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Designer mind

| November 17, 2010

The merits of design education at St Andrew’s College and DSG, Grahamstown.

Keith van Winkel

It is widely recognised that sustainable, workable and, above all, sensible solutions to the numerous problems we face on our planet will require a comprehensive and substantial new mindset and level of applied thinking from our younger generation to help solve them.

Vital to finding viable solutions for future needs, the elusive combination of creative problem-solving skills, the ability to generate innovative designs, manufacturing
know-how and available trained peoplepower is sorely lacking the world over. Our education systems have not been able to keep up with the demand for well-informed, experienced individuals, and indeed are often questioned as to their ability to meet any of the needs of business, industry and society as a whole.

What does it take to produce the creative solutions to the huge global problems we face today? Who should take the responsibility of teaching our children the necessary knowledge and skills required to think actively and work their way through these problems? While most will agree that education is the key to the future, the question remains… exactly what and how should our children be learning?

The problems of acommunity, a city and a nation are now the problems of the world. Do our curricula promote the skills required by tomorrow’s businesses – namely reasoning, creative problem-solving, sequencing, innovation, multitasking, and interpersonal relationships?

A crucial school subject

In a visionary move some three years ago, South Africa commenced a new chapter in the quest to improve the creative problem-solving ability of children. In a bold attempt to address some of the critical issues facing an emerging economy, a new subject was introduced into the national curriculum at the Further Education and Training (FET) level.

This subject has the potential to inject vital new skills into the intellectual capital arena. It is called Design. An example of this innovative and advanced education policy is to be found at St Andrew’s College and the Diocesan School for Girls in Grahamstown, where a custom-built Design centre was built as far back as 1993. The varied and exciting work that emanates from this centre is proof of the potential of the subject.

Design integrates a range of fields and skills

For the first time, students in Grades 10-12 can now engage directly with real-life problems in fields such as architectural and interior design, environmental design, industrial design, fashion design, jewellery design and so on; involving strategy and scenario planning, materials processing, spatial and conceptual understanding,
thinking skills, etc. Learners actively engage in creative problem-solving, product development and the processes associated with the full realisation and presentation of original ideas.

Equal value is attached to promoting conceptual ideation and design development, with an underpinning requirement to be proficient in drawing skills and spatial/form understanding, precision, planning and organisation. Many of the core skills identified as being crucial to developing language, mathematical and scientific understanding are central to this subject. Design is studied in historical, technological, cultural, social and business contexts, highlighting some of the current thinking prevalent in the world today. The patenting of these design solutions to protect intellectual property has also become a reality. The curriculum is exciting and comprehensive, and is possibly the only one of its kind in the world.

The Arthur Cotton Design and Technology Centre at St Andrew’s College is a hub of creativity


While Design is now a formal part of our national education curriculum, the picture is not all that rosy. Rather than supporting Design for the innovative subject that it is, Higher Education South Africa (HESA) has deemed the subject not worthy of being included on its published list of ‘designated subjects’ for university entry. It appears that the essence of the subject has become confused with Art, and has not been properly understood or appreciated. Many schools that have relied on ‘the list’ to
guide student subject selections have therefore declined to make Design available to their pupils. Yet the universities that offer design-specific degrees and diplomas have declared on their websites that Design is the recommended subject for entry to their courses! This confusing situation has not made the path of this new subject an easy one.

In the interests of educational progress, HESA should bring the promised review of this situation forward as soon as possible and give Design its rightful status in the national curriculum. Heads of schools and school governing bodies should be encouraged to consider seriously offering Design as a subject in their schools, as it provides an ideal learning platform for the core skills development we so badly need.

Some prominent universities, like Rhodes University, offer Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) courses in Design Education to help meet the demand for teachers of Design. The difference between a society that perpetuates its problems and one that moves ahead to create its own new knowledge, responsible and sustainable systems and processes and solutions is the ability to use and develop creative, innovative designing capability. Design specifically promotes and develops these skills. We should be saluting and honouring those schools and tertiary institutions where Design is being taught. They are part of future solutions.

Keith van Winkel is Director of the Arthur Cotton Design and Technology Centre at St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown.


Category: Summer 2010

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