Pre-K children with a group of students from an engineering class at Brown University.

This article expands upon a previous article published “Design helps define Jewish experience for next generation

By Ian Gonsher

The Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island has been collaborating with community partners to develop an innovative curriculum that integrates design pedagogies with the tradition of Tikkun Olam — repairing the world. These concepts, of design and repair, are related in many ways. Our hope is to give children the necessary tools to better understand and develop their own creative process, as they apply this understanding to making the world a better place.

What follows below is a basic introduction to some of these concepts, and is by no means exhaustive. Rather it is meant to serve as a catalyst for further conversation about how we might teach our children to imagine and create a better world by design.

What is Tikkun Olam?

This idea of repair is intimately related to the process of creation, as described in Genesis (Bereshit) and in subsequent commentaries throughout the centuries. In the beginning, which was before the beginning and outside of time, the Kabbalists tell us of a single, infinite divine presence  – the Ein Sof  – who created space for the world to exist by withdrawing Itself. These sages imagined this “withdrawl” (Tzimtzum) as a necessary precondition for creating the finite world (and us). As the divine light emanated from its source, the sages tell us in highly abstract and esoteric terms, this light filled ten vessels (Sephirot). But the light was too intense to be contained, and it broke them, scattering the divine light into the world.

Tikkun (repair) is seen as the complement to the Tohu (chaos) of the primordial universe, both being essential to the process of creation. Through a process by which these “divine sparks” are “gathered” and reunited with their source, we move towards perfecting the world. It is through this process that humankind is invited to participate, through their practices and deeds.

But the language of Kabbalah is highly abstract and esoteric, and in the 20th century, the idea of Tikkun Olam began to place greater emphasis on our moral imagination and ethical action. In this sense, Tikkun Olam is an expression of perfecting the world by engaging in acts of loving kindness and social justice. Much contemporary discourse about Tikkun Olam focuses on building a better society and meeting the needs of all people. This also happens to be reflected in much of the current discourse on design.

But this raises the question, how should we go about this? By what means might we repair the world? As Rabbi Tarfon famously says in the Pirkei Avot, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”

So how might we proceed? How might we give the next generation not just a mandate for repairing the world, but the tools to do so as well? Design provides a compelling approach to addressing this question.

What is Design?

Everything not created by nature, was designed for people by people. Take a look around you. Consider how the objects and spaces around you right now create affordances for your behaviors. How do they make all the activities of your daily life possible?

Design is everywhere, hiding in plain sight. Like the “divine sparks” that are also said to be hiding in plain sight, attention to what goes unnoticed, and cultivating the ability for greater awareness and empathy are the beginning of a process of inquiry. From this process questions emerge.

These questions can be asked by translating these insights into prototypes. A prototype is the means by which we make the abstract concrete. Prototyping is a way we take what we imagine and make it real. As the kids at JCDSRI know, “anything can be a prototype.” A prototype can be a model or a sketch. But it can also be a story or a conversation. By introducing students to many “modes of representation” (ways of communicating an idea), we empower them to engage with profound curiosity with the world around them.

We can further develop and refine these prototypes and the questions they embody through a process of critique and iteration. Each iteration is an opportunity to ask a new question. By critically engaging and discussing these questions, manifested in our prototypes, we continually improve the design. The kids at JCDSRI ask, “how might we make this better?”

But what does “better” mean? Good design, in the sense we are exploring, begins and ends with the experience of people. This notion has been popularized in recent years with the rise of Human Centered Design. Human Centered Design places a high value on empathizing with the user experience; trying, as much as possible, to embody the experience of others, and use these insights to craft questions and prototypes. By better understanding who we are designing for, and the context in which they exist, we change the world in a very real sense.

Design gives us the tools to create a different reality, a better reality. Design is a means by which we might repair what is broken or incomplete. In a very real, concrete sense, design invites us to participate in the creation of the world.

To continue this conversation, participate in developing curricula, and to receive updates about TikkunXDesign, please join our Facebook group. We invite your comments.

This article was originally posted at KinderSTEAM. It is reposted with permission.