Our schools have makerspaces, design labs, block programming, robotics, STEM, STEAM and 3D printers. We have design thinking, the biggest of the buzz-phrases that I hear at every conference I go to, and in every other education article I find on Twitter. And yet, despite every person in education knowing the buzzword, I don’t think we have yet integrated design into our schools at an institutional level. We haven’t bled design into the fabric of education.
I don’t need to tell you that design thinking is important, and that it’s a skill students need to develop: problem-solving from scratch through a comprehensive, holistic look at a problem. However, we have shown an inability as schools to successfully include it in all of our classes regardless of discipline, and an inability as a field to make it a core pillar of what we do. Schools need design—it needs students in every class to be defining problems, crafting solutions and organizing them into comprehensive packages. And the education field needs to take the approach of a designer—it needs consistent critical attention through a design lens to help it adapt to an adapting world. We need our students designing, and we need to design better ways to create designers.
Okay. That’s using the word “design” a lot. That’s how important this is…
Jobs don’t come with instructions manuals anymore. They require a person to enter a situation, gather information about the position and determine the best course of action, iterating and revising along the way. They require people to identify processes that can be automated, assess the best use of one’s time, set up the necessary conversations, and drive projects to completion. The word is coming again…
Machines are terrific at following instructions, much better than people are, and that’s before us humans got even worse at following instructions with our Snapchat notifications and fantasy sports. People who make a living following instructions are going to be doomed to an unwavering, ruthless rival in our computer programs. That leaves designing the instructions as the occupational space left (for now, until IBM’s Watson learns how to help Bob Dylan write music and grasp the meaning of love and… oh no).
Design extends beyond the design of graphics, or web programs, or art, or interiors (though those are great places for students to find passion projects to establish a foundation of thinking like a designer). The world needs systems designed. Large, complex systems. For centuries, we’ve incrementally improved our systems through small, modest improvements that churn out slightly better cars, less buggy software, or the Hit Stick in Madden 05. Now is the time of exponential improvements. The Elon Musks identifying the systemic problems facing the space industry and the precise elimination of them (except the tiny little “exploding rocket” problem… we’ll get there). Apple’s vision past iPods to iPhones (though miraculously my 8 GB iPod color still works, headphone jack and all, and I dread the day when it fails me).
We’re still dominated by a world of instructions, pushed by the invisible forces of routine and this-has-always-worked, in an unprecedented era of knowledge being in the air. The New Human is a Master Builder, to steal from Lego Movie, able to design a spaceship from the parts of failed old ideas. She’s Netflix, instead of Blockbuster. He’s Valve and its corporate structure of no bosses. We’re Pixar. We’re Google. We’re Nintendo. We’re system design. And for us to have a better world, we need to have a world of Designers all constantly assessing the world around them, checking logical premises and forging never-thought-of mental connections, creating revolution after revolution. The Designer can’t be the great outlier who gets one- or two-word movies (Jobs! …and Steve Jobs!) made about her or his quirks of eating fruit and yelling at employees. The outlier needs to be the person who can’t design well, not the one who can.
Our students shouldn’t be following the instructions of robotics kits. They should be creating the kits.
So Let’s Embrace Design in Our Classrooms
We need to get all of our students to learn these design skills, and it has to happen in all of our classes. To some extent, we do teach our students these design skills, specifically in our alternative assessments. But as teachers, we don’t usually take our alternative assessments seriously—the fun video projects, the show-and-tells, the presentations. We undermine our own assignments. The fun alternative projects are meant to keep our classes fresh, to be a break between the serious assignments: the essays, the tests. And yet in this new world that needs new master builder humans, these fun projects are the ones that need to be taken the most seriously. They’re the closest simulation of the world beyond our classroom walls. We need to get our students to present effectively and design styles without templates. We need them to craft their own problems rather than answer a series of questions. We need them to learn to measure their own success, rather than to stick to a rubric.
That’s so hard, and it’s a challenge I struggle with every day in my classroom. When I give my students an open-ended assignment, the first two questions I get are, “what do I do next?” and “how will this be graded?” And oftentimes I cave and provide them too much guidance, forgetting they can fend for themselves and don’t need me as a crutch. It’s so hard to trust a student to just design, and not feed them a template.
Take the good ol’ five paragraph essay for example, an assignment I’m as guilty of as anyone. The template haunts me. Times New Roman. Twelve-point font. Double-spaced. Name, teacher, subject and date on the top left of the document. One-inch margins.
Gives me the willies just thinking about it.
It haunts me because it specifically teaches a student not to design. And in some ways this is a good thing, as it clears the head of a student to focus on the content of an essay or story. However, when every student is tasked with sticking to templates, it eliminates the crucial skills a student needs to acquire, and the questions they need to be asking.
“Who is my audience for this paper? How do different fonts emotionally shape a reader? What is the most important information of my paper—the title? My name? Which should I make bigger? Should I use color? ”
All of these crucial thought processes, the connections of an intellectual work to one’s environment, gone. And then we get disappointed when our students are designing PowerPoints at a fourth-grade level. Or that our students are designing PowerPoints, at all.
