Technology, design & creativity

A common understanding of technology tends to regard it as something that was invented within the lifetime of the observer. That is, people tend to think about technology as new and exciting. For many of us the technology that we most often experience in this way involves electronic components and is often associated with computers or other information and communication technologies. Most often we think about technology as a product of some sort.

However, technology is often better understood as a process than as a product. It is a human activity in which we respond to wants, needs and opportunities by designing and producing products of some kind to create preferred futures. Those products have impacts and consequences, some of which may be unanticipated and undesirable.

Innovation is necessary

There is wide agreement among governments and elsewhere that innovation is desirable for meeting human needs and wants. The Queensland Government noted that "Innovation is key to economic growth and STEM is a key driver of innovation" (DETA, 2007, p. v). More recently, the Australian Government, in its Asian Century white paper (DPMC, 2012), stated:

Using creativity and design-based thinking to solve complex problems is a distinctive Australian strength that can help to meet the emerging challenges of this century. … Asia-relevant capabilities include adaptability, flexibility, resilience, creative and design thinking

In the USA, Shchetko (2013) reported that President Obama had spoken about STEM education as an important foundation for innovation in the economy at three successive State of the Union addresses.

Design, creativity, and innovation are frequently linked but the relationships among them are not always clearly described. Creativity and innovation are not the same thing. Creativity is the process of generating new ideas from which innovation can derive a working product or process (SmartStorming, 2009). "Design is a structured process that transforms creative ideas into concrete products, services and systems, and as such links creativity to innovation" (Hollanders & van Cruysen, 2009, p. 3).

Creativity

Although it is common for people to assume that creativity is a characteristic of special individuals, it is a universal human quality and can be learned, or at least developed through appropriate educational experiences. Unfortunately, it can also be suppressed by inappropriate educational experiences.

Some theorists such as Csikszentmihalyi (1996) set a high bar for creative activity, arguing that an artefact is creative only when it is recognised by experts in a field as being original and valuable. Others such as Gauntlett (2011) set a somewhat lower requirement for everday creativity:

Everyday creativity refers to a process which brings together at least one active human mind, and the material or digital world, in the activity of making something which is novel in that context, and is a process which evokes a feeling of joy. (Gauntlett, cited in Jenkins, 2011).

Robinson (2012) defines creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value. He cited a survey of 3000 business leaders conducted by IBM in which creativity was found to be regarded as an economic imperative and a priority for education. Robinson suggested that a transformation of schooling would be required because high stakes testing and education for the 'right answers' does not encourage creativity. Indeed, there is some evidence that younger children in school score better on tests of creativity than older children, lending credence to the claim that schools suck the creativity out of kids (Blair, 2013; Mishra, 2013).

From innovation to design thinking

Stein (2013) suggested that problems with innovation being confused with invention and thought of as a thing rather than a process make it preferable to replace innovation with design thinking, which combines empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in generating insights, and rational approaches to analysing and fitting a solution to a context. He listed 7 steps in a process of design thinking:

  1. Define the problem in terms of the customer/user and what the desired outcome of a solution might be.
  2. Research knowledge and peripheral information and generate insight about the problem.
  3. Ideation of context, perspectives, and needs without bias or judgment.
  4. Prototype and mock up ideas and combinations of ideas and share with prospective customers/users.
  5. Choose a solution based on best outcome for the customer/user, not best technical design or practicality.
  6. Implement solution through standard process management.
  7. Learn from the experience … internal post-mortem review and customer/user surveys.

Design and technology education

Technology as an area of study in schools is best considered as a human endeavour in which we design, make and evaluate products. Historically this is the approach that was taken in the previous Australian national guidelines that summed up technology as designing, making, and appraising with materials, information, and systems. That approach was carried into the Queensland Syllabus which represented the same essential ideas as investigation, ideation, production, and evaluation. The Queensland Studies Authority essential learnings for technology draws on that syllabus. Design thinking remains an important focus in the development of the F-10 Australian Curriculum: Technologies.

