Learning To Teach: Some Principles For Effective Education
Education is playing an increasing role in our lives. It’s no longer the exclusive subject matter of schools, and people with little formal experience crafting a course plan are finding themselves in situations where they need to do just that: write curricula. My wife, a nutritionist, recently found herself writing educational material to support her clients. My students, who are creating startups, are realizing the power of education to shift and change behavior. When I started teaching (almost ten years ago!), I had no idea how to write a course plan, craft a syllabus, or put together materials for teaching. A former colleague, Bob Fee, gave me the best teaching advice I have ever received: treat education like a design problem. And so, with big paper and a sharpie, I crafted a course plan in a bottom-up, content and user-driven fashion. I thought I would share some of the key principles of teaching and learning, here.
Focus on the people. When you start sketching out a course plan, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the content – to emphasize all the things you know and the things you want your students to learn. I’ve found that to be effective, I need to constantly focus on the students: to continually remind myself about what they do and don’t know. And that means a constant mental and imaginary back and forth: I want to teach this, but they don’t know that. I want them to learn this, but they haven’t experienced that. The internal dialogue isn’t about changing the content you teach, but about changing the perspective from which you teach it. Instead of emphasizing principles, theories, skills or methods, I typically reposition the content to emphasize applicability, first: why is this important to you? When will it be important to you? What are the circumstances in which you’ll use this skill or consider this theory? Once there is some hint of relevance, learning becomes easier.
Work backwards. Start with what you want students to learn: start with the end state. In academia, the end states are called Learning Outcomes, and typically describe skills or abilities a student will have achieved after completing your educational work. These are the stuffy statements that say things like “Achieved proficiency in…” or “Demonstrated a sound ability to…” (you can read AC4D’s learning outcomes here). It’s less important to write the outcomes in a formal way, and more important to consider what you want people to learn on a detailed and achievable level. This forces you to shift from a broad view (“I want students to learn design”) to a detailed view (“I want students to learn how to analyze complex problems”) and then to an assessable view (“Students will be able to analyze complex problems”). By starting at the end-state, you can envision how the student will have changed after experiencing your curricula: how they’ll see the world differently, and how they’ll act differently as a result of this new perspective.
Provide multiple opportunities for students to learn the same thing. Learning doesn’t happen instantly. It requires non-rote repetition; it’s extraordinarily similar to design synthesis, where an idea needs to marinate over a long period of time before the “ah-ha” moment occurs (I actually believe it’s physiologically exactly the same as design synthesis, but that’s a topic for another time). That means that students need to experience ideas multiple times, over a somewhat extended period of time. For example, at AC4D, I try to have students experience the end to end process of design from at least three different perspectives, at three different levels of scale. First, when they start the program, they go through the entire process of design in a two day bootcamp. Then, they go through the process of design from a theoretical standpoint: they learn about design, through the lens of various thinkers and designers. Finally, they go through the process of design themselves in an applied setting, through exercise and ultimately through starting their own business.
Provide opportunities for students to do poorly; provide opportunities for students to reflect. When my students experience the two day bootcamp, and for the better part of the first two quarters, they produce extremely bad work. Their work is not cohesive, finished, thoughtful, reflective, and generally, it’s incomplete. This work would be considered a design failure. It’s an educational success. Simply doing bad work, however, is not learning, because it does not engage the learner; as John Dewey said:
The word “interaction,” which has just been used, expresses the second chief principle for interpreting an experience in its educational function and force. It assigns equal rights to both factors in experience-objective and internal conditions. Any normal experience is an interplay of these two sets of conditions. Taken together, or in their interaction, they form what we call a situation. The trouble with traditional education was not that it emphasized the external conditions that enter into the control of the experiences but that it paid so little attention to the internal factors which also decide what kind of experience is had.
Each time a student produces something bad, there must be critique in order to invoke the other side of the learning interaction. Critique is of fundamental importance for learning. The critique must be structured, and formal, and direct. I’ve found that the critique should also be both public and private: public in order to gain a variety of perspectives, but private (and written) to provide the student with a more authoritative voice and perspective on how to improve.
Ground practical ideas in context. I’ve found that methods are a great way for student to learn. But teaching only methods is a disservice to students, as they are then without the ability to contextualize the use of a method in a large process. It’s important to ground practical ideas, like methods, in a historical, cultural, or theoretical context. Where did the method come from? Why is it useful? Who developed it? Why did they develop it? Some teachers I’ve spoken with think this is boring; I’ve found that students think it boring only until they realize the relationship between the theory and the method. Then, it stops being boring and starts being substantiation: it provides clarity. This is not history for history sake. It’s a way of contextualizing practice.
Don’t waste your students’ time. Students are quick to understand and react negatively to things that can be learned outside of the classroom – things they could learn without your expertise, without conversation, without alternative perspectives. They know this is a waste of their time, and so they don’t respect it (and therefore, don’t learn from it). This includes teaching software. Students can (and should) learn how to use a piece of software entirely on their own. If you are in a program that’s teaching you how to use a particular software package, demand a change, or demand your money back. That’s not education.
Set expectations sky high. Students don’t know what an appropriate level of excellence is. They don’t yet have a perspective on how hard something should be, how long it should take, and what it means for something to be of high quality. Set the bar as high as is humanly possible; set the bar higher than is humanly possible. Provide examples that describe your expectations. Provide written criteria for success. And provide written, detailed, explicit and specific feedback for students each time they fail to hit your high bar. Students will organically create their own vision of success based on your expectations, and they will then strive continually to achieve this level of expertise. They will become more rigorous in their work ethic. They will try harder, will produce more iterations of ideas, and will critique with a more refined and acute perspective.