The Matters team sat down with Teresa Brazen, Cooper Professional Education Director, to talk about CPE teaching practices, designers as coaches, and how trust has played a role in the learning cycle since CPE launched in 2001.
Matters: CPE talks about the “learning journey.” What does this mean?
Teresa Brazen: Our mental model, when working with clients, is that we are on a learning journey together — not just delivering a course. It’s easy to go into an organization and make superficial adjustments but leave the culture untouched. However, real change is hard and complex. We often pair our courses with coaching programs that can help cement real change over time. We may start with a couple of courses on service design and research and then guide participants as they go on to apply those methods to an in-house project.
Matters: What’s your approach to learning and teaching?
Brazen: We think learning should be highly engaging, push you, and be immediately applicable to your work. Our instructors are seasoned designers and pull from their vast experience working across industries. Their teaching methods include role play, improv, hands-on projects, discussion, and reflection.
Matters: What about students who don’t have a design background?
Brazen: With a little coaching, design is accessible to everyone. Frankly, it’s also helpful for designers if other parts of an organization can work creatively, too — it fosters stronger collaboration. A fundamental underpinning of our training is cultivating creativity. It’s a skillset and a tool that can help anyone, in any role. Our students who don’t have design backgrounds have vast knowledge and resources to draw from. They don’t need to be spoon-fed.
Matters: Do designers make good teachers?
Brazen: Yes! Designers are trained to be empathetic, so they make excellent teachers. In the classroom we are teachers first, design experts second. We give people just enough guidance to get started, and then we listen, observe and adapt. We draw on our expertise when it’s needed.
Matters: How do you get people out of a work mindset and into a more creative, learning one?
Brazen: For starters, we’re intentional about how we engage the senses. We believe learning is a full-body sport and agree with Diane Ackerman’s maxim that play is our brain’s favorite way to learn. We ask that people dive into a playful mindset which can sometimes feel foreign if they haven’t tapped into that part of themselves since childhood. With play, people risk trying new concepts; it’s a little clunky at first, but then they get a feel for it and they keep going. We also use strategies for managing energy and participation, knowing that there’s a natural arc of excitement and fatigue that comes with the territory.
Matters: Does trust play a part in CPE courses?
Brazen: Trust is everything. If we make it safe, the learning will follow. We’re laser-focused on creating an environment that encourages people to take risks and rely on each other, and trust the instructors. To accomplish this, we use activities that help people strengthen relationships. We also encourage people to prioritize learning over output — they’re not building journey maps to get them right — they’re building them to learn.
Matters: How do you develop your curriculum?
Brazen: Like any good design project, we start with research to define our course learning objectives. We’re constantly adapting and experimenting the curriculum. We’ve tested it, used it, and believe in it. It’s a guide to help our instructors create an excellent learning experience, and we encourage them to deviate and wander, depending on what the individual group needs.
Matters: How do you adapt your teaching to these widely differing groups?
Brazen: We assess what people understand when they walk in the door, and make real-time adjustments to our approach based on what’s happening in the classroom. We pay attention to the dynamics — we scope out the introverts, extroverts, and consensus-driven students — and adjust our strategies to enable change for that group. Our instructors never rest on what they know; they question, listen, explore, advance. Repeat.
Matters: Where does this process ultimately take people?
Brazen: Our instructors leverage a powerful learning cycle made of three parts: explain, immerse, and debrief. Here’s how it works: We find out what they already know, and then give them just enough background, context, and direction to get them started. Next, comes the immersion. We quickly engage them in an activity to try out a new concept or skill. This can take many forms — writing, making things, playing a game, or working with a partner. Here they create something meaningful they can reflect upon later. Finally, comes the debrief. This is where the magic happens. It’s the “Ah-ha!” of learning. They reflect on the immersion experience they just had, extract key insights, and think through how to apply that wisdom to their own work. We emphasize the debrief because it’s the most critical part of making learning stick.
Matters: So the coaches are guiding them, via reflection, to new conclusions?
Brazen: Exactly. We trust the process of leading a group to new discoveries and foster an environment that’s tolerant and driven by reflection. We help learners focus on learning, not getting it “right.” We celebrate ideas, risks, experiments…and we also celebrate dead ends! The trip down those paths is just as important as the ones that yield “results.” Design principles and practices help them rethink what, how, and why they can have a lasting impact. It’s why we do what we do.
Teresa Brazen is the Managing Director of Cooper Professional Education.