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The „wonder child“myth and how it’s destroying interaction design education

James M. Boekbinder / 2014

PLEASE NOTE: this post is based on my personal experience during 7 years as a professional design teacher at college level, and also my conversations with teachers and young graduates. Am I getting it wrong? Feel free to weigh in.

I recently saw a photograph of college-level design -students lying in a circle on the ground, with their heads towards one another, forming a flower with -outstretched legs as petals, Busby Berkeley-style. They were wearing colored t-shirts which had been chosen to represent the gradations of a color circle.
They were presenting their homework.
The design teacher giving this example was proud. She claimed that giving the class the task of representing a color circle in an original way, had motivated -students to engage with color theory. And that this -engagement had broken through apathy, disinterest, etc. The t-shirt trick had gotten attention from the media, which she seemed to see as a validation of its value.
Perhaps she is a good teacher who creates competence about color theory in other ways. But her enthusiasm made me queasy.

The myth
The myth goes like this: high school students arrived in a college design course, spoiled by years of deadening traditional classroom learning. They had a “just tell me what to do to get a meaningless number grade” mentality. But the inspired teacher, by giving them control over which problems they solve, having them collectively critique each other’s work and LEARN FROM EACH OTHER, aroused a sense of PERSONAL OWNERSHIP. The challenge also aroused their CREATIVITY.
After this powerful mixture took hold, a miracle took place. Their original PASSION for learning, dulled by a conveyer-belt education, AWOKE, and with it a full commitment and motivation to solving a design problem (often co-created by themselves) in a way that was MEANINGFUL TO THEM. They flourished and produced wonderful, INNOVATIVE work.
The story usually ends with proof: a story of the further achievements of a specific Wonder Child.

The reality
The problem is that the Wonder Child’s achievement usually had nothing to do with the course. And that a large group of students didn’t learn anything or made only minimal progress. Or even worse, remained in a blissful state of unconscious incompetence, convinced that they’d achieved something just because they felt inspired, enthusiastic, entertained. The work was meaningful to THEM, useless to anyone else.
Because the “learning objectives” were infected with vague values of originality, creativity, etc., their achievement was never tested. And nobody knows what they achieved anyway, because they worked in groups. Teachers who say they can track what students in a group individually achieved are either lying, stupid or rare workaholic types who monitor a group night and day.
Most are lying. The amount of time and size of the groups alone is evidence enough. The teachers who tell these inspiring stories never talk about the progress of all the students, instead of single iconic wonder stories. Or about the minimum level – the benchmark – of quality that all had to achieve to get a passing grade. Or guarantee that any student graduating can meet this standard.

Gurus feed the myth
This myth is promoted by a steady drumbeat from conferences like TED which feature gurus promoting ideas like “kids can teach themselves”1 and “bring on the learning revolution”2 and “hey, teachers, make it fun”3. There is truth in all of these things, but it is being used in a highly selective, dangerous way.
Once you’ve sparked the interest of students, there is a long path to be followed before they really learn anything. And that isn’t always fun. To succeed, the students have to show qualities which are now unpopular or downright tabu: will power and character. The will power to buckle down and take tough critique, and then try many times again until you get it right. And the character to want to be more than entertained and entertaining.
This is the thing that the gurus and their audiences – usually a product of solid conveyer-belt educations – don’t talk about.

Why do even good designers who teach, do everything to make it appear that enthusiasm alone will develop someone into a practice-ready designer?
First, because it enables them to keep the (far too numerous) students happy, without creating a massive workload and risking the disapproval of directors who want to pass these students and keep taking their money. For teachers, having character and willpower can easily set you up to be a victim of a system that values neither.
Second, it creates a safe zone in which nothing is quantifiable, so teachers can’t be criticized for lack of productivity. The worst teachers love this.
Lastly, many design teachers live in an insular world where designers making euphoric claims are never challenged and only talk with other designers. So they really can’t conceive of any better way of doing things.

