Design Education 3.0: the unknown unknowns


Three approaches to education based on Ovenell-Carter (2011) and Gerstein (2014).

The three short-films ‘Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding’ reflect the changes that higher education and, thus, educators have been going through in the last 30 years to better equip students to successfully deal with real-life problems. A couple of years ago in a talk at NYU, Prof. John Zimmerman also spoke about this shift in education presenting ways to reform and adapt undergraduate teaching to new demands. The type of problems we, as societies and individuals, are dealing with have become more complex (e.g.climate change, recession, poverty) demanding from education a different preparation in order to succeed.

Until now, for the author Marty Neumeier, we have been approaching complex challenges as independent from each other, each requiring a specific and unique solution, rather than seeing them as interconnected challenges belonging to a holistic system. This is in part because, while we do know how to solve problems, we have not been prepared to ‘deal with interconnected, non-linear, and amorphous challenges’. In other words, our skills are too basic (Neumeier, 2012). Perhaps as a way to acquire more appropriate skill sets, in the last five years, colleges and universities have opened their doors to design thinking-related courses (e.g. Stanford University, Princeton University, Harvard University, Columbia University to name only a few universities in the US) and a less traditional way of learning.

But are these types of design courses the only way forward? Or do we also need a different approach to learning?

In an attempt to answer these questions, below three teaching approaches that provide a picture of how education has been evolving and adapting to external changes and needs, but that will also help gain a better understanding of the types of skills that we have been learning.

Education 1.0: Problem-solving

Educators Brad Ovenell-Carter and Jackie Gerstein describe the more traditional teaching approach, which as in 2014 was still the most predominant in the US, as Education 1.0. Students learn problem-solving skills by working with a great variety of challenges taken from textbooks, handouts, and worksheets (known-knowns). As content experts, educators share their knowledge with students through lectures and assignments, while students passively receive that knowledge by listening, taking notes, studying, completing assignments and tests. Educators create content and didactic material for students, who expect to receive information and all answers from them.

While students build great problem-solving skills, this approach does not focus on developing creative or imaginative thinking. Traditionally, design education has followed a similar approach, having a strong emphasis on learning technical skills (e.g. printmaking, typography), and structuring design training around fictitious clients and design briefs created by educators.

Education 2.0: Problem-based

Education 2.0 is described as a problem-based learning approach with a focus on relatively complex real-world problems. Key characteristics are learning by doing, collaborative learning, and developing strong human interactions with peers and educators. Students learn problem-solving skills while actually solving problems; they are doers. While these problems are not fictitious any more, they are still suggested by educators and, to some extent, the answers are already known by them (known-unknowns).

Gerstein (2014) describes this approach as focusing on three actions: communicating, contributing, and collaborating. Educator-students, student-student and student-content interactions are highly dynamic, and are considered essential for the learning process. Students not only access content, but they actively look for more content and also interact with it by commenting, suggesting and sharing with others. Students are encouraged to reflect on their experiences and understand their journeys.

Learning by doing and collaborative working are intrinsic characteristics of design education, as students engage in practice-led team projects from early on in their learning journeys. More recently, design students learn by working with real-life design briefs, and clients are involved (at various degrees) in the learning process. 

Education 3.0: Problem-finding

Education 3.0 focuses on problem-finding in that students ‘become the authors, drivers, and assessors of their learning experiences with the educator truly being the guide on the side’ (Gerstein, 2014). Creativity, determination and motivation are the key drivers for learning, together with an emphasis on understanding the process. Students develop creative thinking by embracing the ‘unknown unknowns‘ and practicing observation skills. This exploration helps them to see the world from different perspectives and identify problems they would like to solve. Therefore, educators do not participate in the selection or suggestion of what they will be working on.

This approach is highly personalised to each student’s learning journey, but all are encouraged to work at a very high level of thinking, analyse data sets, distinguish relevant from irrelevant data, synthesize it and determine other questions for exploration. The educator-student relationship shifts too, to the extent that the educator becomes a:

In preparation for the ‘real world’, design education is increasingly giving more freedom to students to manage their own timeframes and learn how to deal with clients and feedback, often coming from various parties (e.g. educators, clients, peers), and other vicissitudes normally occurring outside classroom settings.   

The relationship between educators and students changes from Education 1.0 to Education 3.0. Educators move from being the knowledge keepers from actually learning from the students too, the power dynamics also changes.

The relationship and power dynamics between educators and students change from Education 1.0 to Education 3.0: Educators move from being the knowledge keepers to actually learning from the students too.

– Gerstein, J. (2014) Moving From Education 1.0 Through Education 2.0 Towards Education 3.0. In: Experiences in Self-Determined Learning. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
– Neumeier, M. (2012) 
Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age. New Riders.
– Ovenell-Carter, B. (2011) BLC11 Big Take-Away? Problem-finding is the Next Big Thing.
– Starko, A. Creative thinking strategies: Problem-finding



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