Lotte Stenlev photo.jpg

Design to improve life: Lotte Stenlev

Lotte Stenlev is Education Director at INDEX: Design to Improve Life®, and is responsible for all initiatives concerning the post-education of teachers, challenges for school children, and consultancy tasks within the entire school systems of Denmark and school systems abroad.  Lotte is both a law and music science graduate and has been working in the field of education since 1995. Additionally, she is trained as a process consultant. Lotte has a great passion for quality education and the tools for teachers that enable them to facilitate highly structured innovative processes, aiming to create a maximum learning outcome for children and young students, supporting them on their way to becoming responsible, engaged, and creative members of society.



What is Design to Improve Life Education and why is it important?

Design to Improve Life Education is one of our three main initiatives at INDEX: Design to Improve Life® aimed at creating the next generation of change-makers. We do this by facilitating a number of programs and partnerships with schools, colleges, universities, and municipalities, where we put structured creativity on the learning agenda. Using our expertise and the Design to Improve Life Compass as a guide, we educate children and young adults about designing sustainable solutions by facilitating projects that allow them to address real world challenges. The methods were developed over three years in co-creation between students and teachers from K-12 schools, colleges, and universities in Denmark and Sweden. These methods are now being tested and implemented in more than 12 countries.

The Design to Improve Life compass

Design to Improve Life is highly important as it’s a method to guarantee our children and young adults will be prepared  with practical design skills and knowledge  when addressing future global challenges. We have no idea what the future will demand from them when it comes to jobs, technologies and problem solving. Therefore, we must empower our children with courage, curiosity, and skills to address a wide range of challenges. We believe that by nurturing their skills within creativity, navigation, communication, collaboration, information seeking, and self-management, we can prepare them for the uncertainty they will meet. These skills are in focus when working with the Design to Improve Life Compass.


What impact have you seen among students who have been taught design skills?

Over the years we have seen an enormous impact. This has been particularly associated with the Design to Improve Life Challenge where students  from K-12 and college  design their own solutions to address specific global challenges chosen by local decision makers, including politicians, organizations, companies and experts. This way we use the local implications of a global challenge as a meaningful learning resource in school, and the innovative power of the students is activated as a resource in society. In addition, some of the design solutions created by students during the Design to Improve Life challenges have actually been implemented into the community. To see how you can contribute and actually make a positive impact within your society is an invaluable experience.

The Design to Improve Life Challenge is a competition that challenges students to address problems in their local communtiy with design solutions.

We know that students who are taught the methods of Design to Improve Life are very motivated in class, but we also know they’re motivated outside the classroom. To students, it’s very empowering to know that they can actually create positive impact as they address real life problems, and not constructed or hypothetical situations designed just for the classroom. When designing solutions to real-life challenges, nothing is decided beforehand, there are many correct answers, as well as a never-ending number of smart solutions just waiting to be created. The students take this power with them into other parts of their lives. We’ve seen a lot of ‘transfers’ of particular ‘problem solving skills’ from one lesson to another, from one type of learning strategy to another, and from work in school to work at home, and many other places.

When students get first-hand experience creating design solutions to real problems, they feel empowered.


How can we enhance our understanding of the design learning process in K-12 education?

To understand the power of design processes in K-12 education, it’s a good idea to focus on motivation. Three factors that play an essential role in motivating people when it comes to solving complex tasks are:

  • Autonomy – our innate need to direct our own lives
  • Mastery –the need to and joy of learning and creating new things
  • Purpose – to do better by ourselves and our world

These three factors are also the main drivers when working with the Design to Improve Life Compass.

Teachers act as facilitators, not as experts. This means students have a greater influence on the subjects and the tasks, while teachers guide them through the process leaving space for structured creativity.

While occupied with addressing challenges, students feel the need for more knowledge and learning turns into an engaging way of developing and applying new practical skills while having fun.

