Friday, May 15, 2009

We're all Designers

I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago with Ann  Lambson, curator of the "Education in Zion" exhibit at Brigham Young University.  Ann is a great and innovative mind who cares deeply about education and is doing great things at BYU.  In our conversation she mentioned that she is sometimes discouraged by our failure to equip students with the skills they will need when they leave our academies.  She was making an argument for the inclusion of "design" as a core competency in our general education requirements.    

Ann is right, I think, in her assertion that we (meaning Universities as a whole)  often fill students minds with a lot of knowledge, but don't ever do very much to teach them how to solve real-world problems.  This is not an indictment of entire universities, I think there are individual departments that do this very well (engineering departments, industrial design departments, and others with a more interactive and hands-on approach to learning), but what about students who find themselves in a department like French, philosophy, or chemistry?  Are these students prepared to leave campus and confront substantial and authentic problems or challenges?  As I look around at what is happening in our country and the multitude of problems we face--global climate change, loss of civility, economic woes, and more--I hope that the students we are graduating are prepared to solve these problems.  If not our college graduates, then who?

At the danger of sounding over-zealous, I would argue that we are all designers.  A teacher designs educational environments and experiences, attorneys design legal arguments, plumbers design solutions to leaky toilets.  The problem with colleges is that we often naively assume that by helping students be "well-rounded" or "broad" learners they will somehow magically learn to use the skills and knowledge they acquire to solve problems.  I think this is foolish.  We have to explicitly teach them how to be engaged citizens  who use their skills and training to make a meaningful difference.

What if universities (and some do--please share good examples if you are reading this) included a "design competency" as a graduation requirement?   By "design" I don't mean the same old visual arts requirement that is so easy to tack on to a curricula.  As I have mentioned above, design doesn't just mean producing something tangible; it also means approaching problems critically and working to develop thoughful solutions in a strategic way.  

In my mind there is a right and wrong way to do this.  The wrong way would be to create Design 201 or some other such course.  That would lead to a generic and largely unproductive experience for students.  They would approach it like any other course by jumping through the hoops, disconnecting the content from their lived experience, and treat it as a transaction where they do certain things to receive a particular grade.

The better way would be to adopt the design competency as part of a broader portfolio initiative (no, portfolios are not just for artists anymore).  As part of their university experience students would be required to demonstrate that they have acquired design skills by submitting examples of work that illustrates how they have used content knowledge (nursing skills, engineering principles, the things learned in teacher prep courses, etc.) to develop solutions to real problems that real people actually care about.  Even better would be to ask students to tackle problems existing on their own campuses (the overcrowded cafeteria, the dying grass along side the campus walkways, student behavior problems, etc.).  Students could even approach these problems in interdisciplinary teams where they would learn to work with peers who bring unique skills and perspectives.  

Granted this would take a fair amount of work to coordinate; however, it can and should be done.  If we fail to equip students to make a meaningful difference in their local, national, and global communities, we don't deserve to be in existence.  And, lecturing, administering exams, and asking for writing samples just won't do it.

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