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Karin Storm Wood joins the team

Karin Storm Wood

Hello, world.

I’m very pleased to be joining the rethinked…* team.

I’m an interactive designer, design educator and newly minted MFA, though my career path initially resembled more closely those of my rethinked colleagues. Left-brainy and interested in the humanities, I went to Yale knowing I wanted to major in English. I spent the better part of my twenties teaching English at the middle- and high-school level — coincidentally at Riverdale Country School, the birthplace of rethinked…*

After six happy years at Riverdale (all before Dominic Randolph began his tenure at the school), I left teaching to pursue graphic design. I had always been interested in design and even took a few design classes in college, but I had never considered it a viable career choice for me. Design seemed like something for other people: namely, more creative people.

Fortunately, design is a profession that requires no formal education or certification. On the strength of some strong undergrad and continuing-ed classes, and confidence in my communication skills in general, I landed positions at a boutique studio in New York and later at NYU. I worked successfully as a graphic designer for seven years.

Eventually, my on-again, off-again flirtation with having the imprimatur of a formal degree won out. In 2011 I enrolled in the MFA program in Communications Design at Pratt Institute, a research- and practice-based graduate program in (primarily) graphic design. My day-to-day experiences as a design student — quite different from my previous experiences as both a learner and a teacher — directly influenced my research. Seen with new eyes, the topic of learning itself fascinated me. Last spring I completed an interdisciplinary Master’s thesis in design that investigated parallels between the learning process and the creative process, as well as similarities in the optimal mindset for each.

At rethinked, I hope to lend the perspective of an educator and a designer, and — as you’ll see — someone who has recently revised her understanding of learning itself.

In installments throughout this week, I’ll be sharing how I reached this perspective.

Until then, I’d like to share a perspective on problem solving that I especially admire — from TED founder and Information Anxiety author Richard Saul Wurman:

When you approach a problem, you must go backward to find the beginning before going forward to find the solution. Seldom, if ever, is the problem correctly stated. The classic, pervasive seduction to designers has been to find a solution instead of the truth.You must be a few steps behind where others usually start when solving a problem if you want to discover the forces behind the problem. Only then can you ask yourself the questions that will lead to productive solutions.

Richard Saul Wurman, Design Quarterly, No. 145, Hats (1989), pp. 1-32

{ Rethinking the Nature of Learning, Conclusion } From MFA to K-12

meaning-karinstormwoodFor this thesis project, I surprinted and bound
50 pages of messy but enthusiastic grad school notes (left) and
500 pages of impeccably neat high school notes (right).

{ Previously: IntroductionPart IPart II, Part III, and Part IV }

I’ll conclude the narrative of how design school led me to rethink the nature of learning by recapping some key perspectives I’ve developed along the way. I’ll also note how I hope to apply them K-12 education here at rethinked…*

1 — There are two paradoxical truths about learning that must be kept in equilibrium:

Learning often involves a degree of anxiety because there is something at stake. However, learning cannot thrive sustainably if that anxiety isn’t mitigated.

Does this construct accurately capture the experiences of K12 learners? If not, how might we develop a more accurate construct for understanding the emotional and learning experiences of our students?

2 — Learners deserve help in developing mindsets and strategies designed to overcome or sidestep anxieties associated with learning

Metacognitive strategies taught in study-skills classes address this. How can such strategies be mainstreamed across the curriculum more effectively? How might the need for such mainstreaming be most effectively communicated to educators and parents?

3 — Learning has more to do with having and asking questions than having and giving answers. In this respect it’s important to consider the distinction between learning and schooling.

How can this message — not to mention inquiry-based learning itself — coexist meaningfully with schools’ need for assessment? How might student inquiry — curiosity, risk-taking, and innovation — be empirically assessed?

4 — Winning formulas for success in the (mostly) predictable academic challenges of school do not always reflect winning formulas for success in the unpredictable environment of life.  

A key mission of character education is to prepare students for success in the broadest sense. To what extent do students at schools committed to character education believe in the importance of character? To what extent do such students believe in the importance of character? Are such students motivated to meet character expectations? In what ways does motivation differ from students’ motivation to meet academic expectations?

I invite you to share your perspectives in the comments.

{ Rethinking the Nature of Learning, Part IV } How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Process

Deer in the Headlights

My own problem is not overzealous perfectionism.
My problem is the assumption of failure. Self-censorship —
the little voice in my brain whispering, ‘It won’t work’ —
tends to reduce the possibilities of many things I do.

— Stefan Sagmeister, Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far
(New York: Abrams, 2008), np.

{ Previously: Introduction, Part I, Part II, and Part III }

In the previous installment, I wrote that high-stakes contexts are toxic to learning. They are equally toxic to creativity. For design students, both of these principles pose problems.

As a designer, I define creativity in two ways. Creativity refers to the act of making, of creation, itself. (As our thesis deadlines loomed, the need to be constantly making became an increasing struggle for everyone in my MFA class, as I’ve mentioned.) Creativity also reflects the originality or newness of an artifact or idea. Under pressure, both forms of creativity suffer.

Fortunately, the anxiety that results from high-stakes contexts, and which hampers both learning and creative output, can be mitigated with strategies that reduce the perception of risk and encourage a mindset more conducive to embracing the unknown.