The idea of design is so widely regarded as important in technology education that in some contexts the name used for the curriculum area includes design. Examples include the Design and technologies subject within the Australian Curriculum: Technologies, Design & Technology in New South Wales, and Design and technology in the UK. Although there are local variations in the curriculum emphasis there are also sufficient commonalities that resources developed for use in one context can be adapted for use in another.

Because design is such an important idea in technology education it is the focus of this module and is addressed through the medium of the design brief (see below) as a common learning activity in technology education.

Design process

Depending on context, the design process may be described differently but, although the number and description of the steps may vary, there are clear similarities and common characteristics.

A NASA video (NASAeClips, 2011) contrasts the scientific method with the engineering design process and lists 8 steps in a version of the latter:

  1. Identify need
  2. Establish requirements
  3. Conduct research
  4. Brainstorm possible approaches
  5. Select best approach
  6. Design & build prototype
  7. Test
  8. Begin production or revise design

Engineering is Elementary (2013) condenses the process to 5 steps as shown in the image at right. Children's Engineering Educators (2000) also promoted a 5 step Technology Design Loop with a similar sequence of steps:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Brainstorm solutions.
  3. Create the solution you think is best.
  4. Test your solution.
  5. Evaluate your solution.

Resnick (2007) presents a very similar cycle (as a spiral) for creative thinking, based on a kindergarten approach to learning, and cycling from imagine, through create, play, share, and reflect, back to imagine.

In each of these examples the overall pattern is consistent despite the difference in detail. The attraction of design as an approach to dealing with creativity and innovation in the classroom is that it provides a process that can be used to guide activity. A common way of supporting that in the classroom is through the use of a design brief.

What is a design brief?

A design brief is a concise description of a design task for the guidance of the designer.

Design briefs are useful in technology education when it is desirable to provide students with a clearly focussed design problem. It has the disadvantage that, because the teacher selects and defines the problem, students do not get practice in identifying their own problems. A balanced curriculum would need to include other activities in which students do identify problems through a process of investigation.

Design briefs may be very simple or they may include a variety of parameters constraining the design. For example, a design brief for a house would require that all applicable regulations are observed. Nevertheless, the essence of a design brief is that it leaves room for the designer to make decisions. A task in which students cooked a meal according to a supplied recipe would not involve design and would not be appropriate for a design brief. Asking students to design a meal based on a list of prescribed ingredients would require design effort and could be appropriate for a design brief.

Format of design briefs

There is no set format but any design brief should include a clear statement of the design task and a description of any relevant parameters or conditions. It must also leave room for a variety of different solutions. The following structure is often suitable:

Context a statement about the context of the problem with background information that may help students to appreciate the significance of the problem
Challenge statement a direct challenge to some action (design and build a …)
Parameters (conditions) a statement about particular requirements of an acceptable solution (limitations in size, cost, time, etc.)
Evaluation a further indication (beyond the challenge statement and any conditions) of criteria against which solutions will be judged

Technology education design brief checklist

Ensure that your design brief:

  • Has a topic appropriate to technology education
  • Requires students to design a solution, not simply follow a recipe
  • Is written so as to be interesting to students
  • Is written so as to be easily understood by students
  • Includes appropriate information about the problem context
  • Has a clear challenge statement
  • Includes any important parameters or conditions

Consult the references listed at the foot of this page for further information about design briefs. This material is available as a single page PDF handout.

Sample design briefs

The following examples of design briefs have been extracted from Fleer & Jane (1999). They are available as a single page PDF handout.

Toy or gadget design brief

  1. The toy/gadget must have at least two different moving parts.
  2. You should make a clearly labelled and drawn plan, preferably to scale.
  3. You should list the materials you intend to use and how they will be joined.

