In design school, most classes take the form of “crits” — three hours or more in which everyone’s work is displayed on the wall or screen and individually reviewed. Unlike Hollywood versions of art school, where someone runs out sobbing and the rest of the class simply scoops their bruised egos off the floor, crits at Pratt were constructive and relatively friendly.
Nevertheless, for 9 or 12 hours a week, your progress (or lack thereof) is laid bare for all to judge. You present what you have no matter how you feel about it. There’s no sitting back during discussion or speaking vaguely about the week’s reading. You’ve got to show them the goods. Multiply that times three or four, add a seminar or two on theory, and you’ve got a seriously demanding course load.
Working around the clock was par for the course. Though I had a toddler and spouse with whom I tried to eat dinner most nights, at 2 a.m. I was as likely to be up and working as classmates who were 15 years my junior and regularly spent the night at the studio. School had always demanded a lot of time, but I had rarely experienced anything as all-consuming as this.
After surviving the first semester, I wanted to understand why were were willing or able to stick to this brutal pace. The most obvious answer came quickly. Being privileged enough to view college as routine, we were experiencing voluntary education for the first time effectively.
Two subtler explanations eventually emerged:
First, design is hands-on. Except for a minority of seminar classes that required “only” writing and reading, in design school you learn by doing. The emphasis on studio classes means that you’re constantly making things — turning cerebral ideas into material artifacts. That process is inherently experiential. Design educators call this thinking through making.
Second, design-school projects are almost entirely self-determined. You’re usually free to choose your topic and your medium. For this reason, it’s almost impossible not to be invested in the work. This assures a strong degree of intrinsic motivation.
My best moments as a design student (which, admittedly, rarely occurred at
2 a.m.) inspired intense energy. In one project, I designed a book of conversations that my daughter and I had while getting ready for school one morning. Transcribing and proofreading the 13,000-word manuscript took 12 hours. Designing the layouts took 20 hours. Printing and producing, at least 6. This all happened while I was also working on design projects for three other studio crits.
Marathon sessions like that were not new to me: I’d spent most of my school years laboring above and beyond my parents’ and teachers’ expectations. Back then, though, my motivation to work hard was extrinsic to the work itself: I worked hard to succeed within the structure of school.
Twenty years later, my motivation to work hard was the work itself — not my professors’ approval, not grades, not some hazy notion of future success. The work mattered to me intrinsically, just as my classmates’ work — which addressed very different topics — mattered to them.
Eventually I realized that the precise circumstances of the book I described above — its deeply personal subject matter, and my intense determination to get it right — allowed the project to transcend the sensation of work altogether and instead become a labor of love.
Experiences where intense effort is more joyful than painful — which psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi coined as flow — were few and far between in my prior years of schooling. I have to reach back pretty far — past years and years of essay writing — to the dioramas and poster presentations of elementary school.
There is one exception, however. In my last semester of college, when I should have been pumping out pages of my senior thesis, I stayed up night after night applying printed excerpts of Thoreau’s “Walden” by hand to strips of balsa wood I had built into a 3D cabin — for a class in typography.
Even then, it was obvious that this graphic design elective felt like fun and my English-major requirements felt like work. What wasn’t obvious was the significance of that fact. If my education had taught me anything, it was that school was supposed to be hard. It was supposed to feel like work.
If I had known otherwise — that school should also be hard and feel like fun — my life so far would look pretty different.
These reflections swarmed around for some time, and I began to rethink the liberal arts education I received in high school and college.
I acknowledge my ability to think and speak analytically is entirely due to those years of schooling. I can’t begin to quantify how valuable — intellectually, materially — those skills have been for me. But I still consider some aspects of that schooling to be problematic.
If you asked me, How would you characterize the learning you did during those years? I would say, Receiving the work of intellectual giants. Yes, my ideas were valued and encouraged but — for the most part — only as responses to minds greater than my own. In those intellectually formative years, I don’t recall anyone suggesting that I might have an idea that was both worthy and original.
To be clear, I have no interest in liberal-arts bashing, a trend I find disturbing and anti-intellectual. But having been privileged enough to attend selective schools my whole life, and having sincerely shared their embrace of the liberal arts, I’m struck by the realization that the best learning experience of my life was in design school.
I don’t mean to suggest that I was never intrinsically invested in a single school project that didn’t involve making. Nor do I think that investing in a topic at age 38 can look or feel the same as investing in a (necessarily different) topic at age 15. Or that it should.
But I do know that intrinsically motivated learning — which I experienced in design school and which (in a neat QED) birthed a deeply satisfying research topic — often leads to the deepest engagement and the most sustained effort. And so I’ve come to believe that K-12 educators need to design more experiences that allow students to find and nurture their own sources of intrinsic motivation within existing curricula. And I think that the thinking-through-making paradigm from design education offers a powerful and sound framework for bringing intrinsically motivating experiential learning to K-12 schools — including schools committed to the liberal arts.