How Can You Be a Teacher When You Don’t Know the Answers?

Illustration for "How Can You Be a Teacher When You Don't Know the Answers?" by Misa Yamamoto.
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By Kate Canales, BS, and Gray Garmon, MArch

Teaching design thinking for social innovation requires both the students and the teachers to step outside their comfort zones and outside of traditional teaching frameworks. While teaching a class as part of Southern Methodist University’s Design and Innovation Studio, Kate Canales and Gray Garmon share some of their strategies for navigating the fog of ambiguity. 

At some point every semester, a student will end up in office hours and earnestly ask, “What’s the answer?” or “How will I know?” We can see in their eyes that they want to “get it right.” In a graduate program that uses human-centered design (HCD), a fundamentally non-linear design methodology, there aren’t easy or obvious answers to these questions. For the past three years, we have co-taught a community-based studio course that asks students to apply their nascent training in human-centered design to a complex social issue in partnership with a local client over the course of a traditional semester. We’ve taken on refugee resettlement, teen homelessness and loose dogs in under-resourced neighborhoods, to name a few. For us, the real design challenge has come in how to “teach” a course like this. Much of the conversation about design pedagogy is rightly focused on the learner, but based on our involvement in this class, we would like to surface some of what it has felt like to lead this type of learning experience.

The discourse about “wicked” and “intractable” problems in our emerging field of human-centered design is not new. This promise—that HCD can help navigate the most complex challenges—is one that several firms and individuals are regularly delivering on (e.g., IDEO, Community by Design). Still, this is simultaneously one of the most desirable and elusive applications of HCD. And it turns out, it is tricky to “teach” it, as we have learned these last three years guiding graduate students who desperately wish to use it to change the world. When we founded the M.A. in Design and Innovation at Southern Methodist University in 2015, we did so in large part to answer a demand that we were hearing from both prospective students and their prospective employers: deliver on that promise. The world was asking us to produce students who have confidence in what Eddie Obeng classifies as “Lost in the Fog” projects.1 These open-ended projects tend to be situated in very complex spaces. So we set up the studio course squarely in that fog to give students practice at navigating it. What we didn’t anticipate was that helping students navigate that fog is also foggy for the teachers.

In a perfect implementation, the studio would have a sort of Wizard of Oz-type of effect in which all students realize that what they need to do this work has been within them all along. Doing this in a classroom setting challenges some of the norms of how classrooms typically work. It poses questions about the nature of teaching and the role of the instructor. It even presents logistical conundrums about existing institutional models like “contact hours,” grading and assessment.

Below are a few concepts that have helped us guide our Design Studio course better. What’s been amazing is that these practices and questions (no, we definitely have not figured all of this out!) also open up the way we teach our other, more traditional courses:

Our posture as instructors is relational, but tradition insists that our relationship with students is also authoritarian. Which is awkward.

When a course inquiry is truly open-ended (i.e., the instructors don’t have the “answers” in mind), some norms of a classroom are called into question. In this course we intentionally flatten the hierarchy as much as we can. Students become the deep content experts in the subject being pursued, while we are the experienced designers who can guide process and ask questions. We are much more like creative directors than we are “sage on stage.” This shift in the traditional student-instructor relationship means we can’t tell students what should be done, but we can talk about options, process and about why they are frustrated or stuck. At its best this allows us to have honest and productive conversations with the students about their work and their struggles, but it can backfire when students (and we) aren’t sure how to navigate this new type of relationship. For example, more than once we’ve received emotional, even unprofessional, emails from students during difficult times in a project—emails we presume would not have been sent to professors who have a more authoritative posture in the classroom. The dynamic of a flat classroom hierarchy is unfamiliar, and because of that, it can be tricky or even awkward. We are trying to behave like peers, but the institution insists on grades being handed down by professors, which makes a true peer relationship impossible. 

We seek alternative ways to evaluate student learning and give feedback (and grades).

In the studio environment, “the homework is due on Tuesday or you get a zero” just doesn’t fly. We also have chosen not to focus our evaluation on the final design outcome, but rather on the application of methods and process. In other words, we don’t decide if your answer is right or even good; we look at how you got there. To do that, we’re learning to focus on reflection, peer feedback, public critiques and qualitative rubrics instead. Our studio rubrics include design skills (how well the student utilizes a research plan to make strategic decisions about their study, for example), but we also try to look at indicators of affective growth (how well the student pushes through periods of feeling stuck). All feedback and grades are delivered in thoughtful, written form.

Much has been written and discussed about assessing students in this way, and it can be very valuable when done well. We’ve also found that for our course, digging into some of these qualitative measures is just plain hard from where we sit in the group dynamic. We don’t see the late-night team meetings or the self-pep talk in the car while driving to campus for a big presentation. We’ve been evolving a system of integrating meaningful peer and self-evaluation into not just the feedback, but the grades.

For example, at the midpoint of every semester, we provide students with an outline to write an anonymous letter to their teammates that will help them improve and grow as designers. They practice the skill of giving and receiving constructive, and often critical, feedback. They also provide this same feedback to themselves in a letter that we read. And at the end of the semester they give themselves 25 percent of the numeric grade for the semester, and 25 percent of their letter grade is given to them by their teammates. 

We co-teach, which gives us a design team.

Human-centered design is fundamentally collaborative, and teaching design can be the same. From day one, we decided to co-teach all Design Studio classes with the motto: never go into the fog alone. Our partnership allows for a variety of perspectives for students (we often differ in the ways we see a challenge), and maybe more valuably, a colleague to lean on when the issues about students, clients and the project itself get murky. Co-teaching is also a good opportunity to model many of the behaviors that we want the students to practice on their project teams: building upon the ideas of others, productively disagreeing, leaning into each other’s strengths and experiences. 

While some of this sounds delightful, there is an obvious cost: working this way is more cumbersome for the instructor. It takes time to write out all those narrative evaluations, meet with students individually about their growth, do long critiques and discussions about the direction of these unknown project outcomes and meet with one another to plan our co-teaching tactics. And it is worth it. In all, our modified posture in the classroom has led us to more adaptability and grace for the students and for one another. And for us, not knowing is more fun than knowing.

They say if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Well, we’re designers, so learning to design these complex, open-ended learning experiences for students has been our design project lately. We lead with empathy, focusing on student learning first, and we view our classes as prototypes to be iterated upon. With each new class we gain new insight that helps us move toward improved ways of teaching and learning design.

References

1  Obeng, E., 1996. Putting Strategy to Work. The blueprint for transforming ideas into action. Pitman Hall, London.


Kate Canales is currently the Chair of the Department of Design and an Associate Professor of Practice in the School of Design and Creative Technologies at The University of Texas at Austin. Formerly, she was the Director of Design and Innovation Programs and a Clinical Professor of Design and Innovation at Southern Methodist University.

Gray Garmon is currently the Director of the Center for Integrated Design and an Assistant Professor of Practice in the School of Design and Creative Technologies at The University of Texas at Austin. He was formerly a Clinical Professor of Design and Innovation at Southern Methodist University.