With her Designathon Works learning method grounded on design thinking the child is understood as a complete human being endowed with great creative capacity, Emer Beamer enables teachers to tap into the natural space of play within a child and among children, to stimulate their interest and engagement in social issues, and challenging them to design solutions for these issues within the context of their formal education curriculum using modern technology.
The New Idea
Emer’s idea starts with children acknowledging that they have inherent abilities to create change, fortified by innate creative capacities. By acknowledging this in children, each child can be seen as naturally brimming with creativity, and as members of society capable of contributing bold, new solutions for urgent social issues.
Focusing on kids between the age of 6-12 years old, Emer’s organization Designathon Works trains teachers to recognize children’s creative capacities. She then trains teachers to see and use play as a rich and natural entry point to develop children’s interest in social issues and in devising solutions with them. Drawing on principles from design thinking, the method creates a space where children define for themselves the social issues they see as important, and with the energy of play, devise solutions and create actual prototypes of these solutions.
To aid the process, Emer also draws from modern day children’s natural inclination towards technology. Instead of being (educated as) passive users of technology, Emer creates an opportunity for children to be active producers of it. She uses elements of the technology Maker Fest to create innovations for problems they consider as important, relevant and urgent. To this end, she includes a technology kit for children to be able to build their prototypes.
Emer’s method enriches the educational curriculum by showing children the wider social relevance and potential application of what they are learning. The method asks children to apply and revisit knowledge (like math, biology, nature and science) as they design solutions. This adaptability can pave the way for the method to be utilized widely within the formal education system. Since the method focuses on inner capacities all children, regardless of background, race, ability or learning situation, can utilize this method. Recognizing that each child has within herself/himself something valuable to contribute lends to the inclusive nature of the method. This method is also suited to be applied in an out-of-school setting.
Emer’s innovation is centered around involving children in societal issues. In doing so she shows how the inner change maker in young generations has a role to play in global issues. As adults, we are polluting and destroying the world they, our children, will live in. Emer lives by a simple message: children should not be excluded from society until adulthood, society should take children seriously and acknowledge their capabilities at a young age. Emer’s biggest motivator in all of her projects is the importance for a child to be heard. In her words: “There isn’t a child who doesn’t have an idea, and there isn’t a child who doesn’t want this idea to be heard and to be seen.”
With its current focus of standardized methods and test-based assessments, education is draining the ability in both teachers and children alike to creatively engage and contribute to the world. Society has overlooked a key resource for creative thinking. By considering idea generation and solution design for a better future as an adult endeavor and therefore beyond kids’ abilities and realm of concern, society has been missing out on valuable ideas while pacifying future generations.
Adults viewing children as “incomplete,” boxes them into a category of toys and playgrounds, without consideration for strengths they inherently have as children: children are strong when it comes to play, creativity, and shooting for the stars with their ideas. This limited line of thinking is hurting two fronts: society and its quest to find answers and solutions to its societal issues , and two, children’s growing exclusion from building the world they will live in. In designing solutions for complex, large-scale social issues, adults are challenged to exercise their creativity. Due to the amount of experiences adults have, there is a tendency for their formed knowledge, their schema, and biases to affect their thinking and limit the creative process. Fresh perspectives and truly creative ideas are rare and often hard to come by. This in turn affects the process and the rate by which a solution can be developed and be put to use.
As the saying goes: ‘If you judge a fish by its ability to climb trees, it’s going to spend the rest of its life believing it is stupid’. This quote illustrates the way in which we judge and treat children today. This limiting perspective hurts children in the long run. By adults limiting endeavors to and among themselves, children are left unable to shape the world they will inhabit. They will eventually find themselves living in a world, fully determined by and resulting from the decisions of the adults who had gone before them. With their capacities overlooked, they have to accept society at whatever state it is in.
With the advent of the internet age, people were finding kindred spirits around the globe at previously unbelievable speeds, the world became smaller, information technology gave the power to connect with like-minded people, share ideas, voice opinions with more and more people. Technology is progressing exponentially, and our generation has the opportunity to benefit from the seemingly limitless liberating and equalizing opportunities this creates. However, with these fantastic opportunities all around us, we are taught little more than to go along with a culture of passive consumption of technology.
Being born in the digital age, the youth have a natural inclination towards information and communication technology (ICT). However schools give little other input than to show children how to be passive consumers. One of the key and values of technology is that it is a strong media for activism, community building, and airing out strong social messages, opportunitities for sharing are unlimited. Its potential to liberate and be an equalizing tool is huge. Our next generation is lost if we do not teach them to use this liberating, equalising power of ICT. Emer envisions a world where a child can hack a tablet when the program on it does not suit his or her purposes. It’s our responsibility to teach our children how to be active users of information and communication technology and seize the power coming from its proper use to build their futures. Left without guidance on how to actively create and utilize technology with intent and purpose, the youth will miss out on this opportunity.
