Why Every Effective Teacher is also a UX Designer

When it comes to changing careers, I’m confident that effective teachers are well positioned to take on nearly any role outside of the classroom. However for teachers in the midst of a career change as well as for recruiters and hiring managers that are seeking top talent, it can take time, courage and creative thinking to understand how an effective teacher’s experience lays the foundation for a set of valuable and highly sought after skills applicable to tech.

While teaching experience can easily equip prospective career changers to transition into psychology, project management, social work, and more, I’m going to focus on how teaching directly relates to the field of UX Design. Those already established in UX Design and who are unfamiliar with what it takes to be an effective teacher might have their doubts. But I’ll illustrate how the effective teacher’s process involves many of the same steps that a UX Designer follows.

Here’s a short list of skills that an effective teacher practices on a weekly if not daily basis in terms that a UX Designer is familiar with:

  • User research

Good Curriculum Design Begins with Good User Research

The design process helps inform good product decisions. These decisions help create useful products that are usable and desirable. Design also impacts business. Just compare the performance of design-led companies to that of Fortune 500 companies. Companies that are design-led have outperformed the S&P 500 by 219% over 10 years. This means that good design is highly correlated with positive business outcomes. I’d argue that the same is true in an educational context.

In education we also seek to meet certain key metrics. Though these have less to do with conversion rates or customer satisfaction, and more to do with literacy, graduation, college acceptance rates and more. From my anecdotal experience, along with the 100s of hours of documentaries I’ve watched on teaching in U.S. public schools, and the many books, articles, and studies I’ve read, I’ve found that good teachers use a similar process as good designers. They start with understanding the community they are designing learning experiences for, ideating and iterating solutions overtime as they learn more from both qualitative (e.g. formative assessments) and quantitative (e.g. summative assessments) findings along the way. These teachers tend to outperform teachers that simply use scripted, state-mandated, one-size-fits all curriculum.

Just like in design, in education there is no one-size-fits all solution for the entire U.S. student base. Instead you must take time to understand the needs of the students you are designing an educational experience for while also keeping in mind the goals and expectations of your stakeholders — the parents, administrators and state. Therefore your objective as a teacher is to design a solution at the intersection of your students’ and stakeholders’ needs while keeping in mind the technical constraints of your specific school and classroom.

Researching My School

When I was enrolled in my credential program I taught in a small city called Watsonville about 20 miles south of the California beach town Santa Cruz. This community has a long and rich history revolving around different immigrant groups that have settled and left over the years.

Most recently the city has become home to many Mexican-Americans, Mexicans and Central Americans. The reason for this is that Watsonville is surrounded by agricultural fields and many migrant farmers work in those fields throughout the year.

Before stepping foot into the classroom and designing any curriculum, I first researched the city, the school, and the student body population. A key strength I found was that the majority of the school was bilingual. Most students spoke both Spanish and English. At the same time many students were English Language Learners (ELL) who were still developing fluency in English. This meant that I’d need to incorporate strategies into my lessons that would allow my ELL students to access the content while potentially leveraging the fact that a majority of the students also speak Spanish.

Another part of effective teaching incorporates the idea of culturally relevant pedagogy. Students growing up in Watsonville may have little interest in engaging with a curriculum designed around the English Civil War fought in the 15th century. However, those same students may find the life and work of Cesar Chavez to be incredibly engaging as his story directly relates to the story of many family’s that currently live in Watsonville.

Using the discovery work that I had done while researching the school and community, I found resources that were highly engaging and relevant to my students — from a repository of local oral histories, to a history book of the different immigrant groups that migrated to and settled in Watsonville. In a nutshell, I researched my students’ needs and developed a curriculum that would address those needs in a culturally relevant way.

Involving Students in Designing Curriculum

If you’re an effective teacher, you listen to your students and you involve them in the process of designing curriculum. In the design world, you might think of this as participatory design. Just like when you involve users in the act of designing products you end up building better products, when you ask students what they want to learn and use their ideas to inform that learning, they are more likely to engage in the class.

Teaching is about developing the skills students will need in order to thrive in adulthood. Learning content is a start, but learning the content isn’t the goal. The goal is building students’ skill sets so they can learn to thrive in any given environment. When you ask students what they want to learn, you are then beginning to teach them to self-direct their learning, a skill that empowers and potentially enables them to become lifelong learners — a mindset that is going to be important for any individual seeking to become competitive in the 21st century workforce.

My first teaching job after graduating with my Masters in Education was in Oakland. As you probably assume, Oakland isn’t the easiest place to teach. But when you gain the trust of your students, it becomes one of the most rewarding places to be a teacher. And after you gain their trust, you can engage them in participatory design when building curriculum.

One day I asked my students to write down on a post-it note, what they wanted to learn about. I got all kinds of responses. Some appropriate and others not. With the help of the students, I decided to card sort them into categories on the whiteboard. As a class we came up with 8 categories.

  1. Soccer

I then gave my instructions.

“In groups you’re going to come up with a question that you want to study and answer.”

The students started talking amongst themselves.

“Hold up, I’m not done yet,” I demanded.

I was a little annoyed that they weren’t keeping silent, but I also knew that when students start talking about the curriculum, you know it’s good.

I then gave them the details as to what I was expecting in terms of a deliverable. The process would involve coming up with a research question, conducting research, synthesizing findings, creating insights, writing a paper, and eventually presenting their findings to the class.

The process of involving my students in the design of the curriculum helped get their buy in which lasted throughout the project. It was a powerful lesson for me in the effectiveness of participatory design.

