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As the twenty-first century marches ever onwards, spatial cognition is increasingly being called on to visualise, invent and understand complex ideas and systems both natural and human-made.

The F-10 Australian Curriculum: Technologies has much to offer spatial literacy education, particularly in the practice of Design and Technologies e.g. getting students to generate 2D nets that fold into 3D geometric shapes, modelling concepts and creating orthographic and isometric projections. The teachings of traditional industrial drawing skills that include scaling, hidden detail drawing, measuring and making in millimetres, estimating, designing and constructing are also very well aligned.

These concrete skills are essential foundational learning that lead to fluency and complex  reasoning in spatial literacy. Simoncini and Larkin’s (2017) article ‘Christmas shopping: Why blocks are still the best present you can buy children‘ highlights some crucial points about the importance of spatial literacy education.

The rapid advances in the take up of virtual and augmented reality and various software applications allow us to generate and use spatial learning much  more prominently. 3D modelling tools such as Blender, SketchUp, Tinkercad and Tilt Brush help our students advance their spatial skills and to better comprehend how to create and work with geometric shapes. Spatial literacy forms a major part of national assessment programmes such as NAPLAN and the Queensland Core Skills Test. The percentage of targeted questioning in spatial literacy decreases considerably by Year 9 NAPLAN but is quite prominent in past papers for Year 5 NAPLAN.

Numerous research studies have revealed that gender differences in spatial literacies do exist through social, cultural, environmental and psychological factors, with spatial literacy forming the largest of all gender differences (Reilly, Neumanna, Andrews, 2016). However, it is also well documented that all students — regardless of gender — can be trained to improve spatial reasoning (Uttal, 2013).

At the recent National Education Summit in September, I presented on ambitious ways schools can integrate digital and design technologies to improve spatial literacy, discussing a blueprint curriculum that examines how spatial literacies can be enhanced through school-wide pedagogy advances. The core focus of the blueprint investigates smarter ways schools can link spatial literacy with the academic disciplines of mathematics and technologies. In doing so, I envisage a stronger correlation between spatial ability and success in science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses.

Unconstrained and open-ended opportunity for design driven innovation

To thrive in tomorrow’s new basics for employability we will all need an inquisition and creative confidence to engineer new ways of working. We will require a well-rounded ‘systems’ mindset, willing and able to envisage how countless components either add or lack value and how they can be leveraged to invent improved systems. Design Company IDEO have recently released Circular Design Guide along with ways to re-frame one’s thinking by adopting a systems mindset.

Bill Moggridge, IDEO cofounder and past Cooper Hewitt director once said, “Few people think about it or are aware of it, but there is nothing made by human beings that does not involve a design decision somewhere.” In education, Sir Ken Robinson reminds us about similar thinking, claiming schools kill creativity and an inattentiveness to design learning that truly nurtures and leads our students’ creative aptitude and passions.

Education is in an era of accelerated change, running alongside an inflection point in history whereby the hyper-connected global economy is driving shorter and steeper cycles of innovation (McGowan, 2016). We need to refocus, re-calibrate and redesign how we cultivate student creativity in design driven innovation, ideation and experimentation. Particularly in mathematic and scientific crisis to the workings of new technological situation and endeavour. The prospect for students, in pedagogy and practice, to design new systems and structures can often remain forfeit to laned academic traditions – and with it, we are left with a lax platform for nurturing true creativity and curiosity. Our educational pressures, high stakes exams and corporate norms stagnate and sojourn our multifarious philosophies and behaviours – manufacturing them to be fitting, traditionally convergent and expected.

There’s a shortfall in ‘design thinking’ training for teachers and there needs to be more conversation about how design thinking can influence, manage and invigorate new ways of teaching and learning.

An example of how design thinking can re-tune 21st education might include consideration of design process and design briefs that factor in elements such as:

  1. Importance of understanding user experience, empathy and interaction processes
  2. Adopting a systems mindset for design ideation
  3. More in-depth ideation/sketching and annotation skills to present problem-solving analysis and synthesis of concepts
  4. Digital literacy and presentation skills for multi-modal delivery e.g. creating explainer videos for pitching ideas and entrepreneurial education
  5. Collaboration and advantages of teamwork in design process
  6. Using authentic data sets and surveying targeted users
  7. Financial, patenting and IP processes associated with innovative prototyping
  8. Most of all, start inviting local experts into your classrooms to speed up everything!!

As educators, it is incumbent upon us to inspire, to challenge, to inform and to ignite passion and curiosity in our students. To facilitate this, we must adopt teaching practices that not only engage our students but also equip them with the skills to respond and contribute to a rapidly evolving and globalised world.

Design thinking provides students with a fresh lens to visualize their strengths, adaptability and interests for emerging job clusters. The study of design immerses our young learners into creative problem-solving processes actioning an agility and confidence to be divergent thinkers. This type of thinking will drive and empower our students [and teachers] to become the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders. Educators need to be made more aware of design thinking trends and the framework, concepts and tools that examine the depth and scope of design thinking as a new mindset for education.

Now, more than ever before, Australia needs to grow the public value of design. Education needs to anticipate greater cultivation of diverse, creative, and entrepreneur citizenry. We need enterprising and innovative design thinkers with an aptitude to make discerning decisions about the impacts and openings that technologies procure and inherit. Students who have the entitlement to study design thinking are more engaged and active learners with improved writing, presentation, collaboration, and problem solving skills.

If Australia is serious about kick-starting it’s lagging productivity growth and exports, and weaning itself off the mining boom, it must ignite and amplify a genuine interest and optimism in a new generation of design thinkers by not eradicating our children’s natural predisposition to experiment and create.

We need to train the best and brightest teachers to nurture a new generation of start-up entrepreneurs and innovators with much better access to specialist design thinking education and funding. We need to promote Australian entrepreneurial heroes in our schools just as we do our sporting, acting and singing stars and leverage their knowledge and networks.

Ultimately, we need to invest more time into teaching students that better systems will always exist and supersede, [they] just haven’t invented them yet – and it is much easier to predict what can be removed from a system than what will be designed next.

The Governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens is right — we do need to get serious about developing enterprise thinking, inventiveness, ability to adapt and take risks – and we need it in our schools.