensure that both teacher and students are open to exploring various possibilities, even ones that seem far-fetched and impractical at first.
Prototypes are preliminary sketches and rough drafts, and are there- fore subject to revisions. This is where students begin to turn their ideas into concrete solutions, and the lesson here is this: in order to successfully design a solution that effectively solves a problem, the designer must put ideas into action, so “failing” early and often is an essential part of the process. It is important for teachers to help students understand that design can be a lengthy process and that iterations are necessary. Rather than putting down correct answers on an exam paper, success in the real world usually comes after trials and errors; it behoves students to internalise this mindset early on.
There cannot be an iterative process in prototyping without testing. After each version of the prototype, students are to go back to the beneficiaries for whom they are designing the solution, gather their feedback, and then modify the prototype. Students must learn to communicate and collaborate effectively with each other and with their target beneficiaries in order to produce a successful final product.
A Process Worth Pursuing
Students and teachers may initially find design thinking rather chal- lenging because it requires one to cross conventional boundaries, question one’s assumptions and constantly navigate ambiguity, none of which are regular practices in traditional Asian classrooms. However, these skills are critical for future societal and economic growth. In order to help young Asians cultivate these 21st century skills before they join the labour market, schools can utilise design thinking to improve student learning in and outside of their classrooms.
Irene Wu is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, University of Michigan, and Vanderbilt University, and has worked in education policy and international development in the U.S., Kenya, China, and Southeast Asia. She is currently a social innovation management fellow at the Amani Institute based in Bangalore, India.
Lee, J., & Hong, K. (2012). Economic growth in Asia: Determinants and prospects. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0922142512000151
Asian Development Bank. (2017) Booming South Asia is driving economic growth in Asia. Retrieved from https://www.adb.org/news/features/booming-south-asia-driving-economic-growth-asia
- The World Bank. (2017). East Asia Pacific economic update, October 2017: Balancing act. Retrieved from http://www.worldbank.org/en/region/eap/publication/east-asia-pacific-economic-update
Leung, F. (2014) What can and should we learn from international studies of Mathematics achievement? Retrieved January from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13394-013-0109-0
Altbach, P. (2017). The Asian higher education century? Retrieved from