Information design rationale as a teaching strategy

For me teaching is a challenging, dynamic but highly rewarding activity. Here in Europe, students come from and have different cultural and educational backgrounds, thus, have quite uneven levels of experience, are from varied age ranges, and speak many languages. Then, students’ pencil-cases and notebooks have been almost replaced by iPads, laptops and iPhones, facilitating note taking and instant access to dictionaries and other online/digital sources. Each of these variables has added a new component to education and broadened the concept of learning. Learning has become a complex and active process for both students and teachers. Teaching is about the communication of large amounts of data to inexperienced, less experienced or experienced audiences. Communication must be as clear, transparent and unambiguous as possible to ensure that the teaching objectives are delivered and the learning cycle has been completed. There are many learning cycle structures, but most of them describe the following overlapping phases as the core ones: Do, Review, Learn, and Apply.

Learning cycle process

In other words, students at the end of a course should be able to successfully apply what ever they have been taught, address the aims and objectives of that particular course and critically reflect on their progress. As an information designer, I cannot help but finding commonalities between teaching and information design rationale, which I have been following as my teaching strategy. Seven information design aspects that could enrich a teaching strategy are discussed below:

1) Structure
The information design problem-solving structure can be followed for lesson plan and curricula development: understanding, organising, planning, defining initial frameworks. Understanding and defining the core aims and objectives of a course or unit allow to identify the appropriate contents that need to be included in the curricula. Planning ahead the overall structure of the course or unit gives the chance to check and ensure that key points and subjects are being covered. Once the big picture or skeleton of the course/unit is defined, moving to a closer view of the contents would be the following step, which may include defining an outline of the main subject areas, a list of references, tasks and activities for each class.
Although the initial class-to-class structure is most likely to vary after the very first week of class (See following section), it gives guidance and helps identify the key points to be covered each class.

2) Audience (i.e. Students!)
Each group of students is unique and can respond to a same activity in completely opposite ways. One exercise that originally has been scheduled to last one and a half hours can last three hours or 30 minutes depending on how much or how little a group of students engages with it. As for information design, understanding the audience, i.e. students, is essential in the learning environment. The first class often gives a general demographic and psychographic picture of the group of students, what kind of activities and exercises would suit it better than others, and so on. A lesson plan should address the needs of each particular group of students and be modify according to their responses and feedback.

3) Bridging theory and practice
When I studied at university the proportion of theory-led and practice-led subjects was highly unbalanced, having roughly 85% of practice-led classes. That learning model seems to have changed in the last decade. Current design education models are being built on an applied theory curricula structure. In other words, theoretical approaches have become an indispensable complement to practice-led classes. Often, students are first introduced to models, frameworks and theories that would enhance their problem-solving process, followed by individual and group tasks, brainstorming sessions, discussion groups and show-and-tell presentations. Design and critical thinking and research approaches have become essential to the current design curricula.

4) Information management skills
Teaching involves dealing with large amounts of information and a wide range of literature from more conventional sources to online books, live-projects and exhibitions, among others. Information management skills could be of great help to make sense of data from different sources and the dissemination of that information to different audiences. In other words, information management is used to expand the range and effectiveness of communication applying information research and organisation techniques. Information research is defined as ‘the ability to identify possible sources of required information, and to execute a successful search for that information. This means identifying the nature of the information required, identifying and locating resources that will supply the required data, evaluating the data contained in the resources, and continuing the process until the information need is met.’ In short to define and implement a ‘well-constructed search strategy’ followed by a thorough analysis and evaluation of the obtained data. While organisation techniques help with information processing and decision making (See Categories & Models below).

