The Responsive Teaching Method

The Web Design is dynamic by nature and explaining it to someone that is just starting can be a daunting task. But this doesn't need to be slow and boring as any other old school class would be.

Much like the web itself, the process of explaining it keeps getting more and more complex everyday. It's becoming almost impossible to keep teaching such a dynamic topic in the slow pace universities have worked for centuries. Most academic structures are not prepared such a fast pace of change.

This post describes my thoughts and techniques on how to teach the web and how loving what you do plays a crucial role in learning.

Past: 4 Lessons, 4 Influencers

My journey to become a teacher started long before I realised it. Both my parents are teachers and there's a large number of educators in my whole family. So I decided to go back on this journey of self-discovery, looking back at my own academic life and trying to find my own influencers. The ones that might have had this responsive teaching notion that I'm about to tell you about. Much like them I try to make every single classroom experience as life-changing as possible.

Influence 1: Self-respect

The first major influencer in my academic life was my primary school teacher. A lovely person. Very good dealing with kids.

I was quite short from first to fourth grade. Always being picked last for the soccer teams. But in the classroom I was actually one of the best students, so my teacher was quite fond of me. And every time she would return me a written test with a good mark she would always tell me the same sentence: one should not measure a man in palms. Even at the time this was a clear message for a kid like me: there's no point in comparing ourselves with others. Instead we should take the time to look at what we do and to find out what makes us unique.

Influence 2: Perfection

A few years later while in middle school, I had an Art's and Crafts class in which I had a teacher which most kids wasn’t very fond of because he very demanding to them. Every little art work we did in his class had to be perfect!

I remember to work very hard in every class, trying to beat the work everyone else was doing. But most important, trying to do better than what I did in my previous project. Trying to make it perfect! Somehow, this man alone taught one of the most imposing lessons of my entire career: the meaning of perfection. One of my main motivators to keep on doing what I do. Be it web design or teaching, is to do it perfectly! Never satisfied. Always learning and growing.

Influence 3: Self-discipline and self-awareness

My last year in high school I started attending these martial arts classes of something called Ninjutsu. It consists of espionage and assassination techniques taught to only certain Samurai warriors back in feudal Japan: the Ninjas. Nowadays it’s mostly applied as techniques of self-defence.

My instructor wasn't the kind of person to let us get away without hard work. And every time someone wasn't training with body and soul he would stop the class to explain the meaning of a dojo. Why it was so damn important to commit yourself into something in order to do it right and to not hurt anyone. A Dojo is about self-discipline and self-awareness. We're like a big family.

Kamidana shrine at a Bujustu/Ninjutsu Dojo
Kamidana shrine at a Bujustu/Ninjutsu Dojo

That was 10 years ago. Last year I've been graduated a black belt. Upon presenting me with my new belt our Grandmaster said to me: This is just the beginning. Now you're really getting started!. I try to remember that everyday in order to allow myself to keep growing and keep learning.

Influence 4: Passion

Later on, when I went to college and I ended up meeting another great influencer: my drawing teacher.

He used to sat us down on these little wooden benches at the beginning of the class. With everyone still woozy with sleep, he would talk about Descartes and about the breakthroughs in Neuroscience regarding the concept of emotional intelligence. Most students didn't really care about what this old man was babbling about, because it certainly wasn't about drawing itself. It was about every other lesson I had learned all together. Belief, perfectionism and discipline.

Being good at what you do, doing it with great care and detail and committing to it. It was about Passion! And that was it! Every other great lesson I had collected was summed in a great sense of passion for what you do.

Present: The Golden Coconut Award


In 2010 I went on a trip to Austria where I got to meet professor Maja Pivec who is a Ph.D of Game Based Learning at the University in Graz. She has a very successful theory on Game Based Learning that gets together a series of gamification techniques.

But the key aspect of her technique was the big prize: the Golden Pineapple Award. And she would literally go out and buy a pineapple, spray paint it in gold and schedule an award ceremony to elect the winning team.

