Rethinking education

A reflection on education and what it means to learn with Daniel Charny, co-founder of FixEd.


Estimated reading time: 20 minutes

Photo by Andy Dunn.

Since March 2020, businesses, schools, museums and science centres have all had to put in restrictive measures to navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic. Closures, social distancing, isolation, have all been a reality for us. As the dust begins to settle and the lockdown measures start to loosen, doors that were once closed begin to open again, revealing an outside world that is familiar but also different. The pandemic has catalysed all organisations to adjust, adapt and evolve, and in this sense created a time for reflection. In the world of education – formal and non-formal – the pandemic has highlighted new possibilities for us and is pressing us to look inward and think about how we can best serve and reach our community. 

SySTEM 2020 sat down with Daniel Charny to reflect on education during these turbulent times and to discuss what it means to learn. Daniel Charny is professor of design at Kingston and is the co-founder of the think and do tank, FixEd, a learning organisation with roots in design, with the aim to ensure more people are capable of responding creatively to change. As Daniel said we need to “rethink the purpose of learning”, so that “thoughtful, meaningful, collaborations” can be formed.

The conversation was also recorded (albeit not in the best quality, but we thought it was still too good not to share).


Q. So thank you very much, Daniel, for taking the time to sit down with us. Firstly, could you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background?

Daniel: Hello! So, I am Daniel Charny, part of “From Now On” and “FixEd” together with Dee Halligan, and I am a professor in design at Kingston University. I have been teaching design for over 25 years now. I started in industrial design, worked in this field, and then studied further at the Royal College of Art in the mid-’90s. I also got into curating with the Design Museum and then the Victorian Albert Museum (V&A) where I had an opportunity to put together an exhibition called the “Power of Making“. This exhibition was 10 years ago and really focused on our relationship with making. That propelled a whole arena of activity and directions for me. One of those was starting “Fixperts”, which is a learning program that has design and making at its core. Initially aimed as a social enterprise for graduate design education, it has proven to be exciting to bring it also into school environments.

Q.  What originally got you into design in the first place?

Daniel: I’ve always been making stuff, but I guess the cultural connection first drew me in. But having artist parents I wanted to get away to something more pragmatic. At the time when I was studying, technology was rushing ahead. Then there was this whole idea that part of a designers’ role was to keep the user’s interests at heart. Then I got into user-centred design and in particular the social aspects of it. The most exciting thing about design though is this combination of creative and critical thinking, that’s always attracted me.

Q. How did FixEd start. Did that happen after the Power of Making exhibition at the V&A? And I also saw that you don’t really call FixEd a think tank?

Daniel: We call it a think-and-do tank. Actually, FixEd came after Fixperts. As an umbrella organisation that can house research and advocacy alongside the learning programmes. Including its flagship format, Fixperts which indeed came out after Power of Making. To some extent, it’s an applied form of the thinking that underlined the exhibition. But it is more focused on the social application of creativity. Fixperts is a simple idea where people who are good at making and solving problems go out and find an insight provider to be their Fix Partner. Together with this person, they identify an issue, preferably a repeating problem. Then the Fixperts develop a possible solution by prototyping and get real face to face feedback. It’s driven by a real person’s needs and their authentic context rather than being driven by a 3rd person marketing brief.

Power of Making exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Creator: VA Photo Studio.

Q. So instead it is more about solving problems and creating value?

Daniel: Depends what you mean by value. Put simply, this is about creative problem solving, so there is immediate value to the user and other users who might benefit. There is the secondary value to the people around the person, that might be family or carers. But maybe most importantly the project models the process for the learners, something they can apply to other situations in their professional practice. Making them more valuable. Then there is also the social value of making for and with others. And there is the sustainable value that comes with the attitude and material intelligence that is developed when prototyping with a fixing mindset.

Predominantly in the last 40 – 50 years much of Design education has been driven by briefs set from a marketing perspective. These marketing briefs are dominated by the commercial agenda, rather than an environmental or social priority. They manifest the paradigm of design for manufacturing at scale and often ignore the real-life and consequences of the designs. Fixperts takes a different approach in learning how to use your creativity, with social benefit and impact as the topmost agenda. Then if it’s an idea that can be scaled up, great. It’s not anti-market but doesn’t start from there. Fixperts started at a university level in 2013 when I wrote the learning guidelines for it. It’s now taught in over 40 universities in 20 countries and thousands of people are involved. One of the things that has made it popular is that at the end of a Fixperts project the team presents a short film telling the story of the people, the problem and the fix. These stories are collected and shared on our free one source archive, where we now have over 600 of these films in all kinds of languages.