5) Visual thinking
Working with visual thinking as a methodology for enhancing decision-making may encourage active participation of the class and increase active discussions among students. Visual thinking is thinking through visual processing and using the part of the brain that is emotional and creative to organise information in an intuitive and simultaneous way (Arnheim, 1998). It can be used at different stages of the learning cycle process and has become a key approach to obtain clearer understanding. Visual thinking follows two cycles: analysis and synthesis (Lawson, 1983). From Greek, literally, analysis means ‘to loosen up’ and synthesis ‘to put together’. This means that when using visual thinking, information is first broken into essential components to be understood by the teacher and then those components are recombined in order to define a coherent whole and be communicated with clarity to different audiences (i.e. groups of students). A varied range of visual outcomes can be generated with visual thinking, which are classified in two main groups: Visual sensemaking outcomes, which are the ones mostly generated during the initial stages of analysis, and Drawing conclusions outcomes, which are those mostly generated during stages of synthesis in which emerging data from the previous stage are reshaped.

6) Categories & Models
When teaching, defining categories and giving models help students remember and learn new knowledge. They can also be used to guide the introduction of new subjects and themes. In addition, categories help identify the major points of each subject that should be covered each class. To organise information from different sources as categories, two particular models can be used:

LATCH+2: The LATCH theory was presented by Wurman (1989, 2001) and later reviewed and enlarged by Shedroff (2003), as LATCH+2. Wurman (1989, 2001) proposed a set of five ways of grouping different types of information according to commonalities or characteristics, i.e. by location, alphabet, time, category and hierarchy. Shedroff (2003) added two ways to the above five, i.e. by continuum and randomness. Put together, they argued that everything could be organised in seven ways.

6Ws: This theory was introduced by Roam (2008) as a way of understanding a problem by considering six individual but related components described as the six Ws. This approach can be also used to organise information from different perspectives. For example: who: alphabetical order, what: thematic order, when: chronological order, how: relational order, where: geographical order.

7) Examples & Case Studies
Examples and case studies are always a good way to ground new concepts and show connections. Both are highly important when teaching conceptual subjects (e.g. research) to minimise the risk of misconception among students. Examples should respond to students’ interests, be simple and mundane, but relevant to the subject being delivered. When students empathise with a story or an anecdote, new knowledge is comprehended with less difficulty.
Case studies are ‘an effective way of both disseminating and integrating knowledge’ as they provide the chance for students to apply theories into practice through real-life experiences. Critical thinking and awareness of multiple perspectives are developed when students feel stimulated and actively participate in group discussions.

Teaching recommendations

Looking for additional references I came across Cashin’s (1990) recommendations to make teaching more effective, which can also be seen as a good summary of the main idea of this post:

- Fit the lecture to the audience
– Focus your topic – remember you cannot cover everything in one lecture
– Prepare an outline that includes 5-9 major points you want to cover in one lecture
– Organise your points for clarity
– Select appropriate examples or illustrations
– Present more than one side of an issue and be sensitive to other perspectives
– Repeat points when necessary
– Be aware of your audience – notice their feedback
Be enthusiastic – you don’t have to be an entertainer but you should be excited by your topic
(Cashin, 1990: 60-61)

I would like to add:

- Be open-minded and receptive: teachers can learn a lot from their students.

This post is devoted to those key teachers I had encountered as a student (at all levels) here and there. Each of them has inspired me in a different way and helped me find that ‘click’. Thank you.

——————————

- Arnheim, R., 1998. El pensamiento visual. Barcelona: Ed. Paidós Ibérica
– Cashin, W.E. (1990). Student ratings of teaching: recommendations for use (IDEA Paper No. 22): Manhattan, KA: Center for Faculty Evaluation & Development, Kansas State University.
– Lawson, B., 1983. How designers think. London: Architectural Press.
– Roam, D., 2008. The back of the napkin: solving problems and selling ideas with pictures. New York: Portfolio.
– Shedroff, N., 2003. Research methods for designing effective experiences. In Laurel, B. (ed.) 2003. Design research, methods and perspectives. London & Cambridge (Massachusetts): The MIT Press, pp.155-62.
– Wurman, R.S., 1989. Information anxiety. London: Pan Books.
– Wurman, R.S., 2001. Information anxiety 2. Expanded & updated ed. Indianapolis: Que.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Information design rationale as a teaching strategy « fred zimny's designing design thinking driven operations

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