Design in many schools is relegated to elective courses taken by a small percentage of students. There’s no Advanced Placement Design, and the SAT and ACT don’t test for it. Yet every field demands it. It impacts college admissions—the ability of a student to design an effective application and design a means of presenting oneself is critical. We live in a world of plans and proposals, and yet we still spend a disproportionate amount of time on classic essay-writing.
Remember why we created the template to begin with. The problem the Times New Roman template solves is the speedy identification of a work when a teacher drops a stack of visually identical papers in the hallway between classes. The problem it creates is a generation of people who never considered why they used that format in the first place.
There are so many things I take for granted in the world of design. I take fonts for granted, I take knowing color schemes and style guides for granted, I take alignment and repetition and brand consistency for granted. They’re all skills that can be learned at an elementary level—these aren’t differentiated equations or James Joyce—and yet many of our seniors are graduating without them. Everything I’ve learned about design has come from observation and iteration and the internet and knowing I had to figure it out in order to be taken seriously, to develop a leg up in every job I’ve worked.
We need to identify Emily Dickinson as a designer. And Ben Franklin as a designer. And Martin Luther King Jr, and Charles Darwin, and Marie Curie, and Albert Einstein, and all of the scholarly idols we buy posters of and place on our classroom walls. History’s greatest people have been designers—designers of new ways to put language together, of economic and governmental systems, of industry, of socially responsible relations and systems of physics. We need to get all of our students thinking as designers, and assessing and evaluating the systems of the great designers. That’s how we create better industries, better social structures, better democracies. And better schools.
Education Needs Design
If there is a system being pushed along by the invisible forces of habit and tradition, it’s education.
I think a reason for this is because everybody interacts with education at least once, when you go through school for yourself, as a child. That means that the majority of people who return to education as a profession are those who had a positive educational experience and want to maintain the system that was so successful for them. That’s a momentous force to have to deal with.
However, the succeeding schools seem to be the ones who approach their school with a design mindset. They critically examine their most basic premises—subjects, teaching styles, length of day—and only upon verifying that work move on to other pillars of the system. “I think therefore I am,” and onward.
Courses need to be designed. Assignments need to be designed. Lessons need to be designed. And yet teachers don’t think of themselves as designers.
Education needs to be designed, and it needs an army of talented designers and teacher-designers up for the task. Yet our redesign attempts seem to pale in comparison to the system revolution necessary. We often state buzzwords and platitudes without getting into the trenches and experimenting with solutions. We throw smartboards and tablets at our students, and don’t focus on teaching them how to effectively use their tools, whatever tools are in front of them. We use technology to make us incrementally better at our old objectives, rather than redesigning our objectives to make an exponential systemic improvement. Again, I do it too… it’s so easy to fall into the routine of 20th century education.
We still focus on our teachers developing subject expertise, in a world where students can learn much faster exploring subjects at their own pace than sitting in lectures. In a world where video games have no instructions manuals and IKEA furniture teaches without language, our classrooms are rooted in a traditional means of teaching.
The designers of other industries have figured out how to educate through Design decisions. Shigera Miyamoto, video game designer of Super Mario, figured out that that orienting a protagonist to the right with negative space in front would encourage a player to explore. Mark Rosewater, has figured out how to keep trading card game “Magic the Gathering” selling for twenty years, through a mantra of “restrictions breed creativity” and a constant assessment of what’s best for the game. Google’s “Material Design,” the revolutionary style guide that gives Android interfaces the feeling of texture, educates all of its indie developers how to design apps that fit the necessary, sophisticated look.
Education needs this style of design. It needs to check its premises, and the base-level system adjustments that could lead to exponential improvements, perhaps in the speed of knowledge acquisition, perhaps in the fundamental costs of an institution. Perhaps it’s the premise that every classroom needs a teacher, perhaps it’s the premise that computers are answers and not just tools, perhaps it’s the premise that classrooms need to be places.
And in the classroom, education needs design. It needs teachers constantly assessing their roles and their systems to see not what is working best to get students to hit the preset target, but the determination if the target is in the right place in the first place. Getting students to design is a challenge. But there is one very big thing it has going for it.
Design is Still Fun for Students
Education has been beaten down by its poor semiotics. The word “homework” makes me queasy, as a teacher. School is filled with horrible sounding words, “essay” and “study” and “notes.” When all of pop culture is constantly dumping on your industry—and consider, just as the people who thrived in school return to it to teach, the people who struggle in school tend to find the entertainment and media industry and broadcast their message to the world—students aren’t going to be motivated.
And yet the word “design,” for some reason, has avoided the negative clout that the other words are plagued by. It’s still an exciting word. Students like the idea of design, it links to such fun-sounding things as graphic design, or interior design, or the almighty game design. It links to Minecraft and Roller Coaster Tycoon (well, it does for me, anyway), it links to Iron Man manipulating blue-rendered space in three dimensions with his hands, it links to cars and speed and faster and bigger.
That’s a huge advantage. And it’s a testament to the fundamental state of humanity—people want to design. We evolved to design. We are born to design. And then that spirit gets crushed by our poorly designed systems.
Let’s tap into human nature and work with it. Let’s provide a top-to-bottom design education. And let’s design education.