The Elephant of Design Education


The three components are interconnected in education

A few weeks ago, I attended an excellent talk by Jonathan Zimmerman as part of NYU Center for the Advancement of Teaching. The talk was based on research about the evolution of undergraduate teaching in the United States, presenting key characteristics of various periods until now, and mostly within the context of history, humanities and social sciences. Interestingly, many of Zimmerman’s remarks and comments also reflect the situation of education systems in Europe and Latin America, and within the context of design research and design education.

Overall, findings indicate that students’ intellectual learning and commitment to their education have decreased from previous generations. To some extent, these findings didn’t surprise me [I discussed a similar phenomenon here], but they made me think what may be causing students’ lack of enthusiasm and decreased performance, which also, in the case of design, translates in poor design practice.

Evolution of teaching

The extensive work of both Zimmerman and Biggs sheds light on the evolution of teaching and learning, the teacher-student relationship, and the roles of both parties in the learning journey. Zimmerman’s research discusses three periods of teaching, and the work of Biggs is focused on analysing a more recent picture of higher education. When we combine both approaches, we find four main periods of education. Each of these periods involves a particular method for delivering content and structuring a class, among other aspects:

  • Recitation: Teacher reads content of a particular subject while students take notes. No interpretation is given to students. Students have a passive role.
  • Lecture: Teacher delivers an interpretation of a particular subject. Teacher consolidates theories and perspectives to provide students a richer theory and story. Students have a more active role, e.g. students take notes and can ask questions.
  • Discussion: Teacher delivers a topic to start a conversation with the students. Students are actively involved in the class: e.g. they share their points of view about the topic, and interact with other students and the teacher. Other topics may emerge from the discussions.
  • Student-centred: Teacher designs activities and puts into practice creative methods in response to students’ needs. Students are active participants during the class, and, to some extent, help shape the class.

As indicated above, initially, students did not appear to provide (or being asked for) their opinion about the quality of a class or the way content was being delivered to them. Teachers were the ones evaluating students; not the other way around. This dynamics has been increasingly changing by students gaining more space to share their views about their learning experiences. After the 60s, students started claiming a much more active role in education to express their views about the education system and evaluate the way they were being taught. Currently, in some programmes, students are even involved in the development of the course syllabus.

Components of Education

An interesting paradox is that although we are living in the information age, many aspects of daily life seem to be discouraging people to fully engage with information and gain clear understanding: e.g. twitter limits the amount of characters you can write, text messages/whatsapps are often written in “code” language. Education and its components are also being affected by this phenomenon:

  • Students. Students seem to be reluctant to engage in learning activities that will demand high levels of reading and writing, to the point of preferring not to choose courses requiring more than 20 pages of writing. “Wanting to get an easy diploma,” devices encouraging short ways of communication, and easy access to information might be some of the reasons behind students’ lack of commitment to education, and becoming passive learners.
  • Teachers. Nevertheless, teachers have some responsibility in this change too. Teaching is not only reciting content; it should be about engaging students in the whole education experience, making sure that they are gaining knowledge, learning how to think, and deal with problems. Some teachers don’t have the appropriate skills, and “have made [learning] boring, by stripping it of its intellectual edge — and by letting (…) students slide along.” (Zimmerman, 2011)
  • Education System. The system and organisations also contribute to this situation. While their main priority should be to form a team of educators with the appropriate teaching skills, and support them in their tasks, sometimes these aims get a bit lost under politics and financial issues. In these cases, the learning journey becomes much easier to students than it should be (e.g. students are given countless opportunities, not enough demand from teachers), and, to some extent, this jeopardizes students’ future.

Consistency is a key attribute that is often overlooked, as Zimmerman pointed out towards the end of his talk. In the past, design education was more consistent: what it was offering (i.e. practice-led and studio classes) was aligned with what students were obtaining from their university experience (i.e. high quality hands-on practitioners). Currently, design education is promising a set of skills (i.e. design research skills, thinking and problem-solving skills) that is not actually delivering in a satisfactory way; this is making hard for students to see the connection between theory and practice, and to understand the relevance of conceptual aspects of design.

Design professionals

Consequently, young (and not so young) designers tend to (still) struggle with basic aspects of problem-solving (e.g. understand the problem, find information beyond the Internet, ask questions in a client meeting, evaluate solutions), or develop ill-conceived solutions (e.g. the problem is not addressed with the final solution, the solution does not fully take into account the target audience).

There is no need for teachers to act as sergeants to ensure that students are working hard. This is not the point. Design education needs clearly defined tasks and roles, starting with:

  1. Organisations’ responsibilities
  2. Teachers’ responsibilities and needed skills
  3. Students’ responsibilities and tasks
  4. Course objectives and well-defined learning activities
  5. Timeframes
  6. Evaluation criteria

Maybe we are currently moving through a fifth period of design education, in which many aspects need to be redefined.

– Biggs, J. (2003) Aligning teaching for constructing learning. Higher Education Academy.
– Zimmerman, J. (2011) Why the weak students end up as teachers: Education programs lack intellect.
– Zimmerman, J. (2014) Reforming Undergraduate Teaching: Past, Present, Future (Lecture) NYU Center for the Advancement of Teaching.


  1. Pingback: Enhancing understanding through Teaching and Facilitation | Mapping Complex Information. Theory and Practice

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