Emer developed Designathon Works with the vision on enriching education for children after having an in-depth understanding of the capacities of children due to her decades of entrepreneurial experience in the education field. Designathon Works is a learning method based on the strong conviction that children already in themselves are capable of contributing to society. The method uses play as a natural entry point to initiate the interest of children in social issues, and with the energy of play have the children design and prototype solutions for these issues.
Emer’s learning method works in three steps. First, there is an introduction to a social topic which links to material taught in the formal education curriculum (biology or math for example). Children are involved in a discussion on the topic. In the second step, children brainstorm and design ideas. With the aid of a technology kit, children then proceed to create actual prototypes of their solutions. Bringing their solutions to life not only makes the process more concrete, it also encourages a “maker-attitude” when it comes to ICT. This sends the message to children that they can in fact use both technology and what they learn in school to improve their lives and those of others. Using the child’s perspective and playing on their strength of creativity creates a sense of agency amongst children.
“Ask a 10-year-old how to solve the problem of cleaning up trash, and you might end up with a concept like the "De-Waster 5000," a helicopter that scoops plastic out of landfills and the ocean—and then uses a solar-powered flamethrower to melt the trash into beds for homeless people. In other words, you'll get something that probably wouldn't occur to an adult designer.” - Emer
In the Netherlands, the method is being used in 6 schools for pilot programs. In combining all her activities she has reached a total of 1800 students and 267 teachers. Recently the Expertisecentrum Wetenschap en Techniek Noord-Holland gave her a 3 year grant to bring the Designathon to teachers in two other schools in Amsterdam. The committee wrote that the Designathon program was exactly the kind of education they envisaged when opening the call for proposals.
A recent policy has been adapted in the Netherlands that stipulates all schools should have 40 hours of ‘nature and science’ a year included in their curricula by 2020. The current average in schools is 10 hours a year. Emer’s method anticipates schools looking for ways to offer those additional hours through teaching. Currently piloting the Designathon Works method with some progressive schools in the Netherlands, Emer believes her method to be finalized by the time most schools jump into action in 2018.
On a global level, it is mainly Emer’s track record as a serial social entrepreneur in the field of education that provides confidence in her ability to scale. Previous social enterprises such as Nairobits and Butterfly Works have allready reached significant global scale. Butterfly works has launched 48 projects in 25 countries. In this social venture, Emer developed “The World Starts With Me”, showing young people the importance of establishing agency over their own body. This e-learning course has been adapted to 22 countries, and was integrated into the national educational curriculum on sexual education by a couple of countries. Nairobits, the first social venture Emer founded, is dedicated to working with youth from impoverished backgrounds to enable them to use their natural creative abilities, to start learning (ICT vocational training), and from there, start rebuilding their own lives. Nowadays Nairobits operates in 5 countries and equips thousands of young people annualy with the skills needed to find employment after graduation.
As a testament to the method’s adaptability and inclusive nature, Emer has pilot tested her method with children who are differently-abled. In the Philippines, she started working with a local partner to pilot the Designathonworks method. In this initiative, students with cerebral palsy designed devices to help the environment, and help with their own disabilities. Teachers were surprised to see the innovative solutions their students had made. Through the process, teachers gained a deeper understanding of their student’s reflective processes, and highlighted that truly each child is endowed with great capacities. Children who are otherwise often dismissed due to their disabilities can now be recognized as having something valuable to contribute. Additionally, the children themselves felt incredibly proud of their inventions. Currently, Emer is working with a special education group in Amsterdam West for her method to be used for children with learning disabilities. She is also testing the method in Kenya, for youth who are differently-abled. She had been asked by Sonali (an Indian Ashoka Fellow) to come and work with disabled children there as well.
Part of her scaling strategy is based upon the Global Designathon event. Emer holds an international event where children from different countries simultaneously embark on the Designathon Works process with a specific social topic as focus. In one day, children learn about any theme or topic of choice. The Global Designathon Event connects schools all around the world with children from various continents video calling each other to share their progress and solutions. The Global Designathon Event (2014) has connected 150 children in the Philippines, Brazil, Ireland, Germany, Kenya, Uganda and Bangladesh. Many children are expected to return for the experience in 2016. The event also allows her to scale her work into other countries, catching the attention of other educational partners who can help her grow. Such partners can then spearhead the movement in their own respective countries.
Emer is finding support in scaling her efforts from the network of partners she built over the past 20 years. Specifically from her previous two social ventures, Nairobits and Butterfly works. Scaling of Designaton Works will extensively draw on Emer’s network of partners. In Kenya for example, one of the participating children from Nairobits organized the school’s participation in the Global Designathon Event. In Uganda, two children from a spin-off of Nairobits called Kampabits helped Emer bring her work into Uganda.
