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Applying Design Thinking in a System that Discourages Thinking

Initial Design Thinking Session. Kayany Foundation's Malala 2 School, Saadnayel, Lebanon. July 10, 2017.

Initial Design Thinking Session. Kayany Foundation's Malala 2 School, Saadnayel, Lebanon. July 10, 2017.

The design thinking process is one of problem solving, empathy, and innovation. It uses reality as a starting point and relies a lot on synthesis and analysis: on the ability to interact with people in real life, put yourself in their shoes and build on what you encounter in order to reach new ideas and solutions for the problem you’re trying to solve. As part of the process, design thinking encourages you to get creative first and let your imagination run wild with ideas before assessing what is financially and technologically feasible in order to finally come up with efficient and specifically tailored solutions. It is assumed that this creativity is innate, that everyone is a designer, and that everyone can be a creator. But what if this creativity has been forever suppressed? What if the act of free thinking itself is the greatest obstacle? How do you bring it out?

That was the biggest challenge that I faced during the digital literacy bootcamp with Syrian refugee girls from the Malala 2 school with the design thinking group projects aimed at solving problems that they face in their own community. This portion of the bootcamp became a pilot, in and of itself, on how to teach design thinking to school kids, in general, and to Syrian refugees in the Middle East, in particular.

As I was deciding how to structure the design thinking portion, it was these dilemmas that plagued me. Usually it is good if the designer is clueless about the topic at hand because they question what “experts” take for granted, leading them to uncover fundamental insights. But what if the act of questioning itself is the greatest obstacle?

Any design school worth its while follows the “experience is the greatest teacher” approach and teaches you through your work. It gives you the freedom to explore on your own and then receive constructive criticism on your work accordingly as a way of learning. But what if you can't even be left alone to try?

Their lack of exposure is not so much due to the fact that they are refugees, but it is more about the education system that they have been a part of - first, in Syria, and now, in Lebanon: a system that hands you down information and never asks you to think about them, a system where most exams consist of regurgitating information, and where success in official exams hinges on how many exams from previous years a student can review and, most often, memorize. An education system where there is no room for personal opinion, free thought and analysis.

To counter this fundamental challenge, we had to offer more guidance than the typical design course while being flexible enough to change those instructions based on how the students were reacting to them. At the same time, I didn’t want it to go against the essence of design thinking and have it extremely structured. If you boil it down to a process to be mindlessly applied, it loses its intrinsic value proposition, as the design thinking process is a conduit for your own subjective creativity to come out. As a result of having to plan generally and adapt accordingly, we realized after the first session that we couldn't print out handouts but had to write all instructions on the board.

It took us considerably longer to go from a general topic to a problem definition - to branch out from topics like "food", "early marriage”, “peace”, “girls’ education” and so forth to get to a specific problem that they experience. I had them map out daily activities, experiences, issues, wishes... Still, it was difficult to see the guiding questions as nothing more than starting points and guidelines. Instead, students obsessively wrote the questions down, in a calligraphic way no less, and attempted to answer them as eloquently and literally as possible, sometimes even quoting the Quran for answers and totally disregarding the reality-based directions. They wrote long sentences and even attached the post-it notes together to fit paragraphs on them. At the beginning, there was the persistent fear of getting it right. Students followed me around asking if they had the correct answers. When I told them that there are no right or wrong answers, they looked at me with blank expressions - as I knew they've never been told that before. Later on, some started repeating that sentence with a smile. Others were frustrated that it’s not so straightforward. A thirteen-year-old girl told me. “I’ve never thought this much in my life, I can't think anymore!”

Slowly, we started gaining momentum but faced the same problem again when we were transitioning to concept generation. Breaking that shell of linear thinking wasn’t long-lasting, and going beyond the obvious was tricky. When first asked to work on solutions, they quickly reverted back to generalized solutions like “putting girls in school for girls' education” and “eliminating early marriage”, foregoing previous instructions to create tailored solutions that stem from the specific problems they encounter in their communities. With more mentoring, they were able to come up with rudimentary ideas for projects that are feasible with their available means and resources such as a Whatsapp-based group of job listings and job seekers (similar to a “platform”) for employment of female refugees between 18-30; a food distribution system between restaurants in the Bekaa region and refugees/vulnerable Lebanese in need; art murals depicting peace in the Bekaa town of Bar Elias done in collaboration with Lebanese students to counteract the negative image of Syrian refugees in Lebanon; and full-fledged awareness campaigns in camps in partnership with their school/NGO on the importance of education, and so forth.

As with everything, the students' receptivity towards design thinking differed based on the individual. Some just wanted to get it over with, while others liked the challenge, were pushing themselves, and working well as a group. One girl told me that this project really inspired her to go beyond pen and paper and have a real impact on girls education. Towards the end, some students mentioned how they are thinking differently. Even the principals noticed the shift; they told us that it’s the first time they saw their students so immersed and excited even though the work load was intensive.

Our bootcamp culminated with their participation in a mobile application hackathon as part of the Arab Women in Computing conference held at the American University of Beirut, where they applied and incorporated some of the skills they learned throughout this program. Four teams formed from the Malala II girls that attended the bootcamp won the competition: one team targeted the issue of self-care/psychological health, another worked on educating their parents, one came up with a food bank concept, and the final winning team was formed of Syrian and Lebanese girls working on traffic solutions.

What struck me from this experience is that when you talk to the students, they surprisingly understand the topics they chose quite well, but synthesis and analysis were alien to them. It is the non-existence of free thought and expressing opinions that stands in their way. It’s the free-flowing "why" and the “how” that act as the biggest obstructs. They are very conscious and mature, but what they need is someone to install that conduit, to help them harness and evolve their ideas and give them the means to create.

I can only speak of this case, but I do think that design thinking is particularly challenging for all young people their age regardless of education systems. In fact, most education systems discourage free thinking and idea exploration. Still, it is essential to teach such skills, as the future of work is rapidly changing and becoming contingent on fast adaptation, technological know-how, and on “automating work and humanizing jobs”. Critical thinking, empathy, and the ability to innovate sit at the top of essential 21st century skills needed to navigate this future, especially for refugees who are more at risk of being left behind in this rapidly-evolving global economy.


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