Teaching is Design: Cultural Constraints

I’ve written a few posts relating teaching and design (see here, here, here, and here). If teaching is designing, then ideas about design might provide interesting insight into teaching. Last time I wrote about material constraints, but culture and society create constraints for design as well.

In an effort to avoid political landmines, I’m going to use a hypothetical situation. Imagine a law was passed that knives could only hold a certain mass of metal.  Perhaps this law was passed to limit the size of knives in an effort to decrease the ability to of the knife wielder to harm others. You can imagine how knife designers would create non-metal counterparts to large knives or create knives with a non-metal “core” that is surrounded by less-than-the-limit coating of metal. These designers were not constrained by the material itself (e.g. the metal), they were constrained by the society in which they were designing by the society’s laws.

There are some obvious parallels to teachers as designers. For example, teachers are required by law to teach particular outcomes (e.g. state standards and/or national standards). Similarly, teacher education programs (what I do now) have particular laws they have to abide by when designing their programs. Sometimes these laws/requirements provide leverage to create a good program, sometimes these laws are hurdles to jump or work around.

Cultural constraints are not just official rules. Sometimes cultural constraints are the unspoken standard operating procedures within the system. These cultural or institutional constraints are at least partially responsible for the tremendous institutional momentum of schools. Administrators, teachers, and students create and maintain these cultural/institutional constraints. When teachers design, they must account for these constraints.

For example, the culture of the schools I taught in were such that my students resisted inquiry-based approaches to teaching science. I remember one student (son of a school board member) who stuck around after class one day and said, “You’re not really doing what you’re supposed to do. Why don’t you ever tell use the answers?” While the conversation that resulted was fascinating, his question perfectly illustrates the students as part of the cultural constraints. Therefore, as I continued to design my lessons I was sure to include explicit opportunities to have students reflect on how they were learning in my class. While having students reflect on their learning is clearly important, I was also having students reflect on my teaching to help them understand how what we were doing was different, but beneficial to their development as thinkers. The cultural/institutional constraints shaped the design of my teaching. Unfortunately, we too often ignore the cultural constraints or seek to place blame for cultural constraints. If we see cultural constraints as part of the design process, we might be able to focus our energies in a more positive, creative direction. 

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2 Responses to Teaching is Design: Cultural Constraints

  1. Becky says:

    A comment on the student’s response:
    I’d be interested to hear what he would have to say about that class today. Did it pique his interest in science? Did it get him to think critically? I also wonder what impact his experience might have had on his parent that was on the school board.

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  2. jerridkruse says:

    While the student didn’t change their thinking immediately (learning takes time), I remember that same student several weeks or months later asking, “Why don’t the rest of our teachers teach this way?” I have no idea how it affected the school board member, but the parent did not express concerns at any point.

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