How I Teach: Reflecting On 15 Years in Design Education

I’m pleased to announce our new book, How I Teach: Reflecting On 15 Years in Design Education. It’s available for free. 

I’ve taught design for 15 years, and when I started teaching, I felt very much like I was doing it wrong, and everyone would find out. Over time, I learned how to teach by building on the work of other great professors and through informed trial and error.

Throughout my experiences teaching,  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.

Explore How I Teach: Reflecting On 15 Years in Design Education here.


Jon Kolko

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