These films are then also used as teaching resources. I’m especially excited that teachers in primary and secondary schools show and reference them to teach design, art, engineering, maths and science. It has brought us to develop and adapt Fixperts for schools and has changed our team.  We now work with school teachers, not only from design and technology but also from maths and science. We created resources for teachers in schools, which was initially very much about the English curriculum because we wanted to see if it could be within formal education but also within school hours. There’s a lot of maker activities offered in club versions and through standalone programs. But, very few really within formal school hours.

Then in 2016 we started working with a UK exam board, they approached us to be a significant partner on a STEM technical award. That was very exciting. From the interest we got, we decided to release all the materials for free, going back to our open-source values. One thing that became evident is that Fixperts for universities was very different from Fixperts for schools. Obviously, at the university level, you can send the students out to their communities to find their Fix Partners, in schools you have to come up with alternatives and then also adjust activities to the different skill levels. It was a steep learning curve for us.  Two years later the UK STEM qualification was blocked and set as an award. Substantial as that was it still entered a landscape where there was a significant decline in schools taking up design and technology. We also found little support for project-based learning.  This coupled with our frustration with curriculum restrictions, we came up with a completely different format called Fixcamp. Fixcamp is an engineering summer camp, summer activity, which is about solving the biggest world problems, using the UN SDG 11 which is all about sustainable cities and communities as a base. And we gave those challenges to 9 to 14-year olds and invited seasoned engineers, material scientists and creative technologists to drop in and take part. We ran that in South London for three weeks. In total, about 250 children worked in teams to make their own tools and about 60 prototypes of ideas for a future were formed. This project created a whole new set of learning activities that were different from Fixperts. So, we needed an umbrella for all of these different programs. And that’s where FixEd came in, being the new home for Fixperts and Fixcamp. As a result of our experience, we also realised we needed to connect to other organisations who care about the same things. And that’s why we decided to go for a format of a think tank. A think tank convenes and a think tank connects and raises issues, and then maybe the results can be on a policy level contribution. Our next project is very much to do with this idea of much more open connections between schools and other actors in their community. It is why we’re very interested in the idea of open schooling.

Young learners attending the engineering summer camp, Fixcamp, solving daily challenges through designing, making and problem-solving. Photo by FixEd.

Q. So FixEd’s approach is kind of similar to the makerspace methodology? What ways does it differ?

Daniel: In parts it is similar. We’re not focused on the space, we’re focused on the program and how it can be transferred in different locations. How can it happen in a regular classroom that doesn’t have the kit? What are the things you can learn through making in a classroom that doesn’t have the workshop resources? Because that maps onto one of the key aspects which we’re concerned with – access. Maker spaces, as brilliant as they can be, are also very much of a barrier for a lot of people. But, the ethos and the mindset that exists in makerspaces and in the making culture, we’re very much connected to that. We have always been about being in touch and listening with people as much as making, being creative and just being more human together using technology.  That kind of creative problem solving, sharing ideas, sharing the process. Makerspaces are also a site of material flows and material intelligence. At best they are places for combining those very valuable design tools, by learning, observing and thinking through making. So, prototyping is probably the key here because you can prototype in a makerspace, in a classroom, or even at home. The idea of prototyping and trying out an idea, trying it out in materials and making your idea in response to the needs and possibilities are at the heart of this. Makerspaces have had a limited appeal in terms of access for all people, but they’ve had a great trajectory in terms of what we are seeing now with this rapid response and innovation in producing PPE during the outbreak of COVID-19. It is currently a very interesting arena and model for informal local participation in supply chains. Can we learn from what is happening right now on the importance of the role of making in people’s lives?  They also connect to another very strong core interest of ours, which is resilience, agency, local fabrication, that connects to circular economy. There is a link between feeling you can make something, the place you can make it and how it fits into the bigger picture.

Q. I ask this because there’s quite a number of these spaces, like Living Labs, Fab Labs, Makerspaces, and they all share similarities but do differ.

