Enlightenment by lesson, rather than by lecture

Authors: Tek-Jin Nam
Posted: Mon, March 18, 2013 - 10:02:06

Today is Friday, but I am suffering from Monday sickness. It is the illness that many professors face at the beginning of a new semester. Korean universities commence the spring curriculum in March. As the winter break ends, I become increasingly aware of the pressure to prepare a good course for my soon-to-be new students. This Monday sickness, which so many faculty members face, usually lasts for about two weeks.

This semester I am teaching a studio design course titled Product Design System. Our university has one essential studio design course that is tailored to each level of the undergraduate program, which represents a typical teaching system for design schools. It operates on the idea that students learn by doing. The design themes range from a simple hand tool to a complex system or service. My course is for final-year undergraduate students and aims to teach them the methodical design of a system of products.

The themes vary each time because sociocultural and technological trends change rapidly, and the term system is comprehensive and ambiguous. Home appliances, a communication robot, and smart home attributes are themes that have been recently addressed. Last year, the theme was to design systems and services for people’s experiences at Seoul’s Dongdaemun Market. Thirty-eight ID KAIST students worked with 37 Royal College of Art students in order to promote social connections and a revival of the region. The results are to be published in a book titled Designing Social City Experiences. This semester’s theme is to envision a delightful user experience for future mobile communications and computing systems.

After being in charge of this course for more than a decade, by now I should be comfortable with teaching this subject. However, this course is one of the biggest causes of my Monday sickness. Although it is essentially the same class, it seems that I am dealing with new course contents every year. This feeling may be due to its high sensitivity to societal and technological changes. Or it may be attributed to the difficulties of finding good models for teaching through studio classes. Furthermore, it may be because the system, the very subject matter of design, may be too large and complex. Whatever the reason, I want to find the remedy to reduce my next bout of Monday sickness.

University education is usually imparted through lectures. Many courses that are delivered in such a format aim to transfer knowledge. For those courses, the teaching content is well defined. It is not difficult to find relevant textbooks. The role of the teacher is to select the most appropriate information from the textbook and effectively explain it so that the students can fully understand the material. Exams, projects, or experiments are used to support the knowledge transfer process.

Studio design courses, however, focus on mastery or enlightenment. Students improve their design skills at different stages of the design process, for example, by identifying people’s needs, articulating meaningful problems, and generating concrete design solutions that are developed through creative thinking. It is possible to introduce a fundamental design process and methods with lectures. However, experience is essential. The teaching tactics are very different from those courses that aim at the mere transfer of knowledge.

As I think about the ways to improve this type of education, which focuses on enlightenment or mastery, I have come up with the idea that my educational style is closer to a music lesson or sports training (e.g., swimming, golf, etc.). During the last three years, I took piano lessons. The lessons consist of several structured activities. Typically, I begin by playing Hanon so that I can practice my finger movements. Then I practice rhythm, scale, and melody by playing songs from popular course books, such as Bayer or Czerny. In parallel, I practice other songs of my interests, such as songs from a musical. Because the lessons are repeated in a similar fashion, I began to suspect that I could do them by myself. But I soon realized that it was almost impossible to improve my playing skills without the formalized lessons. The problem was that I couldn’t figure out whether or not I was practicing correctly. I couldn’t determine when it was time for me to move on to the next level. It was difficult to find a challenging musical piece that matched my ability. I realized that the lessons correct my bad habits, determine whether or not I am ready to move on to the next level, and present new challenges.

I mentioned that students learn enlightenment and mastery from the studio design course. The teacher’s role within the course is more like that of a music tutor or sports trainer. Aside from the initial introduction to the overall process and basic methods, my role, as the instructor, is to monitor the students’ educational development, correct bad habits, present new challenges, and control the speed of progress. Many interactions occur between the students and me. Just as my piano lesson is useless if I haven’t practiced in advance, it is essential that students bring weekly progress results to class. Therefore, I spend relatively little time on preparation for each session. Instead, it takes me a long time to review the students’ progress and provide feedback on what they have prepared. In a point of comparison that differs from music lessons, design education lacks standardized training methods or courseware (e.g., Bayer for piano or Suzuki for violin). It is widely accepted that the design process contains stages of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. But design activities and the creative thinking process vary according to the subject matter of the design and its related contexts. It is arguable that the mastery of music-playing skills can be directly compared to the mastery of creative design activities, which constitute the most complex of human cognitive pursuits.

The assumption that design training is more like music or golf lessons raises many questions about how to improve it, especially when considering the role of new technologies and the future of education for enlightenment or mastery. Can we deliver music, violin, swimming, and golf lessons through a remote network service? Many open courseware sites present models in which students participate in lectures from their homes and receive tutorials at school. Is this the future role of the university? I find it difficult to manage more than 20 students in my course. Individual or team tutorials of four to five students are essential, so at the present time it is not possible to increase the number of students with whom I connect. Can we make it possible to run this lesson-style course with more than 100 students? What would the future of the education system be for supporting creative design training and other subjects that require enlightenment and mastery? This inquiry would be an interesting question for design and HCI experts.

I think that in order to provide good lessons to a student, whether the subject is music, sports, or design, several requirements must be met. First of all, the teacher must understand his or her students’ initial abilities and progress. In the case of design, the theme and the method should be appropriate for the pupils’ level. Second, it would be useful for a structured but flexible education framework to exist. Many unpredictable things may happen throughout the design process. The training method should be appropriately customized and allow for ad hoc changes. Lastly, the intensity of the lesson should be appropriately adjusted, depending on the students’ characteristics. Soft and hard training should be harmoniously integrated. Raymond Lowey’s MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) principle may apply here.

A lesson-style studio design education may require further consideration and effort in order to improve. However, contemplating the future of design education just may provide a good remedy for my Monday sickness. 

Posted in: on Mon, March 18, 2013 - 10:02:06

Tek-Jin Nam

Tek-Jin Nam is an associate professor in the Industrial Design Department at KAIST.
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@ NA76273 (2013 03 18)

I think this content will be very helpful for lecturers and professors who teaches design courses!!