Design Education 3.0: Understanding how to implement heutagogy

Hands-on exercises stimulate dialogue and collaboration.

As a heutagogical design educator, most of my classes encourage the core elements of self-determined learning by using experiential techniques and hands-on exercises, stimulating dialogue, facilitating collaboration and supporting self-reflection. As much as possible, I tailor each class and exercise to my students’ needs. Sometimes, I send a poll in advance to identify the concepts that they want to focus on, while others I ask them for inspiration to develop the assignments. One of the biggest challenges I have encountered when I started implementing this approach in higher education has been to help students break with the traditional master-apprentice design education model, where they look at the teacher for prescriptive instructions and the right answer.
Although design programs are taught in less prescriptive ways than ten years ago, the intrinsic conservative nature of design education still stands in the way for students to successfully adopt this more flexible and creative way of learning. In my experience, the older the students, the harder it is for them to transition from pedagogical to heutagogical design teaching and learning environments.

In design education, heutagogic design elements (Blaschke & Hase (2015) can be addressed in multiple ways.

At the Integrated Design + Management program (MIT), we are increasingly incorporating elements from self-determined learning to the traditional curricula. Students are expected to be actively involved in the design of their own learning journey, having open dialogue with faculty, and be able to extrapolate concepts to multiple situations. However, not all the students are ready for this learning approach. In particular, I have identified two major challenges:

  • Too much freedom can hinder students’ decision making. It is common that students asked to choose their own team members or to select the problem they want to work on. However, when students are actually given the opportunity to have to make these decisions, some of them may struggle to know what to do, to the point to be unable to choose a topic even five weeks into a 12-week project.
  • Flexible, open-ended exercises can make students feel uncomfortable. In traditional pedagogical models, exercises have a right and a wrong answer; students are given direct instructions and they mostly apply a specific skill to solve a well-defined problem. Conceptual exercises are the opposite: they focus on developing capabilities, rather than skills. While there is guidance, this is minimal and there are many possible answers. In these assignments, students are asked to apply concepts and frameworks to address the specifics of their projects, but they aren’t told how to apply them. This way of working challenges students to think critically, make connections and understand why they make each decision. The design process is not linear, and, more often than not, designers need to create multiple options, start all over again or circle back before moving forward. When students are unfamiliar with this iterative way of working, they tend to question its value and challenge the reason for the lack of specific answers. These students feel more comfortable with tactical exercises where they are told exactly what to do and how to do it.

Unfortunately, situations like these are still common throughout the semester. To find solutions, we have taken different strategies, although not always arriving to successful outcomes. These are three important learnings:

  • Collecting feedback often is good, but when it is collected matters. Throughout the past semester, we asked students for feedback at the end of each project milestone about the lectures, the class format, and the exercises. After making sense of students’ comments, we realized that in most cases students were reacting rather than reflecting. Many of them were still too close to the experience and haven’t had time to assimilate learnings, grades or feedback. We learned that for feedback to be helpful, we would need to wait at least a week after a mid or final project presentation or request it beforehand.
  • Before responding to every student’s request, understanding the why matters. We collected a lot of feedback. Some comments were contradictory, some comments clearly indicated a lack of understanding of the basic concepts, and other comments indicated areas where we could improve. Of course, in a cohort of more than 30 students, we weren’t expecting to have a unique voice, but having such diverse views was puzzling. Our first move was to make changes in the curriculum to address students’ biggest concerns. However, after implementing some of these changes in this semester, we noticed that some of the students who have requested them, now wanted something else. We realized that students’ feedback without clearly understanding why they had those thoughts wasn’t as valuable because we couldn’t infer what the real problem may be and identify an appropriate solution.
  • Giving and receiving feedback is harder than it sounds. Giving feedback isn’t just saying everything that goes through your mind or providing an instant answer to every comment you receive. When students aren’t familiar with this dynamic, they tend to take the opportunity to complain and voice everything that they don’t like about a class, an exercise, or an experience without reflecting or asking questions. This can be an important issue as design critiques are a big part of how designers learn and work. To address this point, we added classes to explicitly teach students how to give and receive feedback, and help them develop more honest and constructive communication with peers, clients and teachers.

As Stewart Hase pointed out, students need to be gradually introduced to this way of teaching and learning to give them enough time to understand the implications of the approach. At the beginning, it can be hard for them to understand what having a more active role in their education involves. Like with everything new, students need time to shift from a pedagogic to a self-determined mindset. Ideally, these changes should be introduced at an early age, starting in kindergarten and continuing in K12 and high school, so by the time they go to college they have developed the necessary confidence and tools to design their own learning experience.

Hase, S. (2014) An introduction to self-determined learning (Heutagogy). Chapter 1. In Experiences in Self-Dermined Learning.

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