Teaching Design and Creativity
Over the course of my career, I have done two kinds of teaching—both of which have been challenging. On one hand, I have taught The Curriculum. You’re familiar with The Curriculum. It’s based on standards, outlined in textbooks, and typically requires you to answer to some kind of higher authority.1
Teaching The Curriculum is hard in its own special way. It’s tough to get kids excited about the next chapter in the textbook. It’s your job to take the otherwise drab content and make it engaging. Put on a good show, even if the script sucks. Make them care, even if they’ll never need to use whatever it is you’re teaching.
Regardless of how bad my education was (and it was pretty bad), it—at the very least—serves as a boilerplate template for how to go about teaching The Curriculum. I have decades of experience with unenthusiastic teaching from the other side of the desk.
On the other hand, this year I’ve begun teaching more complex topics, such as programming and design. So far, I’ve found that teaching these skills is much harder than teaching the curriculum.
I’ve read enough programming books to know that it is non-optional to begin with a basic discussion of how to print “Hello World” to command line. Beyond that, however, spending weeks discussing the finer points of associative arrays and closures is no way to win over an audience of 13-year-olds. They want to make stuff. Badly. It’s my job to get them to that point as quickly as humanly possible.
Although I learned how to program relatively recently, I’m not entirely sure how I acquired the modest skills I currently possess. I find myself having to explain abstract concepts I’m not sure how I learned in the first place.
The paradox of teaching design is that designers know things, but they can’t tell others about them in a way that novices will understand. In other words, this stuff can’t simply be written down and told to people and voila! they become experts.
In a chapter entitled, “What Is Design Knowledge and How Do We Teach It?”, in Educating Learning Technology Designers, Christopher Hoadley and Charlie Cox discuss the difficulties of teaching design—another abstract and complex subject where students are in a hurry to be able to produce something cool and quick.
We need, then to get a better grip on what experienced designers know-in whatever sense of the word-and come up with effective, reproducible ways of getting novices to a similar stage, such that they understand the general ideas that all expert designers share, and develop their own unique way of understanding and applying those ideas.
How do we know what we know? How would you explain color to someone who had no concept of it. Our brains take a lot for granted in order to avoid being overwhelmed by the complexity of the world around us.
That said, dealing with this abstraction cannot necessarily be avoided. Modern problems are complex, ill-structured, and open-ended. It’s our responsibility as educators to prepare our students to tackle these problems.
Teachers should be experts at explaining and externalizing the automatized ways of knowing and doing such that novices can understand.
That’s my job now and I dig it.
The wiener pun was intentional and unapologetic. ↩