Education as a Design Process
by Derek Bruff, CFT Director
At the October meeting of the CFT’s “Teaching Design Thinking” learning community, Peabody’s Kristen Neal and Melissa Gresalfi shared their experiences teaching in Vanderbilt’s Learning and Design M.Ed. program. Students in this accelerated program spend ten months taking classes and working in teams with local partners, including schools and other educational organizations, to apply design-based thinking to educational challenges. Neal and Gresalfi emphasized the collaborative nature of this process; their students are designing with local partners, not designing for them. The results often surprise both the M.Ed. students and the local partners.
As Neal and Gresalfi described it, design-based thinking involves understanding the contexts in which learning happens. Students take an ethnographic approach to understanding how learning works in particular spaces. For instance, when working with a local school, they might observe the neighborhood in which the school sits, then a local park where students play and interact with others, then the school itself. This kind of observation is challenging, and students often miss things, especially the roles that power and privilege play in learning. Because of this, students are directed to examine social positioning in these various contexts, the moves that teachers and students make to establish or undermine social positioning, and the tacit norms and practices of the site.
Students also bring their own assumptions and beliefs about learning into their observations, which can color what they see. Gresalfi noted that many people have the same theory of learning they use for pigeons: if you reinforce, they will come. There are also beliefs that intelligence is fixed, or that new ideas should be introduced properly before having students try to do something with those ideas. (I hear that one all the time in my work with faculty.) Learning doesn’t always work that way, so the program includes an exploration of theories of learning, as a way to provide students different lenses to observe and understand learning in context. Given the experiential nature of the program, students are able to immediately practice using those lenses in their work with partners.I shared the model of human-centered design (above) used in DIVE and other design contexts, and I asked our panel how design-based thinking in the education context was different from that model. Gresalfi and Neal noted that the “users” in their context are typically K-12 students who may not always know their own needs well. As a result, the Learning and Design program studies systems, not “users.” People often don’t understand the system they are in, so studying systems involves more than just interviewing “users.” Thus the emphasis on multiple contexts of learning, and the lenses of various learning theories.
This means that design solutions can go in surprising directions. Gresalfi and Neal told the story of one group of M.Ed. students who worked with a local school. The school had developed a curriculum that seemed to be working well, and they asked the M.Ed. students to help them document the curriculum. However, as the students investigated, they realized that the curriculum was decentralized, with individual teachers in the schools taking it in different directions. Instead of producing a report about the effectiveness of the curriculum, the students ended up proposing a set of communication practices that would help teachers and administrators work together in more intentional and collaborative ways. In this case, as in many design projects, neither the partner nor the designer know what the actual challenge is, or what kind of solution will be needed, when they start the project.
One reason I asked Gresalfi and Neal to speak with the learning community was that I wanted to know if they had insights into the design of educational experiences that other instructors might leverage in the courses they teach. The panel noted that their students often have a hard time dealing with failure in an academic setting, or with projects that don’t have clear paths forward, two challenges that come up a lot in design-based work. Gresalfi, who teaches the learning theories course in the M.Ed. program, asks her students for rough drafts of their papers, provides feedback on those drafts, then grades the final drafts on the students’ responsiveness to her feedback. She finds this helps students learn to revise and, more importantly, be okay when something they produce isn’t great the first time out. Similarly, Neal asks her M.Ed. students for regular memos documenting their exploration of the problems they investigate with local partners. The memos can be revised continually, which helps students make changes to their own thinking, and takes the pressure off of grading.
Working with community partners poses a set of challenges, too, as many Vanderbilt instructors who engage in community-based teaching know. Neal works hard to maintain partners over time, since developing new ones takes time and limits the kinds of projects the students can tackle. She emphasized that mutuality is important. The partner’s challenges will change over time. As an instructor, she has to be okay with that, to be open to where partners are and where they’re going. Sometimes those new directions fizzle, and that’s okay, too. Since her instructional goals are more about the design process than about finished products, projects that fizzles can still be valuable learning experiences for her students. To help projects succeed, however, she’s found it useful to survey her students’ interests at the start the program, and to match students with partners based on those interests. Good design, she said, connects with the designer’s interests.
Both faculty had advice for other instructors interested in building more design-based thinking into their courses. Start small, Gresalfi advised. Start with a small change to an existing course, a two-week project and not a semester-long one. And warn the students that it will be messy. There will be dead ends and reversals and revisions. She also said that practicing design-based thinking doesn’t necessarily require a community experience. It doesn’t have to mean making a thing for someone else. Simply introducing students to the cycle of design-based thinking, including prototyping and testing and revising, can be useful, in all kinds of classrooms.
On that note, I’ll invite my Vanderbilt colleagues to join the final “teaching design thinking” conversation this fall, which will focus on writing as a design process. Guests Haerin Shin (English) and Matthew Worsnick (History of Art) will share the parallels they see between writing and design, and discuss the implications for teaching in both areas. Just as designers use empathy to understand who they’re designing for, writers try to understand and connect with their audience. And just as writing involves brainstorming and revision, designing involves ideation and prototyping. That conversation is scheduled for Tuesday, November 6th, from 11:30 to 1:00, with lunch provided. Register here.