Magic Garden - the R&D Incubator
How might we envision the future classroom? A classroom that increases children’s creative and learning potential to create the next generation of morally brave pioneers and change makers?
The Magic Garden was an R&D incubator I built in a Lean UX & Startup team, and in partnership with preschools in Australia and America. Its purpose was to prove a new discovery I made in how humans learn through play, by developing and commercialising technologies for the future classroom. To translate the theory into practice, I researched and created a pathbreaking design philosophy specifically for educational technologies. The incubator helped our team develop best practices, validate the market and scientifically prove the power of my theory, design philosophy and their implications on schooling.
The solution we incubated became an online and immersive interactive theatre that triggered pre-literate children, their families and educators to begin role playing and be philosophical together in an unlimited range of digitally projected settings they, themselves created. In addition, the design was a first to routinely enable parents who missed their children and being engaged in their imaginative stories, to role play with them, via our tele-presence software. The cross-channel solution became the Internet of Learning Spaces and covered all touchpoints: Mixed Realities, AI, digital (desktop and mobile), spatial, physical and services.
The impacts on schooling included many. Here are just a few:
- 3 year olds focused 3-9 times longer.
- 4 year olds gained the conceptual reasoning of 7 year olds.
- Aggressively-behaving children routinely experienced a calm focus, being deep in thought and collaborative.
Time: 3 months discovery of the theory + 6 months R&D and incubation
Team: Industrial Designer, UX and Service Designer, Full stack web developers, Early Childhood educators, children's philosophers
- Karin Murris – Full Professor of Pedagogy and Philosophy at the School of Education at the University of Cape Town
- Marti Mongiello – Advisor, MBA, Former Executive Chef to the U.S. President & Master Strategist
Strategy in 4 stages
- Discovery of the theory and creation of a design philosophy through secondary research and contextual enquiries. Comparative analysis to produce a Blue Ocean strategy.
- Understanding the intractable dilemma faced by educators, preschools and families globally, using Lean UX methods involving contextual enquiries.
- Proving the theory and developing best practices by envisioning, prototyping and experiencing the future classroom and its educational programs together with our team, preschools and their parents.
- Incubating and scientific measurements using contextual enquiries embedded in preschool excursions and incursions.
Stage 1. Discovery of a new theory of learning and design philosophy
1.1 Secondary research into the folklore of children’s street games, Gamification and child development lead to the discovery of a new theory of human learning.
Hypothesis: Learning through play is in our DNA. Designs increase children’s creative and learning potential by:
- Prioritising using play activities and tools we have mastered through evolution and avoid activities and tools we are and will remain weak in as a species for a long time to come.
- Prioritise viewing our relationship to our environment and technologies like AI as being equal, so that we leverage children’s natural sense of curiosity to accelerate discoveries of the planet around us and further their and the educators’ own ideas and emergent knowledge.
More specifically, designs need as much as possible to:
- Facilitate the essence of street games like role playing. Children have evolved to use these games as their primary and most effective method for being creative and learning.
- Avoiding using text, numbers and technologies that require people to learn how to operate them – things the human species have not had enough time to evolve to master.
1.2 A Comparative study showing the strengths and weaknesses of current educational technologies, teaching spaces and methods revealed a Blue Ocean Strategy.
Problem definition: The way educational technologies are currently designed, hinders the creative and learning potential of children and educators because learning to operate the technology is the first step.
Next learning goal:
To see if the hypothesised alternative way of designing learning experiences and technologies works, by:
Testing if and how ancient play activities like role play increase opportunities in preliterate children to leverage their curiosity to be philosophical.
1.3 Contextual enquiry in the form of a Children’s Philosophy program:
Children aged 4-10 used an interactive model of a time machine to imagine where they would travel to and why.
- Pre-literate children do philosophy using the arts.
- Children wanted to create the world they imagined and did so using stories and role plays.
Next Learning goal:
Knowing that the alternative method of designing works, what would the future classroom look and function like? And does it have a market?
Stage 2. Human Centered Design Research
2.1 Envisioning: The concept sketch that appeared most capable of adapting to educators’ and children’s natural way of learning and being philosophical together, was prototyped to:
- Prove there was a market for the new design philosophy and the futuristic classroom.