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In the final months of grad school, my thesis became very meta: I was knee-deep in research on what happens to learning and creativity under pressure while experiencing both phenomena first hand. With deadlines looming and several design projects stalled or still undetermined, I felt increasingly like a deer in the headlights.

Fortunately, my research in cognitive psychology made me aware that the biggest threat to my learning and creative output wasn’t the external pressure but rather my perception of that pressure. In other words, the anxiety itself.

It became clear to me that I needed a tool, a methodology, that would allow me to reduce or simply sidestep my anxiety and start making. Drawing from contemporary psychology studies on the correlation between strong learning outcomes and constructive forms of metacognition (including “grit” and the “growth mindset”), I began to wonder how much a concertedly self-reflective design process could keep anxiety at bay. My research on intrinsic motivation — the experiential delight we get from inherently enjoyable activities —  also led me to explore play.

Play can be defined as an activity that is desirable in and of itself. More than that, it  makes daunting tasks more manageable.

In play, most of the time we are able to try out things without threatening our physical or emotional well-being. We are safe precisely because we are just playing…. We can learn lessons and skills without being directly at risk.

— Stuart Brown, M.D., with Christopher Vaughan. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (New York: Avery Trade, 2010), 17.

One of play’s key characteristics is a well-defined set of constraints — i.e., rules. Rules shape challenging and “scary” activities within parameters than make those activities safe. In this way, play mitigates risk.

For instance, a bear cub who is learning to fight by wrestling playfully seems to intuitively understand that its sibling isn’t going to gouge its eyes out in the process. Similarly, any game works — be it chess, football, or Mario Brothers —  because prescribed rules establish what actions can and cannot be taken to achieve a goal. If a player breaks the rules, the game’s integrity is destroyed, along with its appeal. And if the play itself becomes stressful or dangerous, it is no longer play, and accordingly, most people (and bear cubs) will abandon it.

This line of thinking led me to consider whether a constraints-based, chance-driven methodology — in short, a system of rules governing the design process — would create a sense of play sufficient to sidestep anxiety and jumpstart my final thesis project. With that theory in mind, I wrote a set of design parameters intended to limit decision-making, emphasize process over product, and encourage exploration and experimentation.

  1. For Content [C], write down the central themes of your thesis
  2. On that basis, determine x number of projects and a time limit for each
  3. For Format [F], write down x possible forms/kinds of projects
  4. For Procedures [P], write down x procedures to encourage reflection, i.e., walks and writing exercises
  5. Put the Cs, Fs, and Ps in separate containers, then draw one C+F+P combination
  6. Set a timer and start making
  7. Repeat until finished

Simply put, I listed the variables inherent in any graphic design process (content, format, and procedure), wrote down ten options for each, and randomly selected ten combinations thereof. Armed with these instructions, I made ten design projects in two weeks — more or less without further ado.

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Was this methodology an elegant solution to my problem? It depends on what the goal was.

If the goal was to do the best design work of my life, then, frankly, no. As individual artifacts, some of my pieces were unsuccessful. But a series of perfect design pieces wasn’t in fact the goal. Making in a high-stakes context was my goal. And in that regard, my constraints-based methodology was an elegant solution, in several ways:

  • By reducing an overwhelming universe of design options down to one incontrovertible option, I avoided the indecision that often suspends making.
  • By creating a series of very small projects as opposed to one big project, I reduced the impact of each design decision.
  • By leaving the primary design decisions to chance (as opposed to determining them on my own), I also avoided the perception that each project somehow reflected the sum total of my skill as a designer.
  • Chance also lead to juxtapositions I wouldn’t have made on my own, leading me to more original solutions and forms I’d never explored before.

Ultimately, my strategy reframed the problem. Initially, the hurdle I faced felt monolithic. Reflecting on the characteristics of play led me to reframe this hurdle as a series of highly circumscribed tasks.

In other words, I went from:

Everything depends on the work you do between now and graduation. OK — Go!

to:

In the next three hours, you have to make a image-driven poster on this theme: “play sets learning and creativity free from anxiety.” You can’t use the computer to create the imagery. Halfway through you have to take a 20-minute walk to assess your progress. 

This shift lowered my perception of the stakes. In turn, that quieted the creative doubts of “little voice in my brain”: Is this going to work? Is this the best I can come up with? Do all my skills as a designer come down to this one project?

In a sense, the real proof of concept was that I made ten distinct design projects in two weeks, which formed the basis for my thesis capstone book.

Not every moment in making those ten projects was fun, but the release from anxiety was immediate and palpable. And I’m happy to say that my methodology created a space where I could pursue pure experimentation — childlike and free — without fear of failure. I could play. I did thesis work and it felt like play. Halleluia! I hadn’t felt that sense of possibility or inspiration since the early days of grad school.

Back in my formative years, my avoidance of risk emerged from internal as well as environmental factors. I contributed to my conflating learning with being right, and in making being right my comfort zone. In that respect, I’m most proud of the fact that I let go of that stale, limiting formula — being a good student at all costs — to experience something I’d never been able to consider before: that the deepest learning can only happen when you find a way to take risks.

Next: Essential questions I’ll be exploring and testing at rethinked…*  

{ Rethinking the Nature of Learning, Part II } For the Love of Making

A Labor of Love Isn't Labor

{ Previously: Introduction and Part I }

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.

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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.

Next: My love affair with making hits a snag

 

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