How I Teach - Reflecting on 15 years in design education
by Jon Kolko

Chapter Four: Class Interactions

Exercises

In-class time can be used for exercises that reinforce course content. These are succinct, contained, and highly regimented tasks that students perform to underscore and practice what they’ve learned. There are a variety of forms of exercise I introduce. When students are learning method, we practice the method; when students are learning theory, we leverage exercises to further explore and build their perspectives on the content.

In both cases, exercises have these qualities or traits.

  • Exercises are “time boxed.” We set aside a specific amount of time for each activity, and I actively monitor that time. I set a timer and end the exercise promptly at that time. This means that students need to focus. Left without a time constraint, they will spin and spin. When they know they will have to share their work in a short period of time (10 or 15 minutes), their attention is sharpened.
  • Exercises have very detailed, very constraining parameters. For example, if students are exploring how to create a customer journey map, I’ll give them instructions like this:
    • Produce a customer journey map based on your research data.
    • Start by listing the stages a user will go through to accomplish their goals.
    • Map those stages to the journey map across the y axis.
    • The map should include 5 of these stages
    • Sketch swim lanes for “people”, “processes”, “emotions”, and “artifacts.”
    • Fill in the activities as black circles, highlighting problems as red squares.
    • The map should be sketched on a large piece of paper that is 2’ by 3’.

You’ll see that the constraints are very limiting. By dramatically containing what the students can do, the exercise purposefully focuses on the most important part—in this case, thinking about experience over time. The actual mechanics of the diagram are less important than the idea of time-based interactions.

Exercises are almost always conducted in a group. Groupwork in class helps reinforce ways to work through ideas together. Groupwork also serves the additional goal of including more introverted students, who feel more comfortable offering their opinions in a smaller and more intimate setting.

When students have completed the exercises, I’ll often skip a formal share-out of the work, and instead focus on a reflection of the exercise itself. Skipping a share-out seems strange, and students often want to present what they’ve done to the group. But I’ve found that the raw nature of the things they’ve produced makes these artifacts nearly incomprehensible to other teams, and during a share-out, teams are distracted by thinking about their own work. They don’t pay attention. Instead, I’ll hold a group discussion. By focusing that introspection on a reflective conversation (a meta-conversation about the exercise itself), teams can speak more to the generalized process of making the artifacts and less about any individual artifact. Instead of saying “Show us what you made”, I’ll ask students to “Tell us how that felt.

Visual exploration through diagramming

When students create visual representations of ideas, they create boundary conditions around complexity and ambiguity. By creating a diagram like a concept map—a map that connects ideas (often nouns and verbs) of a situation—they add shape to an idea. This shape can shift and change over time, but it creates a sense of pseudo-objectivity, which makes a problem tractable.

Diagrams can be created individually or collaboratively, and when they are created in teams, dialogue becomes the major force behind making decisions or diagrammatic “moves.” Students talk through vague concepts, forge connections between ideas, and bring ideas into focus by saying “it is this, not that.” I spark this form of diagramming in class explicitly: “OK, let’s try to make sense of what we just discussed. In pairs, create a concept map or other form of diagram that captures and visualizes your knowledge of the content we’ve studied.”

Role play

Role play is another form of exercise. During role play, students take on personas and then play out how those personas might react in a given situation. Role play is about imagining and about active empathy. When acting as another person, it forces students to see the world from their perspective: shifting the camera away from their own viewpoint, and hypothesizing what a different person might think.

It might look like this. A pair of students may take a particular reading that we’ve been discussing. One may take on the role of the author, and another may play the role of a practicing designer. And then the two can begin to have a conversation. The student who is playing the role of the author can leverage the content in the reading to make informed hypothesis about reaction, and the other student can provoke that form of reaction.

For example, if the students are exploring a paper about how designers should focus on usability instead of aesthetics, the role-play may look like this:

Student 1, acting as a practicing designer: “I enjoyed hearing about your concepts, but I fundamentally disagree. My work is all about aesthetics; my clients hire me to make products that are beautiful.”

Student 2, acting as the author: “But beauty alone isn’t enough. I described how objects of beauty are often purchased but left unused; do you remember the example I gave about the beautiful, but useless, teapot?”

Student 1: “Yes, but you missed something in the example—the person purchased that useless teapot. So the company that sold it made money on the sale.”

Student 2: “I don’t believe that simply selling the teapot is enough. That’s about corporatism, not about design. We have more of a responsibility to make objects that people want to use, not just objects people want to buy.”

In this short role-play, the students first start by discussing a point of view the author takes. But quickly, they introduce concepts that the author didn’t say—they hypothesize about how the author may have felt about a hypothetical situation. This means that the student playing the author is thinking critically about the author’s argument and applying it in a new context. There’s a conflict between the two students—a new idea has emerged, and the conflict can be discussed and resolved.

This form of role play is important for several reasons. One is that it pushes a student to try to empathize with another person, a person with more experience. This means that they need to form connections between their own experiences and what they’ve read or learned about someone else’s experience. They are literally playing a role, one student acting as a working professional (which they aren’t) and another as an author (which they aren’t).

Forced conflict and resolution

In-class exercises can also focus on conflict and resolution. I don’t mean a behavioral conflict; instead, I mean a conflict of ideas, positioning someone’s beliefs against someone else’s. The classroom is a place where conflict can be managed, and through a form of meta-conversation, I can act to referee the conflict so that it’s a conflict of perspectives, not a conflict of people. That is, it’s not the people that are positioned in opposition—it’s their ideas.

Conflict is valuable because it gives students an opportunity to examine an idea from another perspective. Their existing worldview is challenged, and I can help them explore why that view is being challenged. The intent of conflict is not to change one’s mind. Instead, it’s to explore alternative perspectives. In engaging in a conflict, a student must make a reasoned case or argument for their idea. This means that they need to anticipate opposition, think critically about the things they hear from other students, craft an argument for why their view is important, and leverage persuasion to attempt to convince others that their ideas are right.

Conflict doesn’t work without a trusted moderator. I act as that neutral party by stopping the conflict periodically to force a check-in. Why are your views in opposition? What pieces of the argument are most salient and which are weakest? For this to work, I need to have the trust and respect of the students. Students need to see me as objective even when I’m making rhetorical comments that challenge an established view. This trust comes slowly, which means this technique works best later in a class.

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