Nobody likes to be observed performing badly

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▶️ Listen to story or read on Medium.com Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash.

Doors shouldn’t be hard to open.

Donald A. Norman agrees. His book, “The Design of Everyday Things” was my first peek at the principles of design. His book’s original title was, “The Psychology of Everyday Things,” and it was this psychology that entranced me, a young educator earnest in my desire to be more effective for more students. I was assigned his book in Visual Literacy, a required course in my Master’s program, a course I wish had been included in my undergraduate work. Its inclusion would have spared many former students the brain melting boredom of my early PowerPoint presentations.

“I have become famous for doors that are difficult to open, light switches that make no sense, shower controls that are unfathomable. Almost anything that creates unnecessary problems, my correspondents report, is a ‘Norman thing’: Norman doors, Norman switches, Norman shower controls.” - Donald A. Norman, “The Design of Everyday Things” (preface)

Doors shouldn’t be hard to open, but the door I found Tuesday morning was.

It was a standard issue commercial door made from glass and aluminum. Yes, I was distracted. Yes, I could have given this door more attention. Yes, I launched myself into it.

I bet I sounded like that grape lady, but louder and angrier. Less whimper, more cursing. Thankfully, I didn’t fall as much as collide; once an o-lineman, always an o-lineman. Coach Westre would’ve been proud.

“Gak! Stupid door!” I snarled.

But then I remembered, this is a Norman door. At once this warm realization washed my shame and embarrassment away. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t need to feel stupid. I imagined him watching me perform this trivial task badly, and was encouraged.

“I have studied people making errors — sometimes serious ones — with mechanical devices, light switches and fuses, computer operation systems and word processors, even airplanes and nuclear power plants. Invariably people feel guilty and either try to hide the error or blame themselves for their ‘stupidity’ or ‘clumsiness.’ I often have difficulty getting permission to watch: nobody likes to be observed performing badly. I point out that the design is faulty and that others make the same errors. Still, if the task appears simple or trivial, then people blame themselves. It is as if they take perverse pride in thinking of themselves as mechanically incompetent.” - DOET, p. 34

Have you run into any doors lately?

Design Matters

We prove this by what we buy, how we furnish our homes, what we wear, and in the things we like. Well-designed objects and experiences permeate our identities because they make us feel as though they were made for us. As in just for us - bespoke. They make us feel understood, seen, valued, and known. The power of design is how it informs, and is informed by, our identity.

That power exerts itself in each classroom daily, either wounding or healing.

Design principles guide effective human interaction. Design teaches the user something; all design does this, not just good design. Let’s look more closely at the relationship between design and blame, specifically when a user doesn’t engage with the designed thing in the way the designer intended - like me drive-blocking that door, for example.

Norman’s story demonstrates the power of design to wound:

I was once asked by a large computer company to evaluate a brand new product. I spent a day learning to use it and trying it out on various problems. And using the keyboard to enter data, it was necessary to differentiate between the “return” key and the “enter” key. If the wrong key was tapped, the last few minutes work was irrevocably lost.

I pointed this problem out to the designer, explaining that I myself had made the error frequently and that my analyses indicated that this was very likely to be a frequent error among users. The designers first response was: “Why did you make that error? Didn’t you read the manual?” He proceeded to explain the different functions of the two keys.

“Yes, yes,” I explained, “I understand the two keys, I simply confuse them. They have similar functions, are located in similar locations on a keyboard, and as a skilled typist, I often hit ‘return’ automatically, without thought. Certainly others have had similar problems."

“Nope,” said the designer. He claimed that I was the only person who had ever complained, and the company secretaries had been using the system for many months. I was skeptical, so we went together to some of the secretaries and asked them whether they had ever hit the “return key” when they should’ve hit the “enter” and did they ever lose their work as a result?

“Oh, yes,” said the secretaries, “we do that a lot." “Well, how come nobody ever said anything about it?” We asked the secretaries. After all, they were encouraged to report all problems with the system.

The reason is simple: once the system stopped working or did something strange, the secretaries dutifully reported it as a problem. But when they made a “return” versus the “enter” error, they blamed themselves. After all, they had been told what to do. They had simply erred.

They blamed themselves. After all, they had been told what to do. They had simply erred.

Teachers aren’t ineffective on purpose. I’m excluding here the rare malicious and lazy educator. While I’m confident that these bad apples do exist, I’ve never worked with one in my sixteen years of teaching. But, I have known many educators who are poor instructional designers. I was (and may still be) one of them. Some are experts in their content, some not. What defines them is the posture they take toward their users, In essence asking, “Why did you make that error? Didn’t you read the manual?” You may have had a few as your teachers. I have.

