Problem Finding and Student Ownership

This term I have been co-teaching a module with Pete McGhie that has had students focusing on our developing neighbourhood, Hobsonville Point, as a place. By investigating this place we have looked to find a need facing residents and then design a product that would improve their life here.

After initial lessons focusing on developing an understanding of how place, food and culture interact as concepts we went out to explore our surroundings:

After this exploration we focused on generating as many problems as possible that we saw in the neighbourhood.


Once we had brainstormed, shared and discussed the possible problems it was time to start defining the core problem as each group saw it.

Pete pointed out that we were at the “Fuzzy Front End” where all ideas are valid then we would be able to refine it to the quality ideas afterwards. I recommend reading Pete’s post on the importance of the fuzzy front end here.

Once students had worked through the generation stage they shared with other groups and challenged some of the ideas brought up. This then allowed the students to refine their problem list down. At this stage, the students were lucky enough to hear from James Ehau of Ti Tonics about the importance of starting from user needs when developing a product.

This led to the students finally reaching the point of defining their problem. They were given the problem definition frame of:

The residents of Hobsonville Point need a way to ………. because ………

This ensures that the problems were based on real need. Many of the students were struck by the lack of space around the new houses being built so this became their cause and then they had to think what the actual need out of this was. The problems defined included:

  • managing space efficiently
  • space for kids to play
  • accessing food supplies
  • managing waste
  • ensuring children have a healthy lifestyle
  • ability to grow their own food
  • personalising homes
  • preparing for disasters

It took a long time to get to this point. Much longer than it takes when giving students the problem to find. But, it is time well spent. The students have developed a far deeper understanding of WHY this is a problem. Then they could move on to the WHAT IF stage: generating solutions. Once again, multiple ideas and then refining to their best option. This then means they can move on to HOW: prototyping their solutions.

The student ownership of what they are developing in this module was obvious when they headed off to develop their prototypes:


The students automatically just chose the mode that suited them for designing their products. We had not set any boundaries around this part and subsequently we saw a range of modes used: laptops, online programs, post-its, window pens, paper brainstorms, whiteboards…

Once they had a strong design to share with Pete and/or me they could begin prototyping their solutions. Their first prototypes had to be developed quickly to share with the class and gain some early feedback. This is so they don’t get too far down the track before testing their designs. To ensure the feedback was useful I introduced the idea of Rose, Bud, Thorn feedback. This saw the feedback being from other students, for other students. Once again amplifying the responsibility of students to take ownership of the learning process.

2014-06-13 14.40.13


There are some great products being developed including double layer planter boxes, fold away play houses that attach to the fence, planter boxes that hang on a fence, energy bars for disaster kits, “Red Alert” disaster preparation website, a community facilities feedback website in conjunction with the Residents Association…

Fold away Play House prototype

Fold away Play House prototype

Double Layer Planter Box prototype

Double Layer Planter Box prototype

The student ownership of their learning is really showing through, as our module is on the last 3 hours of each Friday yet the student engagement and productivity every week is incredible. I am really looking forward to seeing how this continues as these products are refined and developed further before their final pitch day in 2 weeks.


5 thoughts on “Problem Finding and Student Ownership

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