Learning by Design: It's Not What You Know, But How You Think

Thinking independently is the best gift any education can provide. Kendra Shimmell teaches people how to do it.

In the second grade I was placed at a reading level for kids who were having challenges. Things I seemingly understood the year before, like the sounds letters make when combined, didn't make sense anymore. My reading comprehension was getting worse, not better. School was hard.

Luckily I was a very willful child with an even more willful mother who encouraged me to approach each challenge creatively—to make new connections, to question, and be curious. She made space for me to generate my own wacky ways of approaching my lessons—like the time when I made up a dance routine to act out participial phrases. She helped me discover how I learned, and this built up my confidence. I became accountable for my own education because it was a fun, creative challenge. Things started to gel, and school got easier.

With so much encouragement to find creative approaches to overcoming challenges, I grew up to be a designer. I have designed medical devices, software, and services in lots of different industries. I am successful because I am insatiably curious, and because I am not afraid to be wrong. Now I work at Cooper, A San Francisco-based design firm and I'm charged with growing the design training arm globally, and in the words of company founder Alan Cooper, "teaching the world how to create meaningful digital products and services."

People may think that design is about screens, objects, or logos, but it's actually about people—their changing needs and behavior, preferences, and aversions. This is why we teach User Experience practices at our UX Boot Camp, a four-day intensive approach to design training during which participants conduct interviews, make sense of people’s behavior, and pitch design concepts. Participants learn how to use our approach to overcome real-world obstacles, and to make this intensive learning worth the sweat, they apply their new skills to solving a meaningful problem for a non-profit, which benefits from design talent they typically wouldn't have the resources to hire. At the end, a design solution is selected, and the nonprofit receives coaching on how to move forward with the design concept on its own.

At the most recent UX Boot Camp, participants gathered at a working farm in Petaluma, California, to develop design solutions for The Edible Schoolyard Project based in Berkeley. Executives, founders of startups, designers, and developers all came up with design concepts that would encourage the ESY Project’s teachers to network, share curriculum and resources, and exchange ideas. The resulting concepts solved major problems—like the proposed design for an online alumni network that will keep graduates of ESY Project engaged as future volunteers for the program—but from the Boot Camp participants' standpoint the more important achievement was discovering how to get to such a solution so that they can independently apply those skills to the variety of design—and life challenges. The teaching techniques to get them there are deceptively simple, but are essential to any learning experience.

Motivation and attention require context and meaning. If we don't understand the value of a concept or how to apply it, it quickly leaves our mind and becomes useless. At the UX Boot Camp for The Edible Schoolyard Project, when we introduced participants to a particular concept, we made sure to answer these very simple questions: "What is it?" and "Why should you care?" In the case of introducing "Personas," which are thoroughly researched profiles of the underlying goals and behaviors of the people who will be using your design, we nailed the point home: If you don't keep the person you are designing for central to the process, you might find you are designing for yourself!

Finding an innovative solution often involves getting lost. It's like setting out to find treasure with just a map and a compass—you may encounter mountains, seas and wild animals along the way, and how you choose to navigate those challenges releases your particular gifts and skills. Likewise, the Boot Camp provides its participants with a goal and tools to self-direct their thinking.

The worksheets and method cards we provide give a hint of structure, but are intentionally loose, which frustrates many of the participants. Like many students, they want something to fill out that gives them the answer. They want someone to hand them "requirements," but that's not how the real world works—so like an algebraic equation that is memorized rather than understood, they would not know how to solve the next problem when the slightest variable changes.

At some point (and usually more than once) participants get stuck. Frankly, I love these moments, because it means that they are ready to learn more. In design we call this, "delivering information at the moment of need." The same goes for the classroom experience. Progressively disclosing information when a student is ready for it results in more retention of that information.

So, how do we discern what students need and when, especially if everyone is at a different skill-level? We know they haven't internalized the learning if they want more guidance after completing an activity, so we respond by providing information that challenges them to think about the situation from a different perspective, and we do this until they can internalize and make the thinking their own.

We also have coaches who walk around and listen to the teams. Rather than telling them everything, we drop a new clue/prop/question/ into the situation. It works like a video game, where you discover information, uncover clues, and move level by level to the next lesson.

