Lessons from Teaching

Illustration by Alice Lee. Learn more about our illustrators.

Lessons from Teaching

As school bells ring and kids and college students around the country get ready to head back to the classroom, we’ve spent some time reflecting on what we’ve learned from being teachers. Both Annemarie and Liz are lecturers at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, and we’ve both taught in the summer sessions in University College. And, it turns out a fair amount of our work with partners is also about teaching: helping people build their skills in learning with and from people, prototyping, and iterating. 

Rather than a “sage on the stage” approach where we convey content primarily through lectures and readings, our teaching methods are focused on guiding students as they learn the design process by trying it out. In the spirit of ongoing iteration, we’re also always learning as we work alongside our students, and we’ve gathered some valuable lessons from teaching that connect to our work as human-centered process designers. 

Communicating complex information
In our work, we’re frequently teaching concepts and approaches that are abstract and hard to understand until you’ve experienced them. In order to transfer the experience from us to others, we use a variety of tools to make the content more tangible and approachable, including visualizations and metaphors. For example, when we’re introducing the approach of gathering feedback through prototyping, we often ask our learning audience to think about making a pasta sauce: it’s a different experience to ask for feedback on the spices while the pot is still on the stove, than when the final plate of pasta is in front of your guests on the table. We can illustrate this metaphor for prototyping and user testing with vibrant, memorable images, and connect with a cooking experience that will be somewhat familiar to many people. 

Our communication approach to teaching is iterative. We think about how we can break information down into smaller pieces with clear explanations and definitions, and then we try it out. We check to see if folks understand what we’re saying, and then make modifications, adjustments, and shifts as we go forward. 

Making space to try things out
When teaching, we adopt the mindset Embracing (Small) Failure wholeheartedly. When people are learning, we want to create meaningful opportunities to try things out that lower the stakes of participation. When it comes to process, people learn through doing. But doing something new can be scary and especially hard when it counts towards something you care about. We keep that emotional side of learning in mind as we decide how much “new” to share at once and how to structure practice so it can grow skills with low risk.   

As one example in Liz’s spring 2022 course, she made every part of the project worth just a couple points. Students turned in over 25 separate group assignments, including a number of “draft” assignments, where teams received feedback and had the chance to revise their work for a final, graded assignment. Each little part of the project was an opportunity to try out new skills and ideas, with little risk to their overall grades. 

Similarly, Liz teaches a class called Engaging Community: Understanding the Basics that introduces students to the critical parts of community engagement, including facilitation, power mapping, and more. To help students explore and build their skills, the course consists of a series of workshops that use modified case studies to practice with each other without the pressure of a real community context. 

Modeling and trying out different mindsets 
Finally, teaching is a great way to try on the mindsets of design (including iteration, embracing failure, optimism, and visual thinking). We use classes as an opportunity for us to model and practice these mindsets in real life. And we encourage our students (and partners!) to try on these mindsets in the safe space of a classroom or workshop space. For many students and clients, they may not use the human-centered design process in its full form again, but the mindsets will be applicable in many future situations. These mindsets sometimes conflict with engrained expectations or work cultures. Using them regularly and effectively can be a big cultural change! That’s why we express them explicitly, and then provide time and space for our students to practice them, “outside the box” of their regular approaches. When we teach, we also reinforce these mindsets throughout the experience: using optimistic language, celebrating learnings that come from small failures, reflecting back how much a design has improved through iteration, and encouraging visual thinking by doing our own rough, real-time sketching. 

For us, teaching isn’t only in the classroom, but a critical part of working with partners. Read more about our work with St. Louis Public School Principals in the Re-Design Fellowship, where we used these teaching techniques to help guide a team of principals through the process of making change in their school. 

Tell us about your experiences learning and teaching. Does it translate to your work? Leave us a note below, or send us an email at hello@publicdesignbureau.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s