Teaching can be beautiful. Like the elegant design of a well-considered object that perfectly performs its given task, or the exquisite structures that are discoverable in nature, or even that understanding of the natural world applied toward a human need in the most fitting way, teaching and learning can be aesthetic experiences. Sometimes teaching and learning reveal their purpose in the most astonishing ways! The role of the teacher, especially those teaching engineering, design, and other project based curricula , is in many ways the same as that of the designer; it is an approach that cultivates questions and crafts solutions that move the creative process forward. This process, often times as much as the product which it produces, can be a marvelous thing.
But teaching, like the discipline of design itself, is more than just attention to the aesthetic qualities of the product or process. Design is a mode of inquiry, and each iteration is an opportunity to ask a new question. Design is a method for understanding the people for whom we are designing and the context in which they exist. Design is the translation of these insights into concrete form, as prototypes, which can be made and tested and remade and retested as they are iterated towards implementation.
The best teachers are designers in this greater sense. They are as much students as they are teachers, as much users as they are designers. Generally speaking, designing for the student experience is not so different from designing anything else. It certainly begins with empathy for the “user experience”, which in this context might more accurately be describe as the “student experience”. In the best cases this is participatory and collaborative, producing more of a discursive community than the traditional model with an “expert” relating knowledge to neophytes. Design makes experts of us all, because we all have relevant experiences to draw on. In the very best instances, it rarely conforms to a neat predictable template, but produces diverse, collaborative, and unexpected outcomes. When crafted with care, the student experience is the beginning and the end of this process.
The teacher helps the student give their ideas life. His or her role in these types of classes is to provide the necessary scaffolding for giving the student the constraints that advance the process, while also giving them the open space to truly discover new approaches; to cultivate and understand their own creative practice. The teacher provides the tools, and helps the students master these tools. When they get stuck, it is the teacher’s responsibility to help them navigate around or through the problem with creative confidence.
From the abstract to the concrete, design students are given the means by which to translate their ideas into prototypes, as they gain proficiency in different modes of representation, in all their multiplicity. A conversation might become a story that is shared, evolving into a sketch on a sheet of paper that becomes a sketch on a screen, which might become something that can be made tangible, placed in the hand and further considered and critiqued. These modes of representation demand that students gain new types of literacies, including visual literacy, digital literacy, and proficiency with the tools of the critical maker.
In many ways, this approach to design pedagogy is merely the scientific method applied to the creative process. Like the scientist who gleans insights from the natural world, students hypothesize, experiment, analyze, and repeat, which in design parlance might be described as ideation, prototype, and critique. The critique gives a student critical distance to improve their project, as they invite others to offer unconsidered perspectives. To this end, documentation of both process and product becomes an invaluable tool at all stages of development.
Documentation is important because it : 1) It provides a pedagogical tool for critical reflection, helping students understand the design decisions they have made by making visible the arc of their process. 2) It provides a medium by which students can share their work with their peers, fostering a culture of creative collaboration. 3) It provides a portfolio of work, which becomes a ticket into the professional life of a creative career. Nothing is more powerful in an interview than demonstrating how you navigated the challenges of your creative process and the outcomes it produced.
This process of experimentation and critique is purposeful and powerful, oriented towards innovative solutions that fit into the lived experience of the people who will benefit from it. Context matters. For this reason, designers have a special social responsibility. It is an often repeated mantra that everything not designed by nature was designed by people for people. Those designs provide affordances for our lived, everyday experiences. This gives the designer an important role in establishing affordances for the myriad behaviors we engage in from moment to moment, and which shape so much of our lives. This ethical dimension must begin with a consideration of what we are putting into the world and its impact, and in this way the ethical considerations of design are not so dissimilar from the aesthetic considerations, the criteria of which emerge from the purpose of the design.
Of course, this iterative, interrogative approach to design process, practice, and product goes we’ll beyond the classroom or the design studio. When cultivated with passion and wisdom, these are life skills. By helping students become more aware of their creative practice, they gain the tools for divergently cultivating new questions, and open up new possibilities. By better understanding their creative process, they identify when to think convergently in order to develop solutions to well defined problems. Each project and each context is an opportunity to learn something new. When cultivated with passion, care, and insight, process and practice, and the way they are taught, can be a very beautiful product indeed.