5 Surprising Things I’ve Learned About Teaching

Five years ago I walked away from corporate life and started teaching. I thought it’d be easy; I already gave highly rated talks and ran full workshops. But becoming a teacher taught me how little I knew, and changed how I did everything.

  1. We learn with our hands not with our ears.

The first class I taught was an eight week, two-hour a week course on User Experience. I freaked out. How could I cover all of UX in this limited time! So I made the classic mistake. I lectured for two hours each week, then gave homework.

Danielle Barnes, pal and wise producer, told me students were asking for more in-class exercises. I was put-out (we have a lot to cover!) but I listened and added exercises. Students learned better. Homework got way better. I started adding more in class exercises, and traded lecture for coaching.

Now I lecture maybe ten minutes in every hour, and use homework for information transfer rather than droning on.

2. Draw Everything.
When I started teaching at CCA I was warned: students will not do the reading. I couldn’t believe it, but it was very true in that first class.

Challenge accepted!

I decided to have the students do sketchnotes of all their media homework — videos, reading, everything. So they wouldn’t freak out, I gave them less to read, carefully choosing the most relevant work. And I promised them the worst grade they could get for a complete sketchnote was a 90. As long as it contained all the big ideas, it could be ugly as sin. I figured, I could see in a second who did the reading and who didn’t.

What happened next amazed me. Not only did they do the reading, but they had higher comprehension and retention of the material than those who had read without drawing.

As well, their drawing skills got better. They became much more proficient in visual communication, a critical skill for designers. Sketchnotes made them better at everything.

sketchnote from Creative Founder by Jherin Miller

3. Courses are not long workshops.

I had run some workshops before teaching and had figured out how to mix exercises with instruction. But this had not prepared me for the vast amount of time I would fill when teaching a 15 week course for six hours a week. As a novel is different than a short story, a class is different than a workshop.

I have a model I created to design and evaluate software; I call it CAMP. It stands for context, architecture, mechanics, poetics.

I now use it for everything.

The context of a course: it doesn’t stand alone. A class is part of a four year journey that a student is taking. You have to think about where students are on that journey. Sophomores need more scaffolding than seniors. Juniors need a chance to learn to plan their approach and develop their process.

You have to know what else they study in the program. You have to trust that the Design Research teacher will teach them design research. That the Systems teacher will teach them systems. Your job is not to shove everything at them at once, but find a way to teach the core of what you are there to teach, deeply and completely. (although a little refresher on core concepts is always wise. Practice makes perfect.)

Consider the Architecture of a Course. You can wing a plot with a short story, but a novel needs a proper outline (in my experience.) So does a 15 week course; in fact I treat it the same way. I use Scrivener.

Scrivener is a tool designed for long form writing, such as novels and screenplays. I use it for class design.

The secret to a great studio course architecture is great project design. I tend to break courses into 4–5 projects, some very short and some longer. The Creative Founder is different; it’s 15 weeks in search of a business model.The projects length and nature is very much driven by learning goals.

I design a course like this

  • Determine primary learning goals (usually already set) and secondary goals.
    The primary learning goals are things like “learn to present” “learn to make a task flow” “learn to conduct primary research.”
    Secondary learning goals are those I set myself based on what I think students need to accomplish and what the course will afford. For example, my class Time Studio One: Story has goals like “Practice telling stories from data gathered in design research.” I realize stories are good for empathy, then decide I will have a secondary goal of designing for diversity.
  • Design Projects: what project will hit all (or most) of the learning goals.
    Again, in Story, I know I need to teach them how to make stories from research, and I want to get them thinking about diversity, so I create the project “Stereotype Storybook,” in which they interview five people affected by a stereotype, and turn it into a pop-up book. (These also teach some useful fundamental concepts of interaction design, like affordances and feedback.)
  • Choose key knowledge to teach to support the project and mechanics for learning. This year I included movies like “Dear White People” and podcasts like Growing Up Avatar-American as well as reading. I try to find things that speak to each class.
  • Write or outline any needed lectures. Lecture LAST.