The fact that working with the compass always starts with a real life challenge makes it meaningful to work towards a solution.

What do you think is the best way for schools to teach design learning?

The key to making design learning meaningful is the facilitating teacher. The purpose is, of course, very strong as well, but we all know that things that seem meaningless or unclear can suddenly appear obvious in the hands of a good teacher! In our experience, the best way for a school to teach design learning is through structured creativity with a purpose. But without the guidance from a facilitating teacher who respects the students and knows when to intervene and when to step aside, the outcome will not be satisfactory. Developing design and innovation skills demands learning situations where students depend on each other, where they need to collaborate, and situations where they need to make their own decisions. The facilitating teacher guides the students through phases that enhance these skills.

This will not happen without the students getting frustrated! As a teacher, you have to train your ability to identify the situations where you must let the students get through their frustrations on their own. Intrinsic motivation is a very strong driver, but many young children have learnt that if they get frustrated, somebody will take that frustration away immediately. These children will never get to fully feel the power of intrinsic motivation, of autonomy, mastery and purpose. If they never get that feeling, they will have difficulties understanding the responsibility and the capabilities they have when it comes to directing their own lives. Therefore, we need to train their ability to handle frustrations, and the interaction between teacher and student in the innovative design process in school is one of the ways we can do this.

In design learning, providing students the autonomy to manage their solutions is key.


How can teachers integrate design thinking into the K-12 subject areas?

Design thinking is not something that you need to integrate. Look at it the other way around. Design thinking is a helping hand, a collection of methods, and a framework that can help the teacher motivate the students and create a meaningful learning process. Skills and knowledge from all subject areas can contribute when the purpose is solving a global challenge on a local level. The teacher provides the setting – you as a teacher decide the context. In other words, you identify the individual learning goals first and then you identify the frame and the challenge, which supports that specific subject. It requires a lot of planning in the beginning, but as you get used to the way of working, it becomes more and more obvious.

Another way of setting the context is to make specific demands to the form of the solution. Of course, there is no guarantee that this way of working will always end up with innovation! But in a school context it’s satisfactory if you end up having improved the students’ innovative skills, as long as the motivation is intact.


How can we assess design learning and mindset outcomes?

When working with the Design to Improve Life Compass we use three parameters to assess the solutions that the students design: Form, Impact and Context. Form has to do with what we normally consider aesthetic parameters – color, shape, interface, materials and so on. Impact has to do with the actual improvement of life that the design can offer to the user. And the Context parameter makes sure that the design solution fits in at the time and place that it is designed for. For all three parameters, you need to be aware of economic, environmental and social sustainability.

The Design to Improve Life compass assesses three aspects of students' solutions: form, impact, and context.

But the solutions are not the only thing we need to assess when using design methods in school. To register the students’ improvements we look upon the design process as a knowledge gathering process, and a training field for innovative and creative skills. We break down these skills into smaller learning goals, which students and teachers agree on for each phase in the compass. By the end of the phase, we do a SUM UP where each students’ progress is evaluated, and all agree on goals for the next phase. This makes it easy to follow the progression and the students become aware of their own learning process. Of course, one of the very important things in this process is to agree on what goals make sense to each particular student in each particular situation.


What do you think is the future of design learning?

In the long term a change in mindset is what we’re striving for. We want coming generations to be aware of the importance of creating sustainable solutions when they address all the huge challenges they are faced with. We want to equip them with a vast range of knowledge and skills not only to improve life for themselves, but also for the rest of the world.

In the future we hope that design learning will not only be an option for school programs, but an absolute essential. As the world is rapidly changing, who knows what challenges lay ahead in the future? By fostering creative problem solving in schools, we give our youth the best chance at a fulfilling and sustainable future.

Design Learning is an essential aspect of children's education.

Note: There are several of theories about motivation. I use the perspective of Daniel H. Pink as he describes it in his book Drive (2009).


The Design to Improve Life Compass is open source