Daniel: I think that one of the key things is to see them as communities before you see them as kit and equipment. And many people started with, oh, makerspace. That’s it. Let’s get the kit. And then no one showed up because it was in the wrong place, so they didn’t fulfil on the promise for economic renewal, innovation and improving employability. Because there was no affinity between the type of kit and activities and to specific needs of a local community. I think understanding the cultural roles of makerspaces should become before it’s technical ability. Each of these spaces should figure out their purpose first. Then they can figure out things like which materials should the kit be for, what level of precision the tools we need to offer and what sizes of things are going to be made. Above all what they all share is that they should be thought of as creative hubs.

Q. Why do you think making is so important and why is it so important within the formal education system?

Daniel: I think while we’re making you can bring together creative thinking and critical thinking. There’s something very rich in that. In terms of learning, you’re modelling the thing itself, but you’re also modelling your way of solving problems. Making is at the heart of society. There has always been a very strong aspect of making together.

I think one of the things that making does is that it is a manifestation of our physical connection to the world.

We’re actually physically connecting an idea to something outside our body to a material that is part of the world. It’s an externalisation of things going on in our head. It’s a form of expression and communication.

Q. Now I want to divert our attention to the current circumstances we find ourselves in – the current pandemic, and how we’re seeing a lot of changes in the formal sector and also the non-formal sector. You’re seeing a lot of different methods being employed by them. For example, formal schools in Denmark branched out and started using very different spaces to learn in. From your perspective, how have these institutions been coping and replacing their usual programs?

Daniel: I think this is going to accelerate a few things. I’m also very mindful of the fact that a lot of the online learning teaching has been an emergency response and not actually a thoughtful, mindful plan. You know, there’s been a lot of really creative and resilient responses. But actually, it’s emergency teaching that’s happening, not necessarily what online learning could be. And like you’re saying, physically it is changing, but also in terms of where you are learning online in the formal and non-formal. YouTube is really a dynamic arena of making to a certain extent. And that’s a non-formal environment catering towards learning at your own pace. Although it is online so it is limited. I’ve heard of teachers that have found ways of teaching through tv and even local newspapers.

We can say that the pandemic is certainly highlighted our four big reasons that we set out last year for why it’s urgent to reassess designing and making in schools. And I think these things are playing out right now at a faster pace. We called the first one “Our house is on fire”. Obviously, that is about climate crisis but just as much that the changing world demands creative responses. And I think we’re seeing more of that. More students at least on a university level and tertiary education are responding more to values. They are interested in change, how it happens and even who is behind the things they oppose. In schools and in companies the issues, the subjects and the sustainability agendas on climate crisis are becoming more and more about shaping the world around us.

The second driver is that in a society of consumer culture, which is requiring less and less knowledge or skills from its citizens, a future without designing and making will limit people’s ability to shape the world around them. We titled that agenda “A world that can’t use scissors” and that means, a world that can’t use scissors is not really viable when you are stuck at home and you need to do a lot more by yourself. I think people have been making more together from baking to fixing. I think it has accelerated making at home, and maybe that’s a response that can be part of the feedback to consumer culture.

The third is really maybe why we are talking today, and that is “Education everywhere”. Between online platforms and other sites, schools as a place may be less important, or at least not the centre of the paradigm of education in the future. And that’s why we’re really interested in the open schooling idea, connecting to other actors in your community, including your home and your parents, but also other experts that could suddenly find themselves in the education arena. I think designing and making are well-matched to a vision of learning without walls.

And the final one is to do with shifting away from disciplines. We called that one “Design versus designing”. When design skills are increasingly used in the improvement of anything from government policy to organisational strategy, apps, bridges and kettles we need to think about how we teach it in schools. The act of designing as a tool rather than as a subject. It would become part of developing ‘applied creativity’ which might now become a key skill for all learners. I think these four trends are being demonstrably accelerated and the responses to COVID-19 are playing out in different ways through them. In the immediate term? I don’t know how much of this will affect schools, but maybe in the mid or long term. Hopefully, it does go in the direction where the systems and curriculums are able to open up more.

Q. I guess it is super difficult to predict the future and predict what life is going to be like after this pandemic. But the main hope is schools becoming more open and acquainted to the idea of making?

Daniel: The need is getting more obvious, isn’t it? The appetite is maybe growing. There are more conversations happening, like the one we’re having right now. There is funding going into some of these things. The big question is the capability and the scale, and also, can it really be inclusive? That’s the big one because it’s the equality issue and access that becomes so substantial.