Emer is always on the look out to showcase the ideas children have and the prototypes they built, most often at events outside the school setting. For instance, interactive science museum NEMO has incorporated her method for their exhibitions in the Netherlands. Emer has also worked with the municipality of Amsterdam on the topic of Circular Economy. For this event, attendees, including children, were asked to design a no-waste city. The activity resulted in 50 children developing solutions. These solutions were then used as reference in a report formulating an advice to the government on this issue.
Another example of Emer showcasing children’s talent was during one Design-a-thon where children designed a packaging free supermarket. Emer presented these ideas to 1,200 adults at the ‘Motivaction Stempunt’. This organization usually provides services to businesses that need market research. Emer used this platform to show how children’s ideas are perceived in the same process. She received the feedback that approximately 31% of participants would shop in the supermarket designed by children.
Emer is working on all levels to get more support for her idea in the Netherlands, discussing with policy makers from the Ministry of Education. Working on the topics of education, diversity and integration, Simone Kukenheim, a lawmaker in the city of Amsterdam, wrote about Emer. She believes her approach is the perfect combination of introducing students to innovation via technology and teaching them how to apply their knowledge for a sustainable world. She is currently working on a new education reform plan which includes the recommendation to use the Designathon method.
Emer’s potential impact is drawn from an indicator that illustrates the positive effect that play has on a child’s development. In a study undertaken by the OECD on global educational outcomes it was indicated that systems allowing for 2 additional years of play, such as those in Scandinavian and Dutch schools result in the same score for Dutch and Scandinavian children as for American and Indian children, who start formal education sooner. As a strong believer in the power of play for nourishing creativity, Emer uses the same principles in her method for this reason.
Emer is eager to set-up an impact study to get the required evidence of the impact on students and teachers in their development of changemaker skills. However, she has to increase the numbers of students reached, and find the required funding for this. As a start she has nevertheless gained the financing to start a 3 year program in the province North-Holland to work with teachers to reflect on her method and how to belter apply it in the classroom setting. She will be supported in this by a lector at the VU (Free University of Amsterdam).
To fund her work, schools are asked to pay a licensing fee per year. At this point the main sources of financing for the initiative come from licences, the sales from the maker-kits, fees from holding specially commissioned events in out-of-school settings, and Emer’s own personal savings. Emer plans on setting up a not-for-profit foundation, for the further implementation and scaling of Designathon Works.
Emer grew up in Ireland and accompanied her religious parents to church every day. As a child, Emer was enamored with saintly life and felt an early calling to help the less fortunate. Seeing how people lived in poverty in Ireland, she and her mother raised funds to give to a representative of St. Vincent du Paul. During this time, she was struck by the presence of inequality in the world, and felt the strong need to do something about it. Although Emer had a crisis of faith at the age of 16 and decided to leave the Church, her social drive remained.
As Emer likes to say: “Children are the last frontier of emancipation”. Emer never got a lot of attention from her parents due to specific circumstances. This left her feeling as if she was never seen, nor taken seriously by them. While having difficulties at home, Emer also did not find any support in the education system. These experiences left Emer wrestling with two big questions: how she could find her role in the world, and why there is so much inequality in it. Believing no child should go through the same experience, Emer devotes her time to children, to show them they are important, deserving attention and to be taken seriously. She strongly believes that education should therefore show children that their ideas have value, as this will allow them to find their place in the world as they develop, rather than confound them when they are abruptly pushed into adulthood.
After studying Business Administration for one year, Emer realized that it was not the way to change the world. It was at this point she started at the Rietveld Academy. Here she discovered the unique empowerment and equalizing influence of the internet (technology). She graduated from the academy, with the knowledge that she wanted to share this liberating power of internet with other youth. This, together with encouraging children to take agency over their own lives, eventually became a recurring theme throughout her work.
Nairobits is the first social enterprise Emer founded. In the documentary “Email from Africa” a 25 year old Emer states that she started her initiative to show the reality of what it is like to live in a developing country. What ’s so fascinating about how Emer did this, and arguably what put her ahead of her time in terms of European development projects in Africa 25 years ago, is that she felt the only way she could do this was to have people themselves tell their own stories.
Emer’s second social adventure was when she co-founded Butterfly works. Topics tackled by the organization include reproductive health, entrepreneurship, digital learning and peace building. As with the sexuality education curriculum she developed “The World Starts With Me”, Emer likewise co-developed the initiative Learning about Living. This initiative reached over 100,000 youth on reproductive health education. Another project, Great Idea, helps supplement the gaps in education brought on by war in Afghanistan by using solar power to broadcast lessons given by teachers to remote areas through videos on mobile phones.