Usability Testing

An effective teacher usability tests every day. Teachers use both qualitative and quantitative data from those usability tests to inform and iterate lesson planning and any learning interventions that may be needed.

In the tech world there are two main types of design processes. Waterfall and agile. Agile has come to dominate because it’s a process that is faster, more iterative, and builds better products. Agile typically works in two week sprints where a team ideates, builds, tests, improves, and releases product features. If you are an effective teacher, you may run several Agile sprints in just one day.

Period 1 — First Iteration

My students walk into their first period class half asleep from staying up too late on their phones. It’s easy to give instructions to Period 1, because they’re so quiet.

I’ve printed out what teachers call a “Do Now.”

A “Do Now” is a simple assignment every student needs to complete when they walk in the door. It’s basically a way to manage the classroom when students first come in. It also warms up their minds. But today I realized that the instructions were unclear. As I was taking attendance I realized several students were asking their neighbors what to do.

I had made a mistake. On the board I had an image of the Buddha. I thought I had printed out a worksheet that asked them to write down what they see, think and wonder about that image. But instead the worksheet asked them to look at the map on the board and answer some questions about it.

Oops. Today was going to be one of those days I guess.

Period 2 — Second Iteration

During the 5 minute passing period, I quickly ran to the copy machine to print new “Do Nows” with the right instructions on them. Period 2 was going to start smoother. And it did. But half way through the lesson I realized that during a small group reading exercise, several of the groups weren’t reading at all.

I wanted them to read out loud with each other and then answer some discussion questions after each paragraph they read. But I realized that I hadn’t given the students any incentive to read as a group.

Period 3 — Third Iteration

The “Do Nows” were now fixed and I had an idea to incentivize the group reading. At the end of the class each group would grade itself with my guidance. This grade would count for their overall class grade. The result? Nearly every group was participating in this activity.

But the next problem I saw was that the students were struggling to participate meaningfully in the discussion questions.

Period 5 — Fourth Iteration

I had a prep period to work on designing a way to get the students to become more active in the participation of the discussion questions. I decided that I’d model to them the two types of questions that they can ask if they don’t want to use the questions that I had posed for them on their worksheets

The first kind of question I modeled was one that is answered by the text they just read. The second type was an open ended question that might lead to a discussion relevant to the text but not necessarily answered by it.

The modeling worked. Students were practicing asking both kinds of questions after reading the text in their groups.

I realized however, I’d obtain no quantitative data to learn about what the students actually learned after this small group reading lesson in how it was designed.

So I iterated the lesson one more time.

Period 6 — Fifth Iteration

In the last period of the day, I decided to have each small group develop a quiz for another small group. The quiz would ask questions that could be answered by the text they read. I could then use these quizzes to see what the students actually learned and then use that data to iterate the lesson and review it the next day.

Using Analytics to Build Better Lessons

Teachers often complain about state mandated tests. Students are over tested, are given little incentive to test well, and have no meaningful connection to the tests they are given. But that doesn’t mean testing is a waste of time.

Given the right context, testing provides high quality quantitative and qualitative data with which a teacher can use to develop insights to improve upon her or his instruction.

Creating effective tests is like creating an effective product. Tests need to be developed using the principles of accessibility. Students with disabilities, English Language Learners, high performing students, and the students in the middle all have different needs. An effective teacher does her or his best to accommodate for different learner needs and modifies tests to meet those needs.

When you design a test you are not just designing questions, you are designing an experience that a student is going to have. You have to think about a lot of different questions. Questions like:

  1. Is the student going to understand the instructions?

The list goes on.

So how do you know if the data you’re getting is accurate?

Perhaps the reason a test had a 70% average wasn’t because the students didn’t know the answers to the questions, but because the typographical hierarchy of the test caused confusion.

Creating survey questions at the end of your tests will help with the data you get. Questions that may include:

  1. What did you like about this test? Why?

Feedback from your students at every level will help you improve your lessons when you iterate. Using testing data helps, but so does using data about the thoughts and feelings your students have. After all, as a teacher it’s important to design curriculum that is usable, useful, desirable, and delightful.

UX Teams Need Teachers

I’ve always said that before anyone becomes a police officer, they should be a teacher for a few years in the inner city. It will give prospective officers an understanding of young people, their motivations, hopes, dreams, and struggles. This is an understanding that is hard to achieve without having built strong relationships that help people overcome biases and prejudices that they may have.

The more I think about this idea, the more I feel that anyone who works with people should be a teacher first. And it may be even more crucial for those who are creating things for people to use.

Teaching gives you an edge and perspective that no other career can. As a teacher you are a researcher, a problem solver, an academic, a parent, a therapist, a coach, a designer, a collaborator, a philosopher, a scientist, a content creator, an entrepreneur, and much more.

But most importantly being a teacher gives you a perspective, a sensitivity, and an empathy that most other fields don’t. And with that perspective you begin to understand the world in a more holistic way — you begin to understand how context (the context of a student’s life, of the classroom, of the school environment, of the community, etc.) matters. I once had a design director tell me over and over again how much context matters when designing a product. How and where will a user use the product? How does it fit into the time and place of his or her life? Well the effective teacher thinks about this at a scale that no other career affords. 32 young people each with a different set of needs enter the classroom every single day. And inside that classroom there is just 1 adult making decisions that have the potential to affect the trajectory of the those young people’s lives day in and day out.

UX Design is all about discovering and solving problems along with ideating, prioritizing, building and testing solutions, all in the service of improving the experience of individuals. The question I have is who has more practice doing this than an effective teacher?

Design, education, and pizza. My life in a nutshell. www.julesdbennett.com