Q. It is growing though, there are a lot more educational programs forming?

Daniel: There was a lot on offer also before but they are becoming more visible and there are specific new initiatives. To mention some – Raspberry Pie, Stem Learning, BBC bite size. M.I.T. came up with a COVID response principles, the Institute of Making also. There’s a lot of other places that have really excelled in their offering. For example, A New Direction in the United Kingdom, but there are others in global networks too. For example, Fab Academy. There are also museums that have stepped in and offered their valuable resources.  But will they actually be available to everyone? We need to think about access to tech. That’s the real challenge. Other concerns surround mental health too. When learning programmes are fragmented, there’s less of an understanding and there’s definitely less of that critical safety net schools give you. People beyond your family actually being responsible for you. And not to forget the most significant thing of when you are lucky enough to have teachers that know the children and care about them. How do we create those networks in fragmented situations? Really, it’s to do with way more collaboration and managing competition. I think that’s the key here.

Q. Do you see formal and non-formal learning institution changing after this?

Daniel: Non-formal learning is growing a lot because synchronous learning is being challenged with the other opportunities of catching up and doing it later and doing it at your own pace. That’s likely to have a big impact. When we learn and how we discuss what we learn are going to become very distinct. In universities anyway – in schools I don’t know, because there is an even more significant social aspect to it – I’m having a look at how younger people that are around me are responding. Some are loving it and some are really suffering from the lack of the physicality and they really can’t concentrate. They miss their friends. They miss the tacit aspect. They miss the informal conversations. They miss the banter and performance. It’s so important to them. Sometimes the reason they are unhappy or hate science is that they sit next to someone they don’t like. Not because they hate the subject. How is the education system going to respond to these needs?

I think there are really exciting new platforms where they are watching content, and can also be in touch at the same time. Semi-formal community tools. The things I’ve seen in the comments and the chats online have been very rich, and sometimes, at least at the university level, people have more time to formulate their questions. They’re not concerned with other people looking at them when they’re talking. So actually, the learning there goes up and the level and the deeper conversation go up. They can learn at different hours. In schools, I think more learning styles will be accommodated. If we’re lucky. I think the thing that struck me the most was a lot of experts and a lot of kids are talking about and answering the question of why learn? What’s the motivation? I have had chats with 16-17-year-olds who no longer have exams suddenly don’t see why they should learn because the motivation or the reasons have changed. The purpose of learning has been so test-driven. If learning is co-opted for exams and then jobs, that’s a trajectory that is not boding well when the job market is so quickly going to fluctuate and change. So how will the education system respond to that? And you can read into the online offers we are seeing popping up, foregrounding a mix of creativity and wellbeing a lot more than they were before. There are hopes.

Q. Are there challenges in trying to get kids making online?

Daniel: Yes, of course, but I think less so for kids, for instance with Minecraft, Instagram or Youtube they’re easy to move between online and offline. It’s this blended thing that is of value here. What is interesting in the responses of the different organisations is which ones have tapped into what they already have and made it more visible, which ones have introduced something new and which ones are talking about changing direction. And you know, the danger is that this whole “being seen to do something about COVID resources” might and is producing things that are not thought through. So from our perspective, that’s why I keep on going back to those four drivers – the environment, education everywhere, making skills and skills beyond discipline. I think the resources that relate to these issues could be more useful in education. Hopefully, these four agendas will be part of shaping emerging offers.

Q. So if you had an Aladdin’s lamp. What would you hope to see come out of this?

Daniel: Thoughtful, meaningful, collaborations. Open systems that know how to offer equality, well-being and promote mental health. These kinds of systems that are designed to have equality and access at their heart and are designed to support the learners emotionally, but also really tap into that richness of the fragmentation. All these resources mean that more people can get to them. So, I think if the Aladdin’s lamp would make learning a skill and maybe help people connect to the purpose of learning, that would be the wish.

If people grow up to want to learn, to understand why learning is something that they are interested in and see that they are learning in order to have better lives, not in order to have better jobs.

The goal is to have their own purpose in learning, not the test or the exams or the markets. They will also need to be there somehow. But I think it’s about rethinking the purpose of learning. Their purpose is not to pass a test that you are setting at the end. Their purpose is to improve the world we are living in or improve their lives. Perhaps if you can set this Aladdins’s lamp to conjure up the appetite to learn we can then hand it over to the education system. 

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