I redesign classes by keeping notes in scrivener on what worked and what didn’t. When I open my file a year later, I know what to change.

Mechanics: I stole this term from game design. Mechanics are all the techniques for creating fun, from collections to competitions. There are a lot of ways to teach, and it’s useful to have a wide range of approaches. Improv, meditation, fast exercises, conversation — collect ideas from every teacher you meet, from kindergarten to grad. There is a willingness in students you don’t find in battle worn workshop attendees that make all kinds of experiences possible.

Poetics. In the MDA model, A is for Aesthetics, and it emerges by combining mechanics and people. In CAMP I chose the word poetics instead (makes a better acronym, for one.)

When you add students to your planning, what emerges?

Story is a class about caring about people, and communicating to and for them. It is the poetics of compassion. In Creative Founder, you work hard, you get your heart broken, you brush yourself off, and you go again. It is the poetics of endurance. In Foundations, you learn core skills and suddenly realize what you are capable of it. It is the poetics of mastery. In Play, it’s the poetics of play. Not manipulation and not gamification. It’s the sheer joy of play.

The poetics of the class come from my work and the student’s engagement. We make it together.

4. Everybody learns from everybody.

I always knew I learned as much from them as much as they learn from me.

Until I taught a course, I didn’t realize they learn from each other as much from me, and maybe more. As I moved from teacher to coach, I coached them to coach each other. We created an atmosphere of mutual care and collective growth.

The most important thing to me is that every voice gets heard, as close to equally as possible. It’s been a battle, but the rewards are making sure brilliance is not lost. I’m building a repertoire of techniques, from secret santa critique to passing the conversation (more on these later, this essay already grows too long.) What matters is committing to continually trying to teach them to listen to each other, and that their voice makes a difference.

5. Your number one job is believing in them.

After five years, I’ve realized the best thing I do is believe in them. All of them. When I flunk them, I keep believing in them, and they take my class again. When they do well, I am joyful because I knew they could, and we celebrate. I believe in them so hard they have no choice to believe in themselves.

There is no knowledge in my head that is half as valuable than the truth in my heart.

Lessons Learned

I still do talks and workshops. I write books. Teaching made me better at it all.

When I write, I work to make sure my book’s protagonists are as diverse as my students, and I tell stories because I know what helps them listen.

Any talk longer than 20 minutes will have an exercise in it. I look at my audience, and rather than being afraid, I’m excited. I believe in them. They are all going on an amazing journey, and I get to share an experience that might help them.

Teaching has brought me joy, and made me better in every aspect of my life.Recently a friend of mine was feeling sick and tired of the industry. There is so much nonsense. Then she agreed to teach a class on design, and fell in love all over again.

If you have ever considered teaching, don’t wait. Find a place for it in your life. Your students deserve your wisdom, and you deserve their hope. You won’t get a better offer from any hot startup.


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  1. 1
    Matt Nish-Lapidus

    Thank you for sharing all of this. The encapsulation of the joys and difficulties of teaching, especially teaching design, ring true. I’ve had a similar experience and now spend much more of my time teaching. These ideas are a great expression of things I haven’t been able to articulate, and there are a number of things I haven’t thought about and will probably steal 🙂

    There’s so much to learn. Teaching has made me a better communicator, listener, coach, and designer. It renewed my interest in pursuing my own projects, as well as provided a platform for deep reflection.

    I hope you’ll continue to share your experience, and we can all learn from each other just as your students do.

  2. 2

    I have taught in graduate exhibition and experience design program part-time for the past 10 years. Each group differs from the other, and every semester I learn something new that I fold into the next session. I rarely give heavy reading reading assignments,(as your were told they don’t read even in grad school.) I started including more hands on exercises that encompasses design thinking, sketching, storyboards, prototyping and wireframing their retention has drastically improved. Of course one requirement for our program is drawing, yet they struggle creating storyboards that convey ideas of how people might navigate pop-up and experience a wayfinding kiosk. For me it’s been a learning experience of keeping things flowing and learning new ways of tapping challenging them and myself. Also, great session on OKR’s and User Research

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