A sick learning culture
Teachers and students cooperate to win inside this system. Teachers intuitively assess students and divide them into groups. The category the student falls into – not their actual achievement – determines their school career. There are three main categories:
Group 1 – Potential Wonder Children – talented and/or well-prepared students. These progress by themselves with minimal or no teaching. The only requirement is to give the kinds of rationale (inspired, creative) the teachers want to hear.
Group 2 – The Average Rest – students who don’t immediately stand out. They are ignored, or judged on “process” and “awareness” instead of the “products” they make. They remain invisible in teams with group grades and are left to assess themselves through bogus methods like “peer assessment”.
Group 3 – The Few that Fail – students who don’t fit the stereotype of the “young creative”. Often subjected to new-agey coaching strategies to “support” them while they slowly fail (and pay).
The result: the potential wonder children are rarely tested, don’t develop and fall apart at the first real challenge they meet (often during graduation). Potentially strong design students in the “average rest” category are neglected and don’t develop. And the “few that fail” lose years of their time and money while the school strings them along with second and third chances and “counselling”.
We need to stop playing this game and start training competent, thinking professionals capable of solving design problems.

What to do: principles for design education at foundation level
Here are a few ways to replace this with real teaching and learning. Please note: it’s critical to do this in the first year of studies, at foundation level.

Individual before team
Students should only be allowed to work as teams after first qualifying in individual assignments that are -rigorously evaluated. Don’t be taken in by hype about “people learning better in groups” or “real-world collaboration skills” for “the new economy”. This is crap. Students need precise feedback about their own real level of achievement. Those who don’t measure up should be told early. In real-world practice, we’re also careful about who we let into a team.

Judge product, not process
The deliverable should be graded, not the student’s “process” or “increased awareness”. If the design deliverables (the solution to the design problem) are properly defined, they should be the best indicator of the competence of a student. If they’re not, there’s something wrong with the design of your course.

Few deliverables, much skill
Require only a few deliverables which take much skill to create. Focus on iterations and improvements. Skill now has an undeservedly bad reputation. Professionals who stay in the same role, getting better at doing one thing, are too often seen as losers who don’t “develop” and “re-invent themselves”. Real iteration on a design, whether coding or writing or diagramming, is not mere “execution”. It’s a deeply synthetic activity that develops creativity, skill and abstract thinking all at once.

Teach broadly, test narrowly
If students work on a well-designed, problem-based course, they will learn much more than the formal learning objectives. It’s tempting to expand the objectives. Don’t stick to only a few, and test only those. The proportion of what’s learned to what’s tested, should be 20/80, not the other way around. Test individually and rigorously.

Problem-based, context-rich
Problem-based learning is best way to teach design. However, it only works if students have extensive access to the context of use. Almost every answer to a question about the design deliverable should begin with: “It depends …” and then mention a variable in the context of use or a related area of practice. So make the context (user information, description of setting, other) available.

Paradoxically, the broadest development is achieved by individual iteration on a limited number of deliverables, requiring much skill, and rigorously evaluated with narrowly defined criteria.

Dieser Text erschien zuerst am 17.2.2014 unter: http://razormind.info/infoconstructor/?p=883.

1.) www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_shows_how_kids_teach_themselves [4.1.2015]
2.) www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_bring_on_the_revolution [4.1.2015]
3.) www.ted.com/talks/tyler_dewitt_hey_science_teachers_make_it_fun [4.1.2015]

[Dieser Text findet sich im Reader Nr. 2 auf S. 49.]

[Es sind keine weiteren Materialien zu diesem Beitrag hinterlegt.]

James M. Boekbinder

(*1959) is an interaction designer, researcher, lecturer, editor and filmmaker. He works for non-profit, corporate and culture-sector clients, including the Knowledge Centre for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, municipality of Amsterdam, Akzo Nobel, Meulenhoff Publishers, Dutch Educational TV and many others. He is author of the foundation course in interaction design at Rotterdam University of Applied Science where he also lectures. He has done pioneering work in the areas of usability, content strategy and web publishing for international organizations and has won several prizes for films and internet campaigns. At present, he is helping create new products and services for clients in the fields of psychiatry, education and funeral services.


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Boekbinder, James