Archive for the ‘Brain science, learning and interaction design’ Category

The ‘wonder child’ myth and how it’s destroying interaction design education

Monday, February 17th, 2014

PLEASE NOTE: this post emerged from personal experience during my 7 years as a professional design teacher at college level, but also my conversations with teachers and observation of the young graduates entering the field during the last 15 years. Am I getting it wrong? Feel free to weigh in.

I recently saw a group of college-level design students lying in a circle on the ground, with their heads towards one another, forming a flower with outstretched legs as petals, Busby Berkeley-style. They were wearing colored t-shirts which had been chosen to represent the gradations of a color circle.

They were presenting their homework.

The design teacher giving this example was proud. She claimed that giving the class the task of representing a color circle in an original way, had motivated students to engage with color theory. And that this engagement had broken through apathy, disinterest, etc. The t-shirt trick had gotten attention from the media, which she seemed to see as a validation of its value.

Perhaps this is a good teacher. Perhaps she creates insight and competence about color theory in other ways. But her enthusiasm made me queasy.

The Myth

The myth goes like this: high school students arrived in a college design course, spoiled by years of deadening traditional classroom learning. They had a ‘just tell me what to do to get a meaningless number grade’ mentality. But the inspired teacher, by giving them control over which problems they solve, having them collectively critique each other’s work and LEARN FROM EACH OTHER, aroused a sense of PERSONAL OWNERSHIP. The challenge also aroused their CREATIVITY.

After this powerful mixture took hold, a miracle took place. Their original PASSION for learning, dulled by a conveyer-belt education, AWOKE, and with it a full committment and motivation to solving a design problem (often co-created by themselves) in a way that was MEANINGFUL TO THEM. They flourished and produced wonderful, INNOVATIVE work.

The story usually ends with proof: an example in the form of a single Wonder Child who is now (the teacher fills in her achievements _______ ).

The Reality
What none of these teachers ever talk about is that the Wonder Child progressed for reasons that had little or nothing to do with the course. And that a large group of students didn’t learn anything or made only minimal progress. Or even worse, remained in a blissful state of unconscious incompetence, convinced that they’d achieved something just because they felt inspired, enthusiastic, entertained.

Because the ‘learning objectives’ were infected with vague values of originality, creativity, etc., their achievement was never tested. And nobody knows what they achieved anyway, because they worked in groups. Teachers who say they can track what students in a group individually achieved are either lying, stupid or rare workaholic types who monitor a group night and day.

I noticed that the teachers who tell these inspiring stories never talk about the progress of all the students, instead of single iconic wonder stories. Or about the minimum level – the benchmark – of quality that all had to achieve to get a passing grade. Or guarantee that any student graduating can meet this standard.

Design and education gurus feed the myth

This myth is promoted by a steady drumbeat from conferences like TED which feature gurus promoting ideas like ‘kids can teach themselves‘ and ‘bring on the learning revolution‘ and ‘hey, teachers, make it fun’. There is truth in all of these things, but it is being used in a highly selective, dangerous way.

Once you’ve sparked the interest of students, there is a long path to be followed before they really learn anything. And that isn’t always fun. To succeed, the students have to show the qualities which are now unpopular or downright tabu: will power and character. The will power to buckle down and take tough critique, and then try many times again until you get it right. And the character to want to be more than entertained and entertaining.

This is the thing that the gurus and their audiences – usually a product of solid conveyer-belt educations – don’t talk about.

What to do: principles for design education at foundation level

Here are a few ways to remedy this in the first year of studies, at foundation course level.

1. Individual before team
Students should only be allowed to work as teams after first qualifying in Individual assignments that are rigorously evaluated. Don’t be taken in by hype about ‘people learning better in groups’ or ‘real-world collaboration skills’ for ‘the new economy’. Students need precise feedback about their own real level of achievement. Those who don’t measure up should be told early. In real-world practice, we’re also careful about who we let into a team.

2. Judge product, not process
The deliverable should be graded, not the student’s ‘process’ or ‘increased awareness’. If the design deliverables (the solution to the design problem) are properly defined, they should be the best indicator of the competence of a student. If they’re not, there’s something wrong with the design of your course.