These instructors think Teaching is Telling. These Tellers ask some variant of, “any questions?” And if a brave student were to offer one, these Tellers would reply by explaining again what they’d previously explained, just more slowly, either thinking, or perhaps asking out loud, “Why did you make that error? Didn’t you read the manual?”

Are you imagining an angry Teller, who doesn’t like kids and hates their job? Though some Tellers fit this profile, most don’t. No, most Tellers love kids and their jobs. They love telling what they know, and tell their way into believing kids can learn it too. These Tellers smile in excitement; they’re patient and kind. But these Tellers still place the burden to adapt on the students, instead of bearing the weight themselves. Though they may never ask, “Why did you make that error? Didn’t you read the manual?” it is implied. And students answer it by telling themselves, “I’m just stupid, or clumsy.”

Things we design always teach the user something.

The Teller designs lessons to teach factoring, or sentence diagramming, or how to uncover the causes of the Civil War, but that’s not what they actually teach. No, this Teller’s lessons teach students to blame themselves when they struggle. Students in this Teller’s courses are like the secretaries in Norman’s story: “They blamed themselves. After all, they had been told what to do. They had simply erred.”

But educators aren’t trained as designers - I know I wasn’t. No amount of courses in behavioral classroom management, lesson planning, and content methods are a substitute for design. And if our lack of design skills are actually inevitably leading our students to internalize a belief that they are a failure, what are we to do with this terrible knowledge? How are we supposed to feel about the vast number of students we’ve damaged without knowing it? Where do we even start?

We don’t start; we continue. We continue down the path we’re on as educators. We continue to learn and grow and reflect and change.

The pathways I’ve walked that don’t work:

  • Lashing myself with guilt is unsustainable - I have enough shame and guilt to last me a lifetime. I’ve lashed, whipped, scolded, and punished myself and have very little growth to show for it. I’m learning to stop doing this.

  • Blaming myself for not already knowing this doesn’t work - I want to offer me the same self-compassion and dignity that I’m offering my students.

  • Forgetting or downplaying my past growth is unhelpful - I’m a better teacher now than the day I started. That didn’t happen automatically, or by accident. I can trust it will continue.

The pathways I’m walking now that work better:

  • Start with my strengths- I’m good at connecting with kids. I know how to support them in doing stuff that they thought was way too hard for them to do. I’m a teammate who listens well and injects hope into others when they’ve lost it. I’m an encourager and a friend who feels with people and loves deeply. I’m building on that.

  • Blame better - When I’m tempted to blame myself for not being good enough yet, I’m working to remember that I am the product of my experiences. I’m working to acknowledge how I learned to be this way and honestly acknowledge that part of why I’m me is because of choices others made for me. One salient example is how I’m still working to overcome my undergraduate training in Behaviorism. Nothing I’ve faced in my career has been more damaging to students than this and I was a Behaviorist for years in part, because that’s what I was trained to be. Now that I know better, I can do better.

  • Remember the journey - My life has made me who I am now, and my life going forward will continue to teach me. I want to have courage to sit with the deep sorrow I feel over the myriad ways that my lack of skill has damaged some of my learners. I hate letting that sadness and regret in, but I cannot grow without it. “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God” - Aeschylus

Educating like a designer

As I close with some resources and a bit more detail regarding what I’ve done, please, please remember to be kind to yourself as you continue to grow and learn. Be excessively gentle with yourself. Then, you can extend this hand of care to your students. Grace received is grace offered to others.

The tools and convictions of design are in education and they’re learnable, powerful, and scalable. They’re effective, tested, and life-changing. What are they? I can write about the two with which I am most familiar, there are no doubt many more.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an instructional design framework. It’s not a template, it’s not a process, it’s a set of convictions, rooted in research that helps any educator systematically design their instruction to meet the needs of any learner. Any. Learner. I’m new to UDL’s language this year. My district is using it to guide the redesign of special education toward an inclusion model. It’s beautiful, clear, and compelling.

Here’s how I got in: I listened to this podcast → read this book → attended district training → assessed myself using this rubric → asked my colleagues to assess me → got a copy of this book (which I plan to read this spring).

Design Thinking comes from Stanford and IDEO. It’s got lots of educational flavors and resources (designkit, toolkit , codesigningschools, and Harvard) and some research too. We used it extensively at Riverpoint Academy. I led some professional development in it with Gizmo. We’re using it at Glover to design our interdisciplinary learning neighborhoods. It lends itself beautifully to project-based learning, and has become an invaluable thinking tool for me; in particular the mindsets. Just this week I heard the story of an incredible school designed around these mindsets using design thinking.

What pathway are you on?