How I Teach: Treat curriculum design like a design problem

When I was 24, I was looking for a career change. I found a job at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)—a large art school in Savannah—teaching industrial design and interaction design. I got the job in June, and would start teaching in September. I had three months to prepare to teach four classes, and I was panic-stricken. I had no idea what to do.

The extent of my teaching experience at that point was being the teaching assistant in a class in graduate school, where the curriculum was set and the professor told me what to do—which mostly consisted of grading multiple-choice tests. My classes at SCAD were to be in a variety of design specialties, like information design and product form development, and there was no one who was going to tell me what to do. I was on my own.

I felt overwhelmed, and so I had a conversation with an existing faculty member at SCAD, Bob Fee. Bob offered me two things, both of which turned out to be what I needed to get started.

First, Bob gave me advice: he told me to treat the creation of a course like a design problem. That meant sketching it out visually, testing it, and most importantly, iterating on it—treating the course plan like a work in progress, rather than a finished artifact. This advice helped me see that I would probably be wrong with my first attempt at a curriculum plan, and being wrong was okay. The pressure and anxiety I had about teaching was that I worried I wasn’t going to get it right or be good at it. By thinking about it like a design problem, I realized that “being good at it” wasn’t as important as “trying and iterating.”

The second thing Bob gave me was much more tangible. He gave me his lesson plans. He gave me syllabi, lectures, notes, sketches, student work examples, and all sorts of other digital artifacts. And he gave me his blessing to use them in any way I wanted—to borrow (or steal!) generously as I developed my own courses. This meant that I was able to learn by example—by exploring how he broke down complex topics into simple ideas, how he threaded a narrative through a ten week quarter, how he thought about grading, and the types of things his students produced. I wasn’t going to be teaching the same classes as him, but it didn’t matter. These materials became the backbone for my own content development.

And so I worked to develop content and curriculum for my first quarter teaching, agonizing over each class and sketching, erasing, and revising my own plans. And then the first day of class was upon me. I remember standing up in front of the class, introducing myself, and—scared to death—kicking off the quarter.

I didn’t do very well. For all my planning, my classes weren’t well structured, I didn’t have confidence in my own teaching abilities, the students were skeptical of a new professor, and I felt all over the place teaching four classes (and close to 70 students) at a time. But I got through it, and over time, I got better. I learned from my experiences, and to my surprise, students were forgiving of my mistakes. They felt that I was on their team, and my shortcomings in the classroom were ignored as I slowly built their trust.

I worked at SCAD for close to five years, and in that time, I taught over 500 students. I built curricula in both industrial design and interaction design, I mentored undergraduates and graduate students, and I learned to teach.

After I left SCAD, I was able to apply my experiences at a number of other educational institutions, such as at the University of Texas at Austin, the Center for Design Studies of Monterrey, in Mexico, and Malmö University, in Sweden. And then, in 2007, I started my own school called Austin Center for Design (AC4D).

I started a school for a variety of reasons. One was that I saw a need for low cost, high quality graduate-level design education. Design graduate programs in the US can cost as much as $80,000, which is outrageous. I wanted to develop a school with comparable quality, but at a fraction of the cost.

I also wanted to develop an educational program that was focused on a unique form of subject matter (interaction design, design strategy, and social entrepreneurship), topics that weren’t broadly taught and that I felt had strong demand.

And, I wanted to develop a program that combined what I had learned at my various teaching experiences, but without the organizational and bureaucratic roadblocks that I had encountered at some other institutions.

Many of the faculty that taught in those first years of AC4D were new to teaching. I tried to duplicate what I gained and learned from Bob. I gave my educators the same advice (to treat curriculum design like a design problem), and I gave them my course plans, too.

Austin Center for Design is a unique school in Austin Texas that helps students develop autonomy through design. We teach a one-year program in interaction design and social entrepreneurship.

Students gain skills in qualitative research, synthesis and interpretation, sketching, the creation of storyboards and wireframes, entrepreneurial business modeling, service design blueprinting, and complex system diagramming. These skills represent the foundation of a career in product management, design strategy, interaction design, and social entrepreneurship.

AC4D has turned into a well-recognized and respected school. Our alumni have gone on to do great things, and our education process has become more and more refined. But, we’ve always treated the curriculum like a work-in-progress. We reinvent the classes, make changes, and constantly iterate on our course plans.

Throughout my experiences at SCAD and AC4D, I’ve seen new teachers struggle, for many of the same reasons that I struggled. Teaching seems overwhelming, and the responsibility of being an educator makes even simple tasks feel daunting. What if I get it wrong? What if I teach them the wrong thing? Will I ruin their careers? Will they feel misled, or that they didn’t get their money’s worth?

The “new teacher” problem is amplified in recent years because there are an increasingly large number of adjunct teachers entering academia. Adjunct teachers are more cost effective for large universities, because the schools can do crappy things like avoid paying them health insurance or regular salaries. These adjunct teachers are often thrown into the deep end with little or no background on the course they are to teach, and little training in how to teach it.

That lack of training goes for tenured professors, too. Many tenured professors are employed because they are experts in their field, not experts in teaching. When I talk to tenured professors, some describe that teaching is more intimidating than their research, because they’ve had literally no instruction on how to manage or structure an educative experience.

In addition to adjunct and tenured professors, I also see a proliferation of corporate facilitators—of people responsible for organizing and running training within a company. These people are tasked with introducing complex topics, like design thinking, into the fast moving and chaotic machine of business. And, again, they may have little or no experience teaching. They are experts in their field, but not necessarily experts in education.

Even “plain old designers” are starting to feel the pressure to teach. Our role as designers is increasingly that of facilitator—of bringing both users and clients along for the creative ride, and helping them see the benefits and value of various forms of design methodology. It’s not enough to do great design work and come unveil it to an audience. Instead, our role is to teach other stakeholders about what it is we do and why we do it.

An influx of teachers, but no real plan to teach them how to teach—that’s recipe for disaster. I want to help change that. In all, I’ve had over fifteen years of experience teaching design. I’m a good teacher, but it took me a long time to get here. As I reflect on my own path, I realized that I have a lot of things I’ve learned that can help other teachers—to help adjuncts, tenured professors, corporate educators, and design facilitators. I can make their path a little easier, and can help improve the quality of education in a broad sense.

This text is what I’ve learned so far. It’s about design education, but it’s applicable to other fields, too. It’s for people responsible for building curriculum and designing classes, for people who are in positions to teach, and even for students who are thinking about how their own courses are structured and run. I hope the material is actionable: it’s material I wish I had when I started.

This article is an excerpt from How I Teach: Reflecting on 15 years in design education by Jon Kolko. The full text is available for free here.

Jon Kolko

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