What If We’re Designing for Disengagement?

A favorite opening question of mine in professional development workshops is: What do you struggle with the most as a teacher?

The answers are almost always:
1. Students’ lack of motivation
2. Students don’t value education
3. Parents aren’t supportive
4. Students don’t believe in themselves
5. Technology distracts students

These comments are not facts, and viewed differently, they become design questions:

  1.  How does the design of our classes create student apathy?
  2.  How is our design failing to communicate the value of our content?
  3.  How does our design keep parents from participating?
  4.  How does our design undermine students’ belief in their abilities?
  5.  How is our design supporting distraction?

Deliberately designing for learning outcomes is a strategic shift toward what Rolf Faste, a professor of industrial design, termed “design thinking as a method of creative action.”

His work centered on the core principle that design affects the behaviors and experiences of the user. Considering everything from a user’s perspective not only helps us become more sensitive to people and cultures, it allows us to create meaning for users (Faste, 2001).

His influence in the current fields of user experience (UX) and user interface design (UI) smooths our interactions with computers, smartphone apps, and other sophisticated technology.

Education can borrow these lenses of UX and UI for systematic improvement.

At its simplest, design thinking asks educators to understand, improve, and apply solutions to our problems. These disciplines are the ghost in the machine of innovation.

Innovation isn’t a one time thing that we check off with the help of an expensive consultant, or by wheeling in carts of the latest hardware, or uploads of the newest turnkey programs.

We can’t order, threaten, or guilt people to innovate. However, we can be systematic in creating the conditions and systems for innovation to happen regularly inside the walls of our schools.

Our students don’t necessarily want what we think they want or even what we would like for them to want, so we can’t rely on our own perceptions and prescriptions for improving their UX. But, we can begin to affect their experiences the same way that Apple or even Domino’s Pizza improves user experiences: by surveying students, observing what works and doesn’t work, and inviting them to co-create learning spaces.

Design thinking also means asking ourselves probing questions about how we “do school.” Clinging to the argument that disengagement is all the students’ fault and has nothing to do with how we design lessons, causes us to miss opportunities to transform our learning spaces.

Many of the problems we see in education, I believe, are design problems. With this mindset, educators can commit to a process of designing for better experiences. This perspective, if taken as a continual iterative practice, unlocks solutions that will deepen student engagement and achievement as well as enlist parents as co-creators of learning.


Work Cited: Faste, R. A. (2001). The human challenge in engineering design. International Journal of Engineering Education, 17(4/5), 327-331.

Image credit: Jonathan Simcoe/Unsplash


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