Teaching design thinking in Cambodia

Throughout my study experience in Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) in the last 4 years, I have led a small number of design-thinking workshops under the Student Innovation for Global Health Technology (SIGHT) program. This program aims to combine design-thinking approaches in generating solutions in addressing global health issues, with a particular concentration in Asia-Pacific region. As of now, projects under SIGHT have been deployed to various locations, mostly in Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Guizhou Province (China), Hong Kong, and several cities in Indonesia (namely Jakarta and Yogyakarta).

However, under a fellowship program offered by SIGHT program, by which I would have to stay in Phnom Penh from June 5 to June 26, we are required to lead a design-thinking workshop, this time for an education NGO in Cambodia. While at that time I was partly nervous (I have never led such a workshop outside Hong Kong before!), I was also partly excited, because it was a brand-new challenge to test whether the design-thinking approaches we have highlighted can also be applied to other parts of the world, with varying degrees of economic and social development.

On June 11, 2017, together with a Hong Kong friend of mine, Jonathan Yang, we conducted a design-thinking workshop in one of the slum areas in Phnom Penh. Literally, in one of the poorest areas in the city. However, throughout the workshop session, we uncovered so many fascinating insights about the way the participants think, devise ideas, and build prototypes based on their own critical thinking skills and the design-thinking framework (in this regard, Stanford’s 5-step design-thinking process) we have provided in the workshop.

We held the workshop in one of the five schools operated by Empowering Youth Cambodia (EYC), by which majority of the students originate from this slum area we referred to. To make it clear, I would label it as a ‘railway slum’, as the trails we walked by used to be railway tracks, with slum dwellers living on both sides of the rail. Two days before, on June 9, Jonathan and I had a preparatory meeting with two of the school staff, Synoeun and Bondol. They showed us the surrounding slum area; Synoeun highlighted that many adults living here have been engaged in small-scale drug trading, prostitution, family violence, or worked as trash collectors. The school, in this regard, offered a ‘shelter’ for children among these families so that they could pursue education, and in this way, increase their chances for upward social mobility and exit the cycle of poverty. The school provides these students English courses, computing classes (mostly focused on Microsoft Excel), as well as yoga classes.

Picture 1. The setup of our design thinking workshop in EYC school in ‘railway slum’

Picture 2. The ‘railway slum’ by which this EYC school is located

Originally, there were supposed to be 30 students from 5 different EYC schools to participate in the workshop. Here, the participants would be randomly assigned into teams, each team having students from different EYC schools. However, only 16 eventually showed up, because the rest had conflicting schedule or had unexpected clashes with other activities. Still, having 16 participants was already a quite good thing for us. Throughout the workshop, Synoeun and Bondol – and in particular Synoeun – provided us with a lot of assistance, especially in how she helped us explaining some of the design-thinking content in Khmer.

We gave the participants the five-step design-thinking processes that had been pioneered by Stanford University’s d.school, that is the empathize-define-ideate-prototype-test pattern. To simplify the matter pertaining to what set of problems we would like to present in this workshop, we simply referred to one very simple question: how students can contribute to improving classroom designs. Rather than making text the dominant content in the slides, we focus instead on visuals, presenting to them various pictures of the classrooms, and other scenarios related to a typical school class, in order to give them a better framework of what kind of ‘ideal classroom’ they had in mind that can be introduced in adjustment to EYC’s setting.

I was initially nervous about the predicted outcome of this workshop, because of several factors that – from my own, personal worldview – could hinder its effective implementation. First, this workshop has only been tested in Hong Kong for now, and my impression shows that design-thinking workshops are more suitable if applied in developed countries. Second, our workshop was situated inside a slum area that is not only poor, but also infamous for illicit drug trading, prostitution, and family violence, and your guess is as good as ours about ‘expectation gaps’ between what we wanted and what they actually needed. Third, Synoeun told us – based on her review of our presentation slides – that the students have never been exposed to the pictures we posted there, and in this regard, their designs of ‘ideal classrooms’ may look not much different from each other, given what she described as ‘relatively rudimentary critical-thinking skills’.

However, we chose to remain optimistic about the workshop because the staff has also positively reviewed our slides, highlighting that our slides focus more on visuals than on texts, which can be much easier for the participants to understand and follow our message. Moreover, if EYC could successfully and smoothly  operate a school in this area despite the surrounding circumstances, why not with our workshop? Lastly, we stick to our beliefs that individuals, deep down their hearts, have aspirations regardless of their current conditions. The only question is what would be the best approaches to truly understand what they really need inside their own hearts. And indeed, our expectation of the workshop worked well; to be quite frank, it even slightly exceeded our initial expectation.