The Golden Coconut Award

Intro video of The Golden Coconut Award ceremony
Intro video of The Golden Coconut Award ceremony

When I approached my students the next year I told them I had two options for them. Either we could go on with the usual lectures on interface design and development or we could try something entirely different! That different thing involved lots of hard work, hardly any lectures and a Golden Coconut at the end. They understood the challenge but they all said yes to it. And so I had the rules printed on this huge poster for everyone to see and remember.

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Usually these were the kind of students that just sit down, absorb and go home. Not wanting to search further. However, the fact that they were in control led to something wonderful. I found myself with highly motivated students who were eager to learn, asked lots of questions and were designing 5 great apps! All of this was almost impossible to achieve in any other classroom format.

Award ceremony

Winning team back in 2011
Winning team back in 2011

And then the final day arrived. Nine months wen’t by and through that time lot’s of cool things happened. They had all worked in a very informal mood, wen’t on a field trip to a web startup and had several visits from renowned professionals in type design, business strategy and project management just to name a few. I was oh so proud of them!

During that time I had changed mentalities at the school. I had change the student’s way of thinking of design. But they had done the hard part. They had built something from scratch, as a team, in very little time. Learning everything by themselves.

Future: What is Responsive Teaching?

So what worked so well?

Gamification alone doesn't transform lazy students into motivated designers. But it does help to get you started! And some other aspects did to.

TGCA Gamification rules
TGCA Gamification rules

The fact that the students are organised in teams and not groups helps a lot. Because a team has a team name and a team flag. There are things you need to respect and care about. It also has a team leader. Someone that you should pay attention to besides the teacher, which was something that helped my job a lot. And everyone in the team has very specific roles such as designer, developer or project manager.

Apply this model with strict participation and penalty rules, a detailed schedule on the wall and a cool reward system and you might just be heading towards a different classroom.

We’ve been repeating this plan for 2 years now and the results have been wonderful. Over 90% of the students become highly involved, wanting to know more and truly commit themselves into what they do. Has I said that's highly unlike to happen in another boring kind of lecture.

We need to act right now!

You and I both know how hard it is to make a good website. How many aspects there is to it. How hard it is to make it look good, be readable, be usable, load fast, degrade gracefully and adapt to mobile devices. But how can you make a student care about all of these things when they still don’t even know how to code or to design simple button.

It is only through passion that you can make a student to want to learn all of these things sooner or later. Only when you care enough about something will you take the time to learn a topic in such depth.

If you’re not familiar with the words of Sir Ken Robinson I advise you to listen to one of his talks. I've been deeply influenced by his speech on how education is levelling everyone to the same canons and how we should allow students to find their own paths in order to succeed.

Web Design Classes

It’s very complicated to teach how float: left works yet alone the ethics of what we do. But it was The Standardistas who said on the first edition of The Manual that “to grow as a discipline and as individual designers, we need to devote ourselves not just to the art of making, but also to the art of thinking”.

The Standardistas Awesome Workshop at ESAD
The Standardistas Awesome Workshop at ESAD

Web Design classes need to become more like a lab. Where through experiments you reach results and learn for yourself how things work. You cannot expect to be able to keep teaching such a dynamic topic by using old evaluation and old teaching methods. There’s so much to be put into a web project that one cannot teach everything a student must learn to be prepared for the real world. To be recognised by his peers and his employers as a true web professional.

Only through an adaptative and responsive methodology will we be able to quickly teach students what they need to learn to excel at designing and developing web projects. By allowing students to learn instead of teaching them. By mixing inputs from other design branches and from other areas of thinking. By letting them fall in love for the web as we did! That way we might just be able to push the web into a higher state as discipline, allowing us to endure some of the ethical issues our profession goes through everyday.

No industry can sustain itself if it doesn’t master the art of cultivating new talent
Aarron Walter (A List Apart: Brighter Horizons for Web Education)