- Grow the team willing to double as angel investors.
- Attract partners to help incubate the research and development.
Results: A local preschool partnered to incubate the technology and parents paid to be interviewed and co-design the solution. The preschool director’s response to how “soulful” the technology was, in a market that traditionally is (with good reason) afraid of technology, won investment and grew the team to include a UX & Service Designer.
Lessons: The small prototype was too abstract for children and their parents to play with and contribute their own ideas about its possible future applications. It therefore broke my design rules. For them to offer that kind of value, the technology would need to be immersive and all around them like the sketch suggested.
Next Learning goal: Does the new design philosophy and future classroom have a market?
2.2 Contextual enquiries: While assisting educators in their role and co-designing an educational program, we began to uncover two intractable problems they were caught in that critically affected everyone that interacted with the preschool. As we widened our scope by interviewing parents, grandparents, preschool directors, centre managers and government advisors, both locally and globally, we discovered that for our Blue Ocean Strategy to work effectively, we needed to understand and resolve both dilemmas together with the preschools and families inside an incubator.
The educator’s paradox of involving parents in their child’s learning:
Despite Australia’s Early Years Learning Framework stating that parents are their child’s first and most influential educator, and it taking a whole community to raise a child effectively, parents leave their child at child care centres. However, many educators are too poorly resourced to do enough educational programs with children and effectively communicate to parents what their child achieved. As well as missing out on the powerful transformative effects of taking their child’s learning into their home, many parents are also too tired after work to play their vital role in children’s most effective forms of learning, such as their role plays. The cycle repeats itself when dissatisfied parents move their child to new childcare centres. It further disrupts the preschool and its community, including the learning and growth of both parents and their child.
The paradox of the educator’s fear of technology:
Many preschools worldwide are afraid that using educational technologies will deteriorate schooling and community, and cause children to become passive consumers of technology. Their fears trigger an absence of national mandates for better training that in turn contribute to children growing up passive consumers of technology, rather than confident creators of it. Unwittingly then, educators cause the symptoms they are trying to avoid happening.
2.3 Secondary Research: Because we discovered that preschool educators were already performing like Children’s Philosophers, and sometimes even including it in their education, we conducted secondary research to understand how Posthuman Children’s Philosophy is being used to design the most cutting edge schooling and powerful learning experiences. We later partnered with Prof. Karin Murris of Cape Town University to ensure our designs and studies were accurate.
- Because parents missed their child’s imaginative stories and playing a role in their child’s role plays, we believed that facilitating role plays children direct via video conferencing would help resolve the paradox.
- Because a child’s dream is to build and experience the world they imagined, we believed the future classroom needed to let them construct an unlimited range of theatre sets, props and costumes.
Next learning goals: To find out how the future classroom can routinely trigger children immediately to begin role playing?
Stage 3. Proving the theory in prototypes and developing best practices for the design philosophy.
Co-Design with children: From here on we adopted a Posthuman approach to our Design Research and experienced its powerful effects in learning. We ran intra-active co-design sessions with educators, where children explored possible life cycles of an apple. First, I sketched their stories and collective reasoning, live as they unfolded. In following sessions, I began digitally creating their stories and collaborative reasoning as scenes. We looked for what triggered children to role play, their curiosity and reasoning.
- When children create 3 characters in a scene, they always abandon their creation and immediately begin role playing the scene.
- Doing Posthuman Design had a calming effect on us as designers, different from using Human Centred Design.
- Posthuman learning caused pre-literate children to be calmly focused, curious and deep in thought. We noticed this most often among the aggressively violent children.
Next learning goals:
- Because what we learned in each step of the project came from testing different aspects of the future classroom, we needed to know if they would still work when we brought them all together into one cohesive experience.
- And how powerful would the effect on creativity and learning be?
- Because the first prototype was too abstract to validate my design philosophy with parents and children, I needed to test it via a fully immersive prototype of the classroom.
- Was there a market for the part of the Blue Ocean Strategy that involved parents?
Prototyping: We built prototypes with preschools, families and their communities and facilitated contextual enquiries in the form of educational programs to simulate the future classroom in a photo studio, to test our riskiest assumptions and market. We also invited families with children aged 2-3 and 6-10 who had never experienced the solution.