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

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