What Teachers Can Learn from Designers
As any teacher or tutor can tell you, the development and implementation of a curriculum is hard. Planning out the sorts of goals and quantifiable outcomes you want and defining effective ways to get there with your students requires a great deal of foresight and abstract thinking. What will students get out of this activity that they couldn’t get from other activities? Am I using my time as efficiently as possible? How long will this mini-game take? What is the point of this exercise? What’s the best way to present this information? The questions are endless, and the answers even more so; any given goal or issue can be tackled from an infinite number of angles and strategies. With so many means of customization and personalization, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and stick instead to a small subset of time-tested and trustworthy tools.
Aesthetics vs. Utility vs. Usability
That in mind, I was reading an article in WIRED Magazine recently that outlined a school of thought in design – experience design. Rather than acting as a separate discipline, similar to how graphic design and user interface design are distinct, it represented a paradigm shift in the way each discipline practices. Where before the utility of a layout or the aesthetic appeal of a layout might dominate the designer’s concerns, experience design dictated that, as the name suggests, the experience of the user should dominate instead. How will the user interact with this product? How will they feel when they interact with it? What will they think, and how will that impact their overall attitude toward the product? This is hugely distinct from the utilitarian view where the ease of use and power given to the user are cherished; can the user easily do what they need to do, when they want to do it, and how they want to do it? Though both are user-centric outlooks, experience design asks more qualitative questions about the interaction.
To give an example, graphic designers are most commonly thought of as the individuals who make something more aesthetically appealing. Take a concept, make it pretty. Though this may have been the case in years past, today the goal is much more logistically focused. Take a concept, make it pretty, and ensure that the viewer navigates through the graphic in a way that makes the graphic more salient and pleasant – take advantage of where the viewer will look and what they will pay attention to. What aspects of the graphic should be emphasized? Where will their eyes start and flow to, and, given that, is the information where it needs to be? Will the colors of various elements make the necessary features prominent, or cause viewers to be confused about what to take away? Is the graphic too cluttered, causing fatigue or disengagement? And of course, does this overall design convey the idea that it needs to? Is the narrative working?
The Teacher as a Designer
We can see how this parallels very well with teaching and curriculum design. We most frequently ask what we’re doing for the student – what will they get out of this, and are we doing that effectively? Important questions, no doubt, but we also need to consider the other half of the equation: how will the student experience the lesson? Will they enjoy this lesson? How will this color their feelings towards a given subject matter? What will they see, hear, or think about throughout the session? Will they be consistently stimulated? One might argue, and I would agree, that the utilitarian needs should come first. Students come to school to learn, and we need to facilitate that for them effectively. But we also need to be able to treat the students as thinking and feeling human beings, to nurture them with positive experiences and instill in them a love for learning itself. Even if a student can appreciate the efficacy of an exercise, being flustered or bored throughout the lesson can fundamentally impact their overall feelings towards a subject or school itself. Student enthusiasm and investment is perhaps the most powerful tool in fostering learning that there is, and harnessing that is likewise crucial.
Teachers must take up the mindset of the designer, deciding and justifying their decisions based on both what practical and experiential use there is in a lesson. Put yourself in the shoes of your students – from walking in the door to packing up their books and leaving, determine what their classroom experience will entail. Much like the designer, the teacher is a logistician in this regard; they must ask themselves to analyze every transition, every instruction, and every visual to ensure clarity, purpose, and direction. Structuring your classroom with this in mind will improve flow, decrease misunderstandings, increase student investment, and above all else, make learning more efficacious. If you can succeed in minimizing their confusion and make every minute count, student learning will naturally follow. And even if you struggle to accomplish this at first, the students will know that you better understand their position and give weight to how they feel, will believe that you genuinely make an effort to improve your lesson structure, and will come to trust you more as a result.