Tim Jachna’s Paper Proposal

Co-author(s): What kind of a listener is a design educator?

The role of a design educator is often described in terms of the skills and knowledge they “deliver”, the methods they “apply” or the “outcomes” that they achieve in the students. In this paper, I propose that defining a design educator as a certain type of “listener” can lead to insights into the specificity of design education that cannot be garnered from these other points of view.

I discern at least five distinct modes of listening involved in the role of a design educator:

– “Listening for” is the most conventional mode of educator listening, in which design educators listen to students for signs of “learning outcomes”. This mode is often applied in order to give students “feedback” on their development as part of a conversation loop.

– “Listening to” is a mode in which design educators seek to understand the reasoning and thoughts behind a student’s design decisions or their position. In this mode, the educator seeks to gain the ability to “think with” the student in coaching them through their design process.

– “Listening as” is a type of role-playing listening, in which design educators place the student in different modes of being-listened-to (or not being-listened-to) that students can expect to face as designers. This mode simulates a social situation within which students can rehearse different tactics of interaction.

– In “listening as example”, design educators provide students with a model for the type of listener a designer they believe a designer should be. For students to learn from this mode requires the educator to earn the empathy of the students – a very different relation than the deference often expected of students in learning from educator “feedback”.

– Simply “listening” is the mode in which design educators remain sensitized to the potential for new ideas and inspirations in their listening to students and others, that influence their practice as a design educator holistically. This mode of listening is the least goal-oriented, task-specific or intentional, and is necessary for sustaining creative practice in education.

In the proposed paper, I will explain and illustrate – through example scenarios from my personal experience and observation – the ways in which I perceive these different modes of listening being practiced by design educators (in both beneficial and detrimental ways) and will venture an exposition on the special type of economy of speaking-and-listening that sustains the process of design education.

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10 Responses to Tim Jachna’s Paper Proposal

  1. Randall Whitaker says:


    You characterize ‘listening as example’ in terms of “… a model for the type of listener a designer they believe a designer should be.” I can’t parse this statement. Do you mean (a) “the type of listener and designer they believe a designer should be”; (b) “the type of listener they believe a designer should be”; or (c) something else entirely?

  2. Ranulph Glanville says:

    I am very interested in this notion of the teacher (in design) as a listener. It accords with what I learnt from my teachers, and with how I try to act.

    However, there is something that seems to me to be important that you may not have covered, which is listening to hear behind the words. There is something transcendental in some of the listening I am called upon to do, in that I have to transcend the limits of the student’s ability to articulate. Sometimes this is their limitation, sometimes it may be because what is to be said is unsayable or beyond speaking (used figuratively: I am not just talking aurally). Sometimes it is not yet known and has to be found through “speech”.

    • Johann van der Merwe says:

      Yesterday our class discussion brought to light the following: a developing narrative is being born that seems to take on a life of its own (as if “we” were not its parents), and that begins to assume the role we would normally assign to a human being – “it” not only survives but begins to talk back to us, and on an almost continual basis we will “see” the not yet known by finding it (searching for it, researching it, asking the “it”)through “speech” with this other-of-us, this new narrative voice.

      In practical terms what I am talking about is the design of a new open-source teaching and learning platform for design education (that the students are helping to “think-into-being”)- with one of the strongest features being the proto-teacher role inside this IGLO (interaction generating learning object)that can field questions and “answer” back, as close as possible to a human teacher that interactively listens to the essence of what the students is asking (groping for, questiong for?).

      This “teacher” (a new role that is in fact generated by each individual interacting with the IGLO, linked to group interaction, etc.) will not provide any answers in the traditional manner, but help the participants in the conversation (this designed and ongoing narrative / a la Giddens)to reveal themselves to themselves: own observation of learning processes. This way the IGLO teacher can do “listening-as” since the participants will do the role-playing listening.

      In the case of Tim’s “In ‘listening as example’, design educators provide students with a model for the type of listener a designer they believe a designer should be” the participants will provide each other’s model of the type of listener they would wish for themselves!

      What I hope for is that Tim’s last point (“Simply ‘listening’ is the mode in which design educators remain sensitized to the potential for new ideas and inspirations”) will be the strongest feature of this IGLO teacher/educator/coach, for the links (entailment meshes) that can be produced during these interactions can let new ideas emerge, because everyone is “listening” to everyone else which will influence both the “practice” of this IGLO educator, and the developing awareness of new practice on the part of the participants.

