Education: From a Design Perspective

THERE ARE TWO paper towel dispensers in every bathroom of the 4-story building I work in almost every day. One sits on the wall at chest-level to the average, standing person, and the other roughly a foot and a half lower. The building’s planners, in an apparent oversight, ordered paper towel dispensers that could not be reached by people in wheelchairs, and quickly added dispensers that could – leaving two separate design solutions to the same problem.

However the lower, more accessible dispenser, can be used by all – not just wheelchair users. This is an example of universal design in practice, a principle developed by Ron Mace of North Carolina State University. In a talk he gave at Hofstra University in 1998, he said that “to be normal is to be perfect, capable, competent, and independent. Unfortunately, designers in our society also mistakenly assume that everyone fits this definition of normal. This just is not the case”.

Mace understood, at the time, that structure designers were building for the normal consumer, when in fact they should be designing for all consumers. With the development of universal design principles, Mace believed in a singular design solution that could work for all users, but only if all users were considered in the original design.

Curriculum as a design problem

The American education system is failing. More than 25% of students are unable to graduate high school in four years, with only 22% of high school graduates academically ready for college.  In terms of “cognitive skills and educational attainment”, Pearson Education ranks the United States 14th in the world. Fourteenth.

There is a laundry list of potential causes. Almost 40% of high school students are disengaged from the classroom and lack meaningful motivation. The United States government spends over $7 billion a year on textbooks, yet students who use electronic versions of these same books on tablets score 20% better on standardized tests. Even worse, these standardized tests attempt to quantify intelligence, an otherwise qualitative observation.

I am not an educator. I have never taught in a classroom, written a lesson plan, or developed a curriculum. I am, however, a designer. I create interactive solutions to complicated conceptual ideas for the use of a wide variety of clients and users. Sound familiar?  

Educators are designers

The definition of a designer is becoming increasingly synonymous with that of a teacher, and for good reason. Much like designers, the job of a teacher is to absorb large ideas and concepts and convey them in a way that is easily understood by students. In a way, teachers are learning designers.

We understand the education system needs help. But could potential curriculum redesign utilize Ron Mace’s principles of universal design? David H. Rose, Ed.D. of the Harvard Graduate School of Education has answered this question, becoming a frontrunner in Universal Design for Learning (UDL), inspired directly by Mace’s architectural design theories for the educational realm. Curriculum is treated much like a universally designed building, by designing lessons that are able to be used by a wide variety of learners. If curriculum is the design problem, students are the end user.

Students are the end user

When we frame curriculum writing as a design problem, it becomes clear that curriculum should be designed with a wide variety of students in mind. Unfortunately, quite the opposite is happening. People who have been designing educational materials for today’s youth were, themselves, incredibly good at school. Only now, with the development of UDL and other pedagogies turning a close eye on academic development, do we understand the consequences of a narrow design scope and the advantages of designing with all students in mind.

The relationship between design and education is apparent. I am currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Design for Learning and, already a month in, have gained an immense understanding of universal design and its possible applications in the classroom. In the few short years I have been interested in education, I have created kinetic learning experiences for young students through a program called Sidewalk Math, I am currently developing an interactive math curriculum based in 21st century spreadsheet technology with What If Math, and have begun my research into the world of designed education.