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

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.

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