Design Mindset is a Teaching Mindset

This morning I had a quick-and-dirty seminar on “design thinking” at the monthly staff meeting for my work. Therein, two of the teachers scrambled to make a case for design thinking as an approach to pedagogy. While their message was lost in discussions as to the aptness of “ideate” and the rapid-fire slideshow presentation, it did spur me at least into thinking about how design thinking could improve course development (the branch of the school in which I operate).

We had a hastily assembled “hands on” activity wherein we were tasked with the inception of phase of design on a problem of our choosing – with the restriction that it had to be real, if small-scale, problem. The group elected to cover the changes to the English curriculum – specifically the introduction of a “low floor” “high-ceiling” English composition class. The architectural euphemisms elide the stark fact that there is a distribution of proficiency and that the usual approach is to segment (ie. stream) students into different courses. This created a de jure hierarchy of English classes which was perceived as relatively undesirable. To speculate, I would assume it creates ambiguity as to how to interpret performance. Is a B in a mid-tier class the same as a C in a high-tier? Instead as proposed, instructors are faced with structuring a de facto hierarchy of students within the amalgamated course.

Back to design thinking…

Anxiety was identified as a core emotional experience for those students on the left of the distribution. They would either freeze, opt-out of the course or become dependent on constant coaching by their instructor. So allaying that anxiety would be crucial.

This reminded me of a project I worked on some years ago. I was consulting on a portal system that had been built and deployed – to very little effect. Adoption rates were abysmal and the IT support desk was overwhelmed with support tickets from frustrated users troubled by the new way of doing things – they were getting stuck everywhere. Objectively, the portal was a huge boon to users who no longer had to manage multiple accounts and could initiate cross-cutting processes they had to coordinate themselves prior. Yet, I was consulting precisely because the system hadn’t worked out. My first response was to hop on the IT ticket system and contact some users. I talked to them about what they had done so far, where they got stuck and then I’d try to talk them through why they might want to use the portal.

Often I would fail completely – they would just clam up, or refuse to adopt or say they would, hang up, and never look back.  They had a rough time seeing how the portal fit into their view of how they received services. For my part, I had a terrible user experience trying to learn what I needed to do to guide users through adoption. Users thought it wasn’t worth the hassle, and I couldn’t convince them otherwise.

There were three lessons I learned here:

  1. When people get stuck – frustration impedes communication. They just see the friction points and more of than not don’t offer feedback until you extract it from them. Every IT support person is saying, “well, duh!”
  2. In my efforts here, I became a teacher and coach, not a UX designer. There was no choice – I had my marching orders.
  3. The overarching goal was to teach a new behaviour – but also to circumvent or overcome their anxieties and frustrations with something unfamiliar.

Synthesizing these three lessons – UX, and hence design, can be viewed as a way of defining and planning what we want a user to learn.

Coming back to course work – the user experience is the course, but the boundaries of that experience don’t stop at the conceptual level, they extend out to every aspect of the experience we at the school can control or influence…which is a very large set of things. User~Learners cannot meaningfully distinguish between different problems – they just accumulate in what I call “Learner Drag.” What’s worse is that the experience is often transparent, leading to serious misdiagnosis by learners of the source of their problems. This is the double-ignorance problem; learners don’t know what they don’t know so they can’t adequately recognize, let alone articulate to an instructor, where things are going awry.

Getting Learners Moving

The literature is of some use here – specifically two concepts that help learners get unstuck. They are cognitive load, and the zone of proximal development.

Your brain operates, abstractly, much like a muscle – you train it with various kinds of stress and it improves over time. Cognitive load is a way of conceptualizing that sort of strain. Cognitive load can be split into three categories.

This type of cognitive load … is caused by…
Intrinsic engaging with the material – reading, watching videos, etc.
Germane learning the material – forming networks of association, depth of encoding and yes, ideation.
Extraneous everything that can be removed without removing learning – the teacher’s soft tone or heavy accent, bad grammar, the use of “ideate”

In the case of the portal, intrinsic load was the user actually going through the motions of signing up for the portal and using its basic features – in most cases this boiled down to learning the placement of UI and some new nomenclature. Germane load was the user making sense of the experience and encoding how they might be able to use the system in novel ways or to more efficiently perform processes with which they were already familiar.

