User centered education, and why you’re not an astronaut

My husband and co-Transmogrifer Gary confessed to me that he didn’t give a crap about trigonometry until about a year ago when he was trying to solve an animation problem at a game studio. It drove home a point: as soon as something is relevant to what you’re interested in and has a clearly defined purpose – not something intangible like “getting an A” – it’s easier to learn and a hell of a lot more interesting. Considering this need first is a user centered approach. It made me wonder: why aren’t we taught like this from our first year in school?

When you entered kindergarten, what did you want to be? A doctor? A fireman? An astronaut? Kids have an excellent method for determining what career is going to be most valuable to society: they listen. Whatever’s admired and talked about most by society at large, they want to do. When a kid enters kindergarten, they already have an interest in something awesome. Only after twelve years of school, if they make it to college, do they get to focus specifically on anything they actually care about. By then, it’s usually changed into something practical and easy that will make them money. I went from paleontology to advertising.

Those twelve years of school focus entirely on general knowledge that will supposedly help them decide what they want to do and give them the skills to start off on it. They’re surrounded by peers who know nothing more than they do, give them nothing to aspire to, and taught by disillusioned wage slaves who never became true experts in the subject they teach. The result? A generation of kids who have no idea what to do, are completely unprepared for the realities of working, and live off their parents until they’re thirty. (That would be my generation.)

Kids already know what they want to do when they’re five years old. We waste billions teaching them things that they don’t care about and won’t ever be relevant to them, that they could look up on the internet and get a decent grasp of any time the need arises. Now imagine an alternative: a kid enters kindergarten and says, “I wanna be an astronaut!” We then teach her everything she’ll need to be an astronaut in the context of how it’ll help her with that job. She goes on field trips to NASA instead of the zoo. At ten, she starts making coffee collating papers once a week at Virgin Galactic. She watches everything they do, gets to know the experts there personally, gains an understanding of the system, and then gets an apprenticeship with a real astronaut at fifteen. By eighteen she’s training in zero G instead of memorizing dates and names for the SATs. (Heard of Google? It’s awesome.) End result: we have a hell of a lot more astronauts.

“That’s crazy, kids change their minds all the time!” you say. Of course they do. But the true masters we respect and admire, more often then not, were already interested in their field at extremely young ages – and they were immediately supported in them and given the tools they needed to turn it into a career. Ever watch So You Think You Can Dance?  (Don’t worry, I won’t tell.) The kids that really blow you away were dancing as soon they were walking. Their parents made sacrifices so they could get the best lessons well before anyone was trying to teach them geometry. The kids that got into it six months ago after changing their minds end up in the bloopers.

Let’s start education the way we start any user centered design: by finding out what the user needs first.

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