On Education

There’s a great new article by Dennis Littky in interactions magazine that describes his model for the future of education – one that he started focused on K-12 education, but has now extended into the college world as well. This makes a nice parallel to both Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on education, and Anya Kamenetz’s Fast Company cover article.

I’ve also contributed my own thoughts to the mix, which you can read here or below:


On EducationRecently, an article by Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, in which she paints a picture of how much education has changed, was featured on the cover of Fast Company. First graders use proprietary software and hardware; curricula self-adjust to the pace of the students; and the massive amounts of content presented on the Internet have democratized – at least on the surface – the challenge of access.

Large companies like HP are offering integrated packages like TeachNOW (designed in cooperation with frog design), which gives teachers a bird’s-eye view of the classroom and allows them to directly connect to packaged content sources. Connexions offers a similar content repository, in open-source fashion, of more than 16,000 reusable models with names like “serial port communication,” “the biopsychosocial model of health and illness,” and “Indian classical music: tuning and ragas.”

We are seeing a fundamental restructuring of delivery mechanisms, and a similarly rich restructuring of content (along with a healthy rejection of the age-old autocratic state content mandates). Yet until quite recently, we hadn’t seen the same scale of change in the pedagogy—the instructional styles used to impart knowledge and utilize the delivery mechanisms. And while study after study has rejected rote memorization and the homogenized learning encouraged by No Child Left Behind, alternative models of education are still characterized as “fringe.”

In this issue, Dennis Littky offers a provocative new model of K–12 education, one that emphasizes learning by doing, realizes individual differences in learning styles and approaches, and encourages apprenticeship learning over textbook learning. Fundamentally, Littky is arguing for the experiential learning promoted by John Dewey—and this is nearly identical to the process of design research and synthesis described in this issue by Katie Minardo Scott.

Designers use synthesis to quickly learn new things and integrate new perspectives with their existing worldview. They are, to some degree, experts in learning, and the critical ingredients seem to translate to a strong pedagogy of education. These ingredients include primary and generative research, active participation, critique and coaching, and the ability to take risks (and potentially be wrong) without negative consequences.

The similarities between the process of design and the process of learning in Littky’s school are striking, and he’s not alone in pursuing a new, designerly approach. His educational model is one of several, which may form a zeitgeist: We may, in fact, be perched on the brink of an educational revolution. And so, I offer a series of predictive recommendations about the evolving nature of education and how to best structure both pedagogy and content to succeed in the coming educational shift:

  1. Assume that anything is possible. As an educator you quickly become aware of the relative boundaries of your students, and it’s easy to set expectations based on these perceived limitations. Traditional teaching models are quick to group students by these segments—usually defined by socio-economic boundaries—and these segments have unusual staying power. The educational revolution to come will operate with the assumption of adequation, where students are empowered to try.
  2. Understand the “whole student.” At all levels of education, the homogenous body of knowledge that is taught en masse has come to mirror the assembly line, with teachers focused on their own tasks with no awareness of the larger  context. The educational revolution will empower teachers to support a whole student, realizing that any factual content needs to be positioned in a much larger and broader context.
  3. Leverage the content democratization afforded by technology. It’s almost colloquial to espouse the rich benefits of Internet content, yet in many educational settings, this repository is ignored. Traditional, and highly conservative, textbooks are used, which are neither engaging nor as broad in focus. During the educational revolution, educators will be empowered to draw from a wide assortment of content repositories, sources, and mediums.
  4. Reject the delivery limitations prescribed by technology. The majority of software intended to support online learning is abysmal. Blackboard, one of the most popular tools for online delivery, is described as a “horrendous monstrosity and the people who created it should be ashamed” [1]. As a result, the experiential qualities of online delivery may suffer for reasons entirely out of the educator’s control. During the educational revolution, we’ll see educators actively refuse to use subpar products, and we’ll witness an increase in hybrid approaches to teaching—models that combine a digital component with in-person, collaborative sessions augmented by traditional tools like whiteboards and Post-it notes.
  5. Create a safe environment for learning experiences. Perhaps the most important aspect of successful education is the idea of empowerment: creating an environment where failure can be explored, instead of simply trivialized, and where students can learn to be more effective learners. The educational revolution will bring a change of project-based learning, where the cycle of rote memorization, test, and pass/fail is replaced by an iterative approach of informed trial and error.

I’ve started Austin Center for Design to help drive this revolution; similar programs are creeping up all over the country and the world. Technology is enabling a number of these ideas, but they are fundamentally human. It is interaction design, and behavior, that will act as the driving force behind the educational revolution of the next century.

Thoughts on consumption… and cloud services.

Greenpeace’s recent attention on data centers has lead to a bit of thinking, which lead to a spooky realization: we are further and further abstracting our consumption.

Let’s think back (this is highly generalized and simplified): First, we abstracted our means of obtaining food from hunting and gathering to relying on commercialized agriculture, allowing us to stop seeking and rather simply acquire food. Next, with industrialization came outsourcing of product, thus we were no longer strongly associated with the production of the objects we were using (and a much wider range of objects were available to us at a rapidly decreasing price point). After that came outsourcing of production of food and tools to overseas sites, removing even our geographic ties to how the things we consume are made in order to get them made ” better,” faster, and cheaper.

As we’re in the thick of a domestic (American) movement of going back to basics – desiring a part in the development and cultivation of things we consume that are physical (like food, furniture, the objects we use) – we’re becoming tremendously reliant on less tangible things like network-based services, and these things rely on data centers that are enormously energy consumptive (amazingly, the EPA’s already on it). However, since these services are more and more removed from us – similarly to how manufacturing was from the industrial revolution on to offshoring – we’re not quite savvy as to how much we’re consuming, and in this case it’s rather difficult for us to even understanding what it is we’re consuming in the first place. We want to know where our things come from and want them to be sustainable, not made out of plastic, locally grown, etc, and we’re visibly conscious of what we’re buying, eating, and doing – what kind of car we’re driving and how we’re doing our part to save the earth, so to speak. All this as we’re developing patterns of using technology in a way that’s extremely wasteful, if in a way that is invisible to us.

So, how do we solve this? Do we educate on the practical underpinnings of technological advancements the same way we’ve (reactively) been educated that plastic is bad, local is good and that single-body aluminum MacbookPros are more material/production efficient? As product designers, we were tasked with addressing “sustainability” long before the term or concept were part of the public vernacular – so is it now our responsibility to address this new means of consumption in order to design more responsible behavior into products?

Note: There are some interesting advancements made in this space, such as Google’s goal to recycle a majority of water used in their data centers.

Austin Center for Design in Forbes Magazine

Director Jon Kolko is interviewed in Forbes Magazine, discussing how design can change human behavior: “Good design is design that changes behavior for the better. I think it needs to take into account the context of the environment, of the human condition, the culture and then attempt to make the things you do – make us do them better, make us do better things.”

Read the whole article here.

Austin Center for Design in the New York Times

Austin Center for Design is in the New York Times; as Allison Arieff writes in her commentary The Way We Design Now, “If not objects, what? It’s a dilemma closely mirroring that of the larger American economy, which has been shifting steadily form manufacturing to service. In response, design schools are scrambling to offer curricula that moves away from what Jon Kolko describes as ‘the Bauhaus, form-giving stuff.'”

Read the rest here.