The zone of proximal development is, roughly speaking, the area around the threshold for comfortably exploring and figuring out something with minimal guidance. Specifically, it is the range between where you can perform a task totally on your own and where you cannot perform the task without step-by-step guidance. Learning is fastest and deepest when you are kept performing in this zone, which requires offering the correct support, at the correct time in the appropriate amount. It is not a stable thing – which means a system must be adaptive if it is to keep you in that zone.

So when I’m confronted with a frustrated user or a flummoxed student I’m tutoring, I ask myself a couple questions:

  • Did I put too much burden on their learning experience at the expense of throughput of the material?
  • Did I adequately support the transition from something completely familiar to something utterly unknown?

Think about your project in terms of the immediate task on one hand, and everything else on the other. What are the feelings, thoughts, contexts – the space around that task? How much effort must be expended on that task? How much of it is on the task itself versus everything else that goes with it? What can you do to reduce “Learner Drag” or, conversely, to buttress their capabilities?

Much of design thinking is paralleled within the constructivist school of learning – sharing knowledge and designing are both about asking questions to evoke reflection and conversation.

Dismantle your mental models

When the Steves wanted to make computers a household item, they needed to help people embrace what a box with some keys and a screen could do for them. Not only was there a hefty price tag – the equivalent to $7,400 CAD today, but there was a huge body of knowledge users had to master to make even primitive use of the machine – rather than rely on paper, pencils, desks, file folders and typewriters.

Apple merged the dismantling and reassembly of mental models into a single seamless trajectory by using as metaphors the objects with which people were already familiar – desktops, files, folders, even pencils and typewriters. The solution cannot always be so literal. However, there are two concepts that help support intended audiences as they transition into one system (grade 10 English) into another (grade 11 English).

The first is the growth mindset of Carol Dweck. The basic assertion that people can perpetually develop intelligence and capacity in any area. It is opposed to a fixed mindset – which the idea of intrinsically defined, static traits are what determine our skill. You’ll hear phrases such as “I’m too old to understand this new technology,” or “I’m just not a good writer, never will be.”

The second is self-determination theory – which categorizes motivation along two axes – intrinsic and extrinsic. In learning, it is postulated, your will to persevere has less to do with having motivation simpliciter, but what kind of motivation you possess. Intrinsic motivation is effectively the only way to foster insight, deep learning or low-extinguishing skill development.

This appears in my world of UX as the ever endearing jargon, “buy-in” or in education as “student engagement.” Basically, “How do I get someone to feel motivated on their own to be part of this or do this thing, instead of me having to reward them or somehow provide an incentive?” Most resources on this sort of thing are creepily manipulative – they focus on trying to get a user/learner to do what you want them to do. I think we must step back, reassess how important we believe autonomy to be, and make room for a person’s active participation in a dialogue of self-determination.

– “I’m curious about your feeling that this is too hard. Walk me through what you’ve done so far and tell me more about where that feeling comes from.
– “What’s the most important part of this for you? How does this fit in with your greater context?”

While you’re researching the experience you’re going to create around a course, lesson, or program, ask questions not just about the thing itself but about the circumstances or context for the learners and users. What are the habits or actions someone might need to stop doing, or unlearn, before they can progress along the journey you’ve set out? What are the possible motivators in learning to do the something different? Among those, what is the ratio of extrinsic to intrinsic? Do you inadvertently cause an inflammation of fixed mindset? How do you instead encourage a growth mindset?

The Road Ahead

The portal did spectacularly well – we exceeded our targets and user retention went up. Over time we developed the spot fixes into a process – which is crucial to long-term success. We went back to our communications – we tackled the problem head on. I fought hard to ensure our messaging was direct and not coy about the sorts of feelings our users had expressed.

Ultimately, design can be seen as being about asking questions – as can pedagogy. The benefit is a more thorough understanding of who you intend to serve and a more empathetic process for acquiring that understanding – which in turn shortens the distance between teacher and learner.

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