It's not surprising that participants often arrive at the most useful insights by consulting with each other. I ask them to find a thought-partner and discuss what they are learning. Harvard professor Eric Mazur went from discouraged to amazed after he began successfully using this model of “peer-coaching” at Harvard to teach his students physics. In Craig Lambert's March, 2012 Harvard Magazine profile of Mazur, "Twilight of the Lecture," Lambert notes that "interactive learning triples students’ gains in knowledge as measured by the kinds of conceptual tests that had once deflated Mazur's spirits, and by many other assessments as well. It has other salutary effects, like erasing the gender gap between male and female undergraduates."

At the end of Boot Camp, when participants do their pitches, the individual who was once panicked for me to “tell them what to do” stands confidently and articulates not only the problem and their solution, but how they solved the problem and why their solution works. In the process of articulating how they got there, they complete the circle and make their content their own—if you can explain something to someone else, you understand it. When participants intuitively teach others, we know the learning is cemented.

Design—and learning—is a messy process. You have to makes lots of choices along the way, and there is never just one answer. The door to my creative, dancing, curious second grade self is still open, and I access her fearless resolve to "figure out a way" in everything I tackle. That is the gift I want to give to my students in the UX Boot Camp—learning how to think through a problem rather than blindly applying a method by rote. Thinking independently is surely the best gift any education can provide—it gives us the tools we need to navigate uncharted territory, and travel anywhere.

Brain melting into lines photo via Shutterstock


The Justice Department sent immigration judges a white nationalist blog post

The blog post was from an "anti-immigration hate website."

Attorney General William Barr via Wikimedia Commons

Department of Justice employees were stunned this week when the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) sent court employees a morning briefing that contained a link to a "news" item on VDare, a white nationalist website.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, VDare is an "anti-immigration hate website" that "regularly publishes articles by prominent white nationalists, race scientists and anti-Semites." The website was established in 1999 by its editor Peter Brimelow.

The morning briefing is distributed to all EOIR employees on a daily basis, including all 440 immigration judges across the U.S.

Keep Reading Show less
via Smithfly.com

"Seventy percent of the Earth is covered with water, now you camp on it!" proudly declares Smithfly on the website for its new camping boat — the Shoal Tent.

Why have we waited so long for camping equipment that actually lets us sleep on the water? Because it's an awful idea, that's why.

Keep Reading Show less

We've all felt lonely at some point in our lives. It's a human experience as universal as happiness, sadness or even hunger. But there's been a growing trend of studies and other evidence suggesting that Americans, and people in general, are feeling more lonely than ever.

It's easy to blame technology and the way our increasingly online lives have further isolated us from "real" human interactions. The Internet once held seemingly limitless promise for bringing us together but seems to be doing just the opposite.

Except that's apparently not true at all. A major study from Cigna on loneliness found that feelings of isolation and loneliness are on the rise amongst Americans but the numbers are nearly identical amongst those who use social media and those who don't. Perhaps more importantly, the study found five common traits amongst those who don't feel lonely.

Keep Reading Show less

He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

He risked his life to leave a "historical record of our martyrdom."

via Yad Vashem and Archive of Modern Conflict, 2007

In September 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. By April 1940, the gates closed on the Lodz Ghetto, the second largest in the country after Warsaw.

Throughout the war, over 210,000 people would be imprisoned in Lodz.

Among those held captive was Henryk Ross. He was a Jewish sports photographer before the Nazi invasion and worked for the the ghetto's Department of Statistics during the war. As part of his official job, he took identification photos of the prisoners and propaganda shots of Lodz' textile and leather factories.

Keep Reading Show less
WITI Milwaukee

Joey Grundl, a pizza delivery driver for a Domino's Pizza in Waldo, Wisconsin, is being hailed as a hero for noticing a kidnapped woman's subtle cry for help.

The delivery man was sent to a woman's house to deliver a pie when her ex-boyfriend, Dean Hoffman, opened the door. Grundl looked over his shoulder and saw a middle-aged woman with a black eye standing behind Hoffman. She appeared to be mouthing the words: "Call the police."

"I gave him his pizza and then I noticed behind him was his girlfriend," Grundl told WITI Milwaukee. "She pointed to a black eye that was quite visible. She mouthed the words, 'Call the police.'"

Keep Reading Show less
Good News