Rethinking Education, Improving Practice

Students' aims when they enroll in a higher education course. Source: Teaching, Teaching, Understanding, Understanding (1/3)

Students’ aims when they enroll in a higher education course. Source: Teaching, Teaching, Understanding, Understanding (1/3)

One way of improving the practice of a discipline or field is having a robust education and solid theoretical foundation. In the case of information design, these aspects are still unclear and vary across education systems and programmes. For example, information design programmes in the US, the UK, Spain and some countries in South America approach the field from different perspectives, some of them with a stronger focus on theory and other offering a more practice-led education. None of them is better than the other, but they indicate the diversity within information design is immerse. In some cases, this undefined context translates into lack of clarity of fundamental knowledge.

This post is an attempt to understand basic dimensions that should be considered when teaching information design. I will provide an overview of higher education evolution, and point out some aspects that have changed among learners’ attitudes.

Learners’ mindset

If you have been closely related to education during the last fifteen years, you must have noticed a change of interests and attitudes in learners. To some extent, their reasons to enroll in higher education (HE) programmes are now more related to the purpose of finding a job (job-led mindset), than related to simply learn and expand understanding (learning-led mindset). Of course, this mindset also leads to finding a job, but demands more effort and commitment from learners in that these students try to achieve deep understanding, not merely surface understanding in order to finish a course. Consequently, the way undergraduate and postgraduate education is delivered has changed and adapted, as well as the processes of learning and understanding. In my last posts, I directed the attention to the trilogy videos: Teaching, Teaching, Understanding, Understanding, which provide a clear and well explained picture of this education shift since the 80s.

Particularly, in terms of design education, it has traditionally been characterised for a strong practice-led, hands-on approach, often associated with lower academic demands (in terms of rigour, systematic thinking, and critical thinking) in comparison to more “scientific” fields, like biology or physics, or more heavily theory-led fields, like history or psychology. In the last decade, this approach has been changing and current design programmes are increasingly including more theoretical subjects, and preparing students for developing analytical skills and more systematic and rigorous problem-solving methods. However, in practice, information design programmes with a balanced curricula of theoretical (research, methods, frameworks) and practice components (real-life projects, studio practice) are still scarce.

Educators’ strategies

In countries in which HE is paid, studying is sometimes seen as a business in which learners are the clients and teachers need to respond to their needs. To some extent, this relationship can limit teachers’ role and be a barrier for helping students construct the appropriate learning to obtain deep understanding. Similarly, Becher and Trowler (2001) described HE purposes as focused on “supplying qualified students for the professions, industry and commerce,” but at the same time “de-emphasizing of its other roles, those concerned with the general development of individuals’ minds and capabilities, contributing culturally to the community and enhancing knowledge and understanding for their own sakes rather than for utilitarian ends.”

As educators, we should always ensure we are effectively performing our main task: passing on knowledge to future generations and making sure that learners are achieving deep understanding. To achieve those goals in the current education context, we also need to rethink our teaching strategies. On the one hand, we need to engage with the interests of the new generation of learners to avoid them to become impermeable to new knowledge. We need to teach them the value of self-motivation and commitment, and to reinforce the benefits of learning, and constructing and expanding knowledge in order to become designers. In the case of information design, we need to transmit the satisfaction involved in the field when we, as information designers, create a solution that makes a difference: helps someone, empowers change, or solves a problem.

Building on the work of Biggs (2003), one way to avoid business-led education is creating programmes with aligned structures: learning outcomes matching learning activities and assessment criteria. Analytical thinking, researching, writing, understanding conceptual aspects and processes, developing technical skills, and exploring creativity and production should all be considered fundamental skills to complete HE courses,  demanding equal level of engagement from learners, and being equally assessed by educators. All of them are necessary to becoming an information designer.

Becher, T., & Trowler, P. (2001). Academic tribes and territories: Intellectual enquiry and the culture of disciplines. McGraw-Hill International.
Biggs, John. “Aligning teaching for constructing learning.” Higher Education Academy (2003).


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