Chris Lewis: Better by design – how creative pupils tackle isolation and loneliness in school

Loneliness and isolation are huge problems across Scotland. At V&A Dundee we are working with school pupils to design new solutions to these ­problems, which The Scotsman’s ­festive campaign this year also directly addresses.

Chris Lewis with school children involved with V&A Dundees second Schools Design Challenge.

Loneliness and isolation in schools can often go unnoticed. A pupil can be in a class of 30 others but still feel alone. The causes can be varied – a result of bullying, home circumstances or personal identity issues, and more generally due to socio-economic deprivation or geographical isolation.

For V&A Dundee’s second Schools Design Challenge, we are working with secondary school pupils across Dundee, Angus, Perth and Kinross and the Highlands, asking them to design new solutions that can alleviate isolation and loneliness in their school communities. The project is generously supported by the players of People’s Postcode Lottery and the William Grant Foundation, and builds on the first Schools Design Challenge the museum ran in 2015-16.

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Design is a fundamental skill, and one we believe every child in Scotland needs to be competent and confident in to achieve their full potential. Often confused with visual art, design at its simplest is creative problem-solving. It can be taught to every pupil, through a wide range of curricular areas, and should be. My own ­background is in secondary school social subjects, and I’m the latest teacher to be seconded from Dundee City Council to V&A Dundee, as part of a ten-year plan to strengthen links between the museum and schools.

This allows me to bring classroom skills into the museum, and help make connections to pupils and teachers – from projects like this, to sharing the educational importance of the museum’s major exhibitions and permanent galleries.

The project started with A Connected Scotland, the 2018 Scottish ­Government strategy for building stronger connections and tackling social isolation and loneliness. ­Earlier this year we issued an open invitation to S1 and S2 pupils in the project’s four local authority areas, to design a solution to tackle loneliness and isolation in their schools.

Our pupils’ own experiences of isolation and loneliness are crucial here. It’s really difficult to design a solution to any problem if you have no experience of it and it can be even harder to imagine the perspective of a person of a different age or background to yourself. We break down the process of designing into four steps for our pupils: explore, imagine, develop and solve. They explore by brainstorming ideas and speaking to young ­people affected by isolation and loneliness, imagine all the potential solutions, then pick a few of the best ideas to develop further, and finally select the strongest idea as their proposed solution.

This process is the fundamental skill of designing. Teaching design in this way shows that it isn’t only for pupils who are skilled artists, or academically gifted, but is actually a way of working that anyone can learn. It also teaches our young people resilience and problem-solving skills through researching, trying, failing and trying again – all the time with a focus on helping tackle a real issue.

The submitted entries have now been judged by a panel of experts, and a group of different schools will take part in design jams in early 2020 to develop their ideas further with ­professional designers.

The ideas submitted range from apps to social spaces, from gardens to new product design, and show an inspiring range of creativity and ­sensitivity to the issues of loneliness and isolation.

I love to see young people taking part in projects like this, and coming away with a greater understanding of how design can be used as a tool for social change and can help with practical problem-solving in their lives. Design is a crucial skill for navigating the modern world, and without the ability to think creatively – and research and test ideas, with ­empathy and resilience – our young people will not reach their full potential in life.

Design is at the heart of every school subject, and as our young people move from school into the world of work there will always be design. It will take various different forms, but the ability to think critically as you approach a problem is essential to every workplace.

Scotland is, and always has been, a nation of designers. For Scotland to thrive in the future we need to ­continue to encourage design and creativity in our young people, ­ensuring that they are equipped with the skills which are fundamental to their learning, and to their life.

Chris Lewis is schools development officer at V&A Dundee. Find out more at