      I agree with Tim that “This mode of listening is the least goal-oriented, task-specific or intentional, and is necessary for sustaining creative practice in education”

    • Tim Jachna says:

      The categories I propose correspond to listener-roles that I see design educators as taking. Any of these roles can be taken on shallowly or deeply, and can be a vantage for both giving help and doing harm. I would see “listening behind the words”, as you call it, as an aspect of the enlightened fulfillment of any of these roles.

  3. Michael Hohl says:

    Great and necessary enquiry. You enquire from the perspective of a design educator. I wonder if there is something specific about design education. How are design education situations different to other conventional models of teacher – learner situations? Are they different at all?
    How is learning a skill different to learning theoretical material? How do they mix? Theoretical knowledge is probably easier to ‘test’ then skill-based knowledge. I just learned, after years, that garlic burns easily and you never add it the same time as the onions, but 5 Minutes later. This is explicit knowledge now. What about the implicit?

    • Tim Jachna says:

      I think that a design student’s experience is special in that much of their work is project-based and much of their assessment is done on the basis of presentations rather than exams, which means they tend to be put in the position of being-listened-to much more extensively and explicitly than a typical university student.

      What I call “listening for” is a very conventional and generic listener role for educators across most if not all disciplines, “listening to” is a role that could be practiced in vestigial form in all discipline but would seem to be very central to the teaching of disciplines in which the production of novelty and the claiming of authorship (rather than, or in addition to, the learning of conventions) is expected.

      This of course sidesteps the question of why is it only in design and a handful of other study areas that novelty creation and authorship are acknowledged and nurtured. So in answer to your first question, I believe there are a number of ways in which conventional design teaching differs from conventional teaching in other disciplines, but this raises the question of whether they should be that different.

      Et cetera. These are my immediate thoughts. Thanks for bringing up the point and I’ll try to apply this question to interrogating the rest of my list and see what I can learn.

    • Tim Jachna says:

      Relative to the categories of teacher-listener roles, I don’t find a fundamental distinction between skills-learning and theory-learning. The baseline teacher-listener may “listen for” indications of whether the student has applied something “correctly” or “incorrectly” (appropriately/inappropriately, effectively/ineffectively, etc.), be it a skill or a theory. When one gets to the other types of listening in my list, the distinction between skills and theories that can be isolated and assessed does not seem cogent (or even practicable(?)).

      • Michael Hohl says:

        I think novelty and communication are key terms here. Theoretical knowledge is learned and answered ‘correctly’ but doesn’t necessarily have to be understood. In a test it can be easily assessed. In a design project it is different. You as a teacher will first ‘see’ something (novelty, skill & theory) in the project and then you listen. This listening will possibly tell you a different story of what you had seen. Perhaps you ‘read’ too much into it, that the learner herself never even thought of, or you learn of skill and intent that you couldn’t see before.
        I have two practical examples.
        When i finally met artists who’s work i admired i realised that i had done the work of interpretation and they had no clue what they were doing, except that they thought it was cool. In a photography exam i delivered two blurry photos but vindicated them with a written explanation for which i got top marks.

        • Tim Jachna says:

          in this sense we could use the words reading and listening to refer to two different ways of approaching a statement (broadly defined) made by another person.

          To read, in the sense that I understand from your statement above, is to applying a particular system of signification to process the statement and ‘produce’ meaning (the postmodern idea that meaning is negotiated by the reader of a text and not embedded in the text by the author)

          Listening, in the way that I understand it being valorized in this conference, relies on a conviction/suspicion/hope that it is possible and worthwhile to gain insight into the thoughts and values of an other by a certain type of attention to their statements.

          I am interested in the distinction that you bring up between the work itself and the justification/explanation of the work, and how so much of the assessment that is done in design has to do with a student’s skill in creative storytelling about the relationship between these two factors in his/her work.

          Reflecting on my own mental process in assessing student design work, I would say that it involves ‘reading’ the work, ‘listening’ to the student’s explanation of the work, and then it gets complicated. Like your example, I’ve seen student work that I have found very interesting, presented by a student who is unable to articulate its value (and vice versa, those who can weave an engaging story around work that I find uninteresting). Although it is not the only aspect of assessment, I find that an important factor in listening to a student is to gauge – not their work or their ability to articulate ideas – but their relation with their work.

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