(Fleer & Jane, p. 63)

Torch design brief

  1. You and your partner are to design and build a working model of a torch. The torch must be able to cat a beam of light three metres onto a wall. Your design should include an on/off switch.
  2. You must produce a clearly labelled drawing of your torch design. Show how the electric circuit works within the torch.
  3. After you have designed the torch you need to compile a list of all the materials that you will need to finish the project.

Some things you may need to think about when we are designing a torch.

  1. Materials: the properties of the materials, e.g. Are they able to conduct electricity/ Are they strong enough?
  • Batteries
  • Light globe
  • Cardboard to hold batteries
  • Foil or wire to conduct electricity around the circuit
  • Conducting material to make a switch
  • Reflecting material to direct the torch beam
  1. The size: How much material will we need? (No wasting).
  2. Joining methods: How will the model be constructed?

(Fleer & Jane, p. 72)

Small animal-catching device and container brief

Design and make:

  1. A device for safely catching a small animal such as a slater.
  2. A suitable container to house the animal until you finish your study.

(It will then be returned to its original habitat.)

(Fleer & Jane, p. 85)

Litter picker brief

  1. Investigate, design and construct to the prototype (model) stage; and
  2. Evaluate a mechanical aid to pick up litter.

The aid must have at least one moving part.

(Fleer & Jane, p. 127)

Hamburgers on the run

In your team of six organise yourselves so that you are able to prepare, cook and package six individual hamburgers (with at least three variations of contents for customer choice) within a time limit you specify.

(Fleer & Jane, p. 129)

References

Blair, E. (2013). Is It Possible to Measure Creativity?. Retrieved from http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/04/is-it-possible-to-measure-creativity/.

Children's Engineering Educators. (2000). Developing Technological Literacy at the Elementary Level. Retrieved from http://www.childrensengineering.com/.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.

DETA. (2007). Towards a 10-year plan for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and skills in Queensland. Brisbane: Queensland Government. Retrieved from http://education.qld.gov.au/projects/stemplan/docs/stem-discussion-paper.pdf.

DPMC. (2012). Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia Retrieved from http://asiancentury.dpmc.gov.au/white-paper.

Engineering is Elementary. (2013). The Engineering Design Process. Retrieved from http://www.eie.org/content/engineering-design-process.

Fleer, M., & Jane, B. (1999). Technology for Children: Developing Your Own Approach. Erskineville, NSW: Prentice Hall Australia.

Hollanders, H., & van Cruysen, A. (2009) Design, creativity and innovation: A scoreboard approach. Retrieved from http://www.proinno-europe.eu/sites/default/files/EIS_2008_Creativity_and_Design.pdf.

Jenkins, H. (2011). Studying Creativity in the Age of Web 2.0: An Interview with David Gauntlett. Retrieved from http://henryjenkins.org/2011/08/studying_creativity_in_the_age.html.

Mishra, P. (2013). Measuring creativity, the sad news.

NASAeClips. (2011). The Black Boxes of Science and Engineering. [YouTube video]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jPJt-q83k0.

Resnick, M. (2007). All I really need to know (about creative thinking) I learned (by studying how children learn) in kindergarten. Paper presented at Creativity & Cognition Conference, 2007. Retrieved from http://web.media.mit.edu/~mres/papers/CC2007-handout.pdf.

Robinson, K. (2012). Why is creativity important in education? [YouTube video]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywIhJ2goiGE.

Shchetko, N. (2013). Obama calls for STEM-focused high schools in State of the Union. Retrieved from http://stemwire.org/2013/02/14/obama-calls-for-stem-focused-high-schools-in-state-of-the-union/

SmartStorming. (2009). The relationship between creativity and innovation. Retrieved from http://smartstorming.com/the-relationship-between-creativity-and-innovation.

Stein, A. (2013). Tip for 2013?Replace Innovation with Design Thinking. Retrieved from http://steinvox.com/blog/tip-for-2013replace-innovation-with-design-thinking/.

Virginia Children's Engineering Council. (2011-). Design Briefs. Retrieved from http://www.childrensengineering.org/technology/designbriefs.php.