Picture 3. Participants discussed one of the questions we posted on the slides, in relation to improving the classroom setup and design

Picture 4, 5, 6, and 7. Further discussions

Picture 8. Jonathan (left) and myself (right)

Although the participants occasionally get confused by our explanation about those various design-thinking frameworks, they pretty much have understood the design-thinking steps we have highlighted. Indeed, the final outcome was quite unexpected. Synoeun has previously cautioned us that their “ideal classroom designs” may look quite similar to each other. Moreover, given that the participants had been randomly assigned into teams, interaction may be a little more limited due to their unfamiliarity. However, in reality, throughout the discussion questions that we posted on the slides, the communication and exchanges of ideas was very active among the teams, and indeed, their designs appeared to show some degree of variation. One ‘envisioned class’ aspires to have Internet Wi-fi in order to allow the students to browse Google and other websites for more knowledge and information, while another ‘envisioned class’ is to be equipped with laptops, computers, tablets, air-conditioners, discussion tables, bookcases, etc. Although some of the ideas they exhibited tend to be quite abstract (such as: “good English-speaking teachers”, “students must listen in the class”), overall their creativity was very evident in the designs of their ideal classrooms. It looked like our 5-step design-thinking processes that we introduced to the participants could be applied quite successfully.

Picture 9, 10, 11, and 12. The “Ideation” stage of the workshop, by which the participants put in as many ideas as possible on post-it notes

Picture 13. I drew a sample of my “ideal classroom” design on the right side of the whiteboard

Picture 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19. The “Prototyping” stage of the workshop. The teams did a very nice job in designing their ideal classrooms, using all the stationery materials we have purchased back in Hong Kong: post-it notes, rulers, coloring pens, scissors, and glue sticks. Synoeun, meanwhile, provided 5 sheets of A1 papers, as well as lunch packs for all of us – by which we were served Khmer-style BBQ pork rice with pickles and rambutans!

Picture 20, 21, 22, 23, and 24. Designs of ‘ideal classrooms’ by various teams of participants. And I have to tell you, I am absolutely impressed by all their designs of ideal classrooms!

Picture 25. Our workshop ended at 2 pm, as the class we used for this activity would be used for another yoga class. We happened to briefly meet EYC’s Country Manager, Delphine Vann. A half-Cambodian and half-Swiss, she was the daughter of a renown Cambodian architect, Vann Molyvann. The family once migrated to Switzerland in order to avoid the political crisis in 1970s – as highlighted by Cambodian Civil War and Khmer Rouge – before returning back to the country in 1991. In addition to working as a country manager, Ms. Delphine Vann also works as a yoga teacher.

Picture 26. This is me and Jonathan, with Synoeun in the middle. We want to thank you and Bondol for having assisted us in ensuring the smooth execution of the design-thinking workshop. We wish Bondol were there with us in the photograph though!

SEALNet – an epilogue.

 

Having looked at the title, please don’t infer that SEALNet Medan Chapter is going to end. I mean, in brief, not too fast. Perhaps not in the upcoming years, not even until this decade submerges. But knowing the fact that I should let go the title and the organization, and leave this job to my successors, I am primarily concerned on the long-term existence of it. I have no precognition on where direction exactly they are going to bring it to, nor do I possess prophetic skills to see what they are exactly going to do – whether in accordance to all the visions I have set forth in my outline or not – after leaving this CCA, and more exactly, this school.

I have never been updating any information about the progress in the last 6 months. And now I see today it’s my obligation to inform those in the headquarters, after myriad times of procrastination, while at the same time, to announce my resignation from SEALNet Medan Chapter. In general, workshop condition was slightly better off compared to that in the first year. The materials were a bit more structured, but we had not brought significant satisfaction for all the mentees, as there remained some complaints regarding the ‘boredom’ our tutelage induced. We also did not fully manage to implement all the outreach plans we had designated before the chapter’s new formation: out of 8, we only succeeded to make 3 out of them. This was largely due to the ‘overspending’ we had had in ensuring their success. Nevertheless, instead of merely paying visits to orphanages, we had diversified the scope, including visit to an NGO-operated school on the railside (which I myself did not participate in due to being abroad) and ‘study tour’ in a cow livestock and a strawberry farm in Berastagi.

 

 

The school’s name is, for your information, PAUD Dian Bersinar Foundation. It even has a blog.

 

 

Our trip in Berastagi.

 

Some of my friends inquired me, “What did you feel after being positioned for almost 2 years?” Well, there were the best of times, there were the worst of times, and, you know, it’s kind of hodgy-podgy. I had personally gone through the zenith, through the abyss, pulchritudinously, like a continuous array of longitudinal waves. Doing something that is not of your particular interest, particularly in leading it, is never as simple as I had imagined before. At least, that’s what the ‘leadership’ itself tries to define. Reminiscing through all the experiences I had felt until these penultimate moments, I had garnered a few conclusions on being a leader. First, a leader is no different from a servant; both have the needs to serve, one for the masters and the other for the public as their ‘bosses’. Second, no leaders ever believe that what is meant ‘take it easy’ dictum is entirely ‘take it easy’; some of them merely conceal such worrisome attitude, only to convince the outsiders that ‘everything is going fine’, while the others had a penchant for emotional outburst by expressing their frustrations. Third, you realize who, upon your subordinates, that are seriously committed to realizing your goals, and those who have a ‘parasitic’ tendency to stay indolent. Every institution, as I believe, has ‘germs’ by its own that leaders can’t ever purely eliminate, for whatever reasons, like, you see, having been acquainted with them for so long that the bond can’t be let loose by dismissing them. I had, personally, witnessed such phenomenon. I feel no necessity to leak it to you who these persons are, that I still have to respect their decency of privacy. But I know who upon them are willing to work, and who simply stick their names unto it.

