On Design in Education

On occasion, one finds a piece of writing that brings captures and consolidates their thinking about important ideas. This post shares such a discovery for me.

The concept of design has captured my attention in recent years. Specifically, I have come to understand that planning is an inadequate approach finding solutions—effective solutions—to most problem we encounter as educators.

While reading Technology and society: Building our sociotechnical future (Whil Johnson and Wetmore, 2021), I encountered Dominique Vinck’s contribution “Sociotechnical Complexity: Redesigning a Shielding Wall” (pp. 291-302). The chapter was a reprint form a 2003 chapter.

Vinck describes a young engineer’s first experience working in an office, being assigned to a project team, accepting tasks within that team, and contributing to the work. It became clear to that student and to Vinck that the skills and knowledge one develops as an engineering student are necessary, but far from sufficient, to effectively contribute to engineering projects. Even simple objects, it is observed, are affected by other objects in the total project, and the design of those simple objects is affected by the social environment in which it is designed as well as the technical environment.

When we look carefully at education, we can see there are close similarities between the complex environment in which projects are engineered and those in which learning environments are designed. Obviously, effective curriculum and instruction cannot be engineered (otherwise we would have identified “the best way to teach” long ago), but the fact educators create objects in environments that are object-rich, interaction-rich, and socially-rich, makes the circumstances very similar.

Vinck defines nine characteristics of design in engineering that seem to be equally valid descriptors of design in education. The careful reader will see differences between the design described here and the planning typically undertaken in schools.

  1. “Design work is complex, even for a simple object.” Educational objects (think textbooks, worksheets, assignments, projects, discussions) are part of the entire educational system (which includes structures, practices, and people). While educational planner may ignore the effects of the entire system, the effects of other parts exist and should be understood.
  2. “The design work builds up around a network of relations among technical parts.” The relationships between designed educational objects and other objects in the system may be indirect, and these may not be immediately obvious. Designers will be aware of these effects and adjust their designs as necessary.
  3. “Objects and their relations are linked to people and social groups.” The objects that are designed in educational settings are affected by the political power of those who create them as well.
  4. “It is not always clear at the beginning what the constraints are.” Planners assume they know the system completely so they can define the problem, the goal, and the relevant factors so they can achieve their goals. Designers understand such knowledge cannot be known until the solution begins to emerge.
  5. “It cannot be taken for granted that requirements and technical data are given objectively.” Until the object is created and it is interacting in the actual sociotechnical environment, its value cannot be known, and even then one’s perspective matters in how the value is interpreted.
  6. “Showing interest gives the object life.” While technical requirements may be defined, the interactions between objects and between people and objects only emerge when people assume responsibility for it.
  7. “To manage relations between technical elements, the designer has to take into account how actors react and behave in relation to their specific element.” The final design of an object (or its redesign) must reconcile the effects of other elements on it and its effects on other elements. Design changes may improve performance or leverage emergent properties.
  8. “Doing technical work is just one strategy among others.” Especially in education, one is tempted to articulate a single preferred method of teaching the curriculum. Designers recognize the many solutions in the instructional space and explore them in specific situations.
  9. “Industrial design stimulates discussion.” When observing the systems they create, designers recognize their complexity which leads them to reflect on the performance of them with other designers and with other stakeholders.

During my years in education, the wicked nature of the work became clear. We cannot know all of the relevant factors and interactions that will determine what our students need to know, how to best teach it, and how to reliably know if it was learned. The “standards” and the tests we use to measure them impose artificial frameworks on our work and lead educators to conflate these with learning. That may not be a problem in many industrial settings, but in education, this is problematic. Our students and our society depend on educators teaching so that students are able to meet increasingly challenging problems.


Whil Johnson, D. G., & Wetmore, J. M. (Eds.). (2021). Technology and society: Building our sociotechnical future (Second edition). The MIT Press.