3. Few deliverables, much skill
Require only a few deliverables which take much skill to create. Focus on iterations and improvements. Skill now has an undeservedly bad reputation. Professionals who stay in the same role, getting better at doing one thing, are too often seen as losers who don’t ‘develop’ and ‘re-invent themselves’. Real iteration on a design, whether coding or writing or diagramming, is not mere ‘execution’. It’s a deeply synthetic activity that develops creativity, skill and abstract thinking all at once.

4. Teach broadly, test narrowly
If students work on a well-designed, problem-based course, they will learn much more than the formal learning objectives. It’s tempting to test these other objectives. Don’t. Stick to only a few fundamental objectives, and test only those. The proportion of what’s learned to what’s tested, should be 80/20, not the other way around. Test individually and rigorously.

5. Problem-based, context-rich
Problem-based learning is best way to teach design. However, it only works if students have extensive access to the context of use. Almost every answer to a question about the design deliverable should begin with: ‘It depends’ and then mention a variable in the context of use or a related area of practice. So make the context (user information, description of setting, other) available.

The broadest development is achieved by individual iteration on a limited number of deliverables, requiring much skill, and rigorously evaluated with narrowly defined criteria.

Learning = creating

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

Reading about Arne Dietrich’s 2004 paper ‘Cognitive neuroscience of creativity Reprint CNC PB&R‘, I was struck by the similarity of the four categories to Kolb’s model of ‘experiential learning’. They kind of map to one another. Kolb’s model proposes a ‘cycle’ which can be started at any point, and positions ‘types’ of learners in the quadrants defined by the two continua (processing and perception):

Diagram showing model of experiential learning created by David Kolb

Diagram of Kolb’s model with the four ‘types’ of learners

Dietrich’s model also can be expressed in four quadrants, defined by the axes ‘deliberate – spontaneous’ and ‘cognitive – emotional’:

Diagram of Arne Dietrich's model of 4 types of creativity.

Diagram of Arne Dietrich’s model of 4 types of creativity copied from Susan Weinschenk’s book (see below).

The ‘cognitive and deliberate’ type of creativity sounds much like Kolb’s ‘theorist’. The other four ‘types’ also fit almost one-to-one:

Diagram showing how Dietrich's four kinds of creativity and Kolb's experiential learning seem to match.

The two models combined.

Disclaimer: I haven’t read Kolb’s original work, only the explanations of it by various other authors. So these are only tentative ideas, but here goes:

- Maybe this validates Kolb to the extent that if learning is creating new knowledge and abilities, then the four kinds of creation he posited have some basis in neuroscience.
- Maybe this also invalidates Kolb’s idea of a ‘cycle’. The path one takes from one kind of creation to another is probably nothing like his neat model seems to suggest.

And there has not been any validation of the idea of ‘learning styles’ based on the experiential model (they don’t predict how well someone will learn).

One thing: it explains why my first-year students all seem to have the same learning style (activist – pragmatist). In her book ‘100 things every designer needs to know about people‘ Susan Weinschenk explains that for Dietrich’s cognitive and deliberate creativity, one needs a pre-existing body of knowledge. Coming from miserably bad high schools, lazy and distracted, these kids don’t have any knowledge and aren’t about to put out the effort to acquire it. Whereas the other kinds of creativity (emotional – spontaneous, etc.) seem to take less effort.

Conclusion: forget the ‘learning cycle’ and force them to do the cognitive-deliberate ‘theorist’ bit relentlessly, so they actually develop the capacities they’re missing. Without them, the students will never become real solvers of ‘wicked problems’. I also suspect that the deliberate cognitive creativity is underestimated as a way of ‘priming’ the unconscious to enable the other kinds.

Analog memory desk – how to use it?

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

Idea, inspired by Art Glenberg’s experiments with helping kids learn to read (explained in the Brain Science Podcast on Embodied Cognition).

Use this as an eating table with a small kid approaching reading age. Draw a circle where the plate will be, then write a couple words (the food that will be served). Call attention to words, then serve food (same as words). Maybe a way of doing what Glenberg calls ‘mapping the written word to their experiences’?