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there are many places where things can go wrong with pencils

The UX of Teaching

The broken pencil problem

Phil Mendez
Sep 23, 2020 · 3 min read

I’m reading The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. My friend, a postgraduate student at Carnegie Melon, recommended it to me. “Just buy the book,” she said.

So, I read the book. And while it’s not a master’s degree, it’s transformed the way I experience my work as a classroom teacher.

Consider a broken pencil. To the “average user,” a broken pencil is probably no big deal. You have had years of experience handling writing instruments. You know how much pressure to apply — both in your grip and in your contact with the page. You know how sharp of a point you desire. You know how to use a pencil sharpener. Children first learning how to use a pencil take none of this for granted. It is fresh, new, and exciting. Put ten, twenty, thirty kids together, and you have a systems-level problem.

The worst thing is to be in the middle of a lesson — kids huddled around engaged in learning, there is momentum, brain activity happening — and be interrupted for a broken pencil. There just has to be a better way. Teachers are prepared to handle these “extreme users,” with system design, training, and implementation.

It’s a shame, though, that common representations of teaching as a profession in popular media are reductions, crude simplifications of the work involved. I’m often at odds, trying to unravel and solve, the cultural prestige problem I see present in education. Design and technology are well-resourced and presented as cool. It is respectable, stimulating, fairly compensated. Teaching is supposed to be easy, so we “get to do it” because, we are told (in media we consume), kids are docile, precocious, orderly, rationale, cute, compliant.

The reality is teachers have big problems to solve, and they use big tools to get the job done: cognitive science, behavioral science, systems design.

In this way, the language we use matters. There is a lot “underneath the hood,” of a classroom teacher — when a kid breaks a pencil or learns to estimate. When we call it what it is (design!), we begin the fight for more resources, better compensation, and alignment of perception and reality in this work — and that’s all about a better now for the kids, a better future for humanity.

Want more on the UX of Teaching? I have a few ideas to go broader and deeper here. Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments. ✨

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Phil Mendez

Written by

Teacher | Designer

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

Phil Mendez

Written by

Teacher | Designer

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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