Corporate Education, Design Strategy, Design Thinking, Education, Technology

How I Teach: Treat Curriculum Design Like a Design Problem

By Jon Kolko

At the age of 24, I was looking for a career change. I found a job at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)—a large art school—teaching industrial design and interaction design. I secured the job in June and had my first group of students in September meaning I had three months to plan the curriculum needed to teach four classes. I was panic-stricken—I had no idea what to do.

The extent of my teaching experience at that point was being an assistant in a graduate school class, where the curriculum was set, and the professor told me what to do—mostly consisting of grading multiple-choice tests. My classes at SCAD would cover a variety of design specialties, like information design and product form development, and I was on my own.

I had a conversation with an existing faculty member at SCAD, Bob Fee, who offered two important things.

First, Bob told me to treat the creation of a course like a design problem. That meant visually sketching it out, testing it, and most importantly, iterating on it—treating the course plan like a work in progress, rather than a finished artifact. My first attempt at a curriculum plan would probably be wrong, but that was okay, it didn’t mean I wouldn’t be a good teacher. By thinking about it like a design problem, I realized that “being good at it” wasn’t as important as “trying and iterating.”

The second thing Bob gave me was much more tangible. He gave me his lesson plans: syllabi, lectures, notes, sketches, student work examples, and all sorts of other digital artifacts, which he gave me his blessing to borrow (steal) generously as I developed my own courses. Now, I was able to learn by example and see how he broke down complex topics into simple ideas, threaded a narrative through a 10-week quarter, and his expectations for student work. I wasn’t going to be teaching the same classes, but I was able to use these materials as the backbone for my own content development.

I sketched, erased, agonized over, and revised my own plans. And then the first day of school was upon me and I stood up in front of the class, introduced myself, and—still scared to death—kicked off the quarter.

For all the planning, my classes weren’t well structured. I didn’t have confidence in my own teaching abilities, the students were skeptical of a new professor, and I didn’t know how to juggle four classes (and close to 70 students) at a time. But I got through it, and over time, I got better. To my surprise, students were forgiving of my mistakes because they felt that I was on their team, and my shortcomings in the classroom were overlooked as I built their trust.

I worked at SCAD for close to five years, taught over 500 students, built curricula in industrial design and interaction design, mentored undergraduates and graduate students, and I learned to teach. Afterward, I applied my experiences at a number of other institutions, such as at the University of Texas at Austin, the Center for Design Studies of Monterrey, in Mexico, and Malmö University, in Sweden. And then, in 2007, I started my own school, Austin Center for Design (AC4D), a unique school in Austin, Texas that teaches autonomy through a one-year program in interaction design and social entrepreneurship.

I started a school for a variety of reasons. With design graduate programs in the US costing as much as $100,000, I wanted to develop a school with comparable quality at a fraction of the cost.

I also wanted to develop a program that focused on a combination of interaction design, design strategy, and social entrepreneurship—topics with a strong demand that weren’t widely taught.

And, I wanted to apply what I learned in my previous teaching experiences without the organizational and bureaucratic roadblocks of larger institutions.

Many of the faculty that taught in those first years of AC4D were new to teaching and I tried to duplicate what I gained and learned from Bob. I gave my educators the same advice—to treat curriculum design like a design problem—and I gave them my course plans, too.

Students of Austin Center for Design gain skills in qualitative research, synthesis and interpretation, sketching, the creation of storyboards and wireframes, entrepreneurial business modeling, service design blueprinting, and complex system diagramming. These skills represent the foundation needed for careers in product management, design strategy, interaction design, and social entrepreneurship. 

AC4D has turned into a well-recognized and respected school. Our alumni have gone on to do great things, and our education process has been refined through the years because we’ve always treated the curriculum like a work-in-progress. We reinvent the classes, make changes, and constantly iterate on our course plans.

Throughout my experiences at SCAD and AC4D, I’ve seen new teachers struggle, for many of the same reasons that I struggled. Teaching seems overwhelming, and the responsibility of being an educator makes even simple tasks feel daunting. 

The “new teacher” problem is amplified in recent years due to an increasingly large number of adjunct teachers who are cost effective for large universities, because the schools don’t offer health insurance and pay them per course instead of a regular salary. These adjunct teachers are often thrown into the deep end with little or no background on the course they are to teach, and little training in how to teach it.

Lack of training goes for tenured professors, too, who are often employed because they are experts in their field, not experts in teaching. When I talk to tenured professors, some describe teaching as more intimidating than their research since they’ve received no instruction on how to manage or structure an educative experience.

I also see a proliferation of corporate facilitators who are responsible for organizing and running training within a company. These people are tasked with introducing complex topics, like design thinking, into the fast moving and chaotic machine of business. Again, they may have little or no experience teaching.

Even designers are feeling the pressure to teach. It’s not enough to do great design work and unveil it to an audience. Instead, our role is to teach both users and clients the benefits and value of various forms of design methodology.

An influx of teachers and no real plan to teach them how to teach—that’s a recipe for disaster. I want to help change that. With over 15 years as a design educator, a lot of the things I’ve learned can help make the path a little easier for adjuncts, tenured professors, corporate educators, and design facilitators—and I believe this knowledge can help improve the quality of education in a broad sense.

How I Teach: Reflecting On 15 Years in Design Education is what I’ve learned so far. While it focuses on design education, it’s applicable to anyone responsible for building curriculum and designing classes, and even for students who are interested in how their own courses are structured and run. I hope the material is actionable: it’s material I wish I had when I started.

Download a free copy of How I Teach: Reflecting On 15 Years in Design Education here.