Only in these last months I had kind of burdensome feelings in managing SEALNet, honestly. Obviously because of the amounting tasks I gotta prepare in the last year I’m in school. You know, being faced with TOEFL IBT tuition, SAT preparation, AO Maths tuition, excluding the overwhelming school exams that confiscated my time in evaluating all the progress we had made in this second year. And there was pretty much dwindling interest, as shown by the number of mentees admitted this year; no more than 70 students applied for us, and only 1 first-grader (compared to the burgeoning 70 in its first year) registered. A little more than half of them were already third-graders, clear signs that our ‘organization’ is experiencing over-rapid ‘aging’ (mini-Japan?). Taking its positive remarks, we had better capability in managing these mentees. Nevertheless, on its negative side, it just made me fully concerned on its future fate, in years to come long after I have graduated. I comprehend the adage of ‘everything that has its beginning has its own end’, but realizing its promising prospects, it was just, you know, a ‘waste’ if they simply ended it up within 2 or 3 years. The organization has yet accomplished many feats, and tackling all the problems it encounters would be a huge responsibility for future mentors to solve. If they were willing to endure a bit longer, that would be a pride of their own of having resolved the first years’ challenges and let it grow exponentially. If they gave it up, I had no more words to say. Knowing that it will be no longer my own to make it progress, I have to let it go, leaving it up to my juniors to complete the unfinished businesses. I could only, so far, outline long-term goals and visions for SEALNet Medan Chapter in years to come, but it has been up to them whether to follow my ‘instruction’ or make one by their own.

 

One of our workshop sessions included a ‘simulated mayoral election campaign’ between 2 competing pairs.

 

All of us do have still so much yet to learn. And I myself have particularly realized that there is still so much yet to gain having led it. To admit it, I have not succeeded in bringing concrete unity to the organization. We lack of promotion, for sure, that many even doubt whether SEALNet is actually ‘a  leadership-nurturing CCA or just another Facebook Starcraft-sounding online game’. Many others, meanwhile, still prefer extracurricular programs (and I don’t have to mention which they are) that will score them straight As only by ‘writing down’ their names on their membership list. It’s not uncommon in our school, to be honest, but I also do not see it as rightful and wise to describe them here. But, just, in brief, I think that’s plain unfair. I believe that I always have to make sure that all the members are evaluated and scored based on how much, and how often, they have done in accordance to whatever tasks we have assigned them and ourselves.

Well, I am, given my nearly 2-year bond in SEALNet, concerned about its fate in the near future. Its ups and downs are inextricably connected with our win-and-lose experiences as well. It still has tremendous space to grow and expand, major potential yet to be explored, more problems yet to be solved, a plethora of potential mentees yet to diminish, and, most importantly, a fact that I love to hate, a school to sustain. (of course it closes down if the school collapses!)

In the long run, I want to thank a lot of mentors (whose names I tag here) who have assisted me a lot in making this organization progress every time. I want to thank Elvira, my co-partner in leading SEALNet. You have, given your animating attitude, so many creative ideas that you embody in the outreach.  Then there is Vinnie, our lil’ petty Secretary. You are active, and you are fierce. But only through your ‘ferociousness’ (does it seem exaggerating?), you can emulate pretty much useful suggestion to improve our workshop materials. Then there is Grisella. You are smart, and you are such a great idea shower for us! I felt so guilty that I had, instead of assigning you in Project Division, placed you in Publicity. Then Lily. You are strict, well-disciplined, and despite your mere two-week post as Head of Project Division, you made me really learn how to manage a project really well, as seen by your capability in directing any outlines you have set to your subordinates. Then there’s Cindy, our treasurer, who has arranged well our cash reserves in the last 5 months. Then this ‘couple’, Iin and Riyan. Both of you have contributed pretty much in this recent year for the betterment of our workshop and outreach sessions. And there are Anthony and Budi, who have helped us in negotiating economical bus fares each time for our outreach sessions. Then there’s Ricky, who has also helped very much in our outreach. Then Ferry, who has helped quite much during our workshop session. And to the rest, all of you, exactly, (I can no longer mention their names one by one specifically here), thanks a lot!

Last but not least, I also would like to thank our coach, Mr.Supian, who, despite his occupied schedule as a teacher, a lecturer in many colleges other than our school, and a church speaker, has been an ardent supporter, and an idea-shower as well, for the betterment of our organization.

And particularly to all my seniors now scattered in universities, home and abroad, like Edric, Riandy, Winnie, Desilia, Adeline, Ricky, Juned, JA, and a list too long to go on, thank you for giving me this opportunity. I hope we’ll meet someday!

 

 

 

Well, it’s old days recalled.