Cultivating innovative thinkers through design-led learning

By Yoon Min-sik

New School University chief says educators must prepare students for the rapidly changing world

  • Published : Apr 10, 2014 - 20:46
  • Updated : Apr 10, 2014 - 20:46
Ever since Korea made the jump from developing country to advanced nation, there has been a nationwide effort to cultivate a new generation of innovative thinkers.

From smart education and no-test “free-learning” semesters, to seminars and exhibitions for students throughout Korea, the word “creative” had rarely been more emphasized in education.

David E. Van Zandt, the president of the New School University in New York, said people seeking to embody students with creativity may find the key in design-led education.

The American educator, who has a background in sociology and law, said design in education does not merely refer to technology or art and fashion. Rather, it concerns social and cultural aspects ― figuring out how to make things work well by observing their interaction.
David E. Van Zan, president of New School University. (New School University)

“You have to think about design in a broader sense. (Design) is about how people interact. It could be with a phone, an object, environment or other people,” he said.

According to Van Zandt, this is what the university’s world-renowned design school Parsons focuses on. For example, those designing an airplane cockpit have to focus on making it more usable and intuitive to a pilot, which is rooted in the understanding of people.

This, he said, is where Parsons has an edge over other design institutes.

The understanding of people’s interactions stems from studying liberal arts and social sciences, in which the New School has a strong program.

“For a long time, social science has been the core (of the university),” he said. “One of our greatest advantages is that students come in and have to take a range of liberal arts classes.”

His emphasis on humanities courses is in stark contrast to the growing trend in Korea today, which has seen a decline in the number of humanities departments. A recently announced government plan on college restructuring led colleges to penalize departments with low graduate employment rates, and humanities departments have often suffered the most casualties.

The harsh reality of job seeking has also forced students to focus their studies on skills that are likely to help them get hired; for example, English. Recent Education Ministry data showed that college students spend twice as much time studying English as they do their academic majors.

Finetuning themselves for the job market is understandable, Van Zandt said, as people struggle to cope with the slumping economy.

“I can understand the tendency to pick something I know that will sell and focus on that. … People are scared because of the bad economy,” he said. “But they have to realize the people who are the most creative innovators and can come in and solve the problem, are the ones who have the most career success.”

In Korea and other parts of the world, there has been a push for young people to specialize. Many students develop a particular skill that will “sell,” such as going to business school, law school or learning languages.

Training yourself to acquire just that particular set can be dangerous, he said. Because the world changes so quickly that one competence may not last. This is why students must focus on developing an ability to think outside the box.

“If you’re a regular lawyer, you’re a commodity. It’s the special people who put a deal together, can understand much about the client’s business that are successful,” he said.

So what can students do to become innovative?

“What we do is, we call it project-based learning that helps develop creativity within people,” he said. Instead of pondering on a problem and solution in a studio, the students are encouraged to exploit the diversity of New York.

“Design is really at the roots of social culture. The more you’re exposed to different culture, people from different backgrounds, the more material you have,” he said.

Innovation is often taking things that already exist and putting them together. The more objects you have to draw from, the better you will be in terms of creative thinking, according to Van Zandt.

“My approach has always been to look at what’s happening in the world, then try to figure out how to best prepare students for that,” Van Zandt said, adding it is not just about looking at what is successful in the world right now.

In order to prepare students for the rapidly changing world, educators must be on a constant lookout and be ready for the change, he said. The problem is that education takes too long to change.

“In higher education, I think there is a real need for people to do things different, or at least look at things different,” he said.

“We have to look from the outside in and ask, ‘How can I make things better?’ … We need to ask what our students are going to need to do throughout their whole career.”

By Yoon Min-sik (

David E. Van Zandt graduated from Princeton University with a degree in sociology. He received his Ph.D. in sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Prior to heading the New School, the New Jersey native served as dean of Northwestern University School of Law from 1995 until 2010.