“I wanted my students to follow a very strict design process. I ended up having a lot of unhappy students at that time because they wanted to have their own vision and identity and not mine. Hence, I started to revise and reconsider my procedures. I think one of the most important things is the ability to let go and trust the students within a particular context“.
Theme Lead Interactive Materiality, Future Everyday Group, Industrial Design at TU/e
What is CBL and why is it hard to implement? Miguel is one of the first people to get in touch with challenged-based learning and he has been working on it since it was created. Read the full interview here.
Key words: students, CBL, teachers, project, coach, design, program director, learn, experts, expertise, create, competence, research, teaching
Interviewer: Chiara Treglia
Chiara: Today, we are talking to Miguel about his CBL journey. So, Miguel, could you tell me a little bit about your background?
Miguel: I am both Dutch and Spanish. And I think intercultural reading helps me in being open to different perspectives, having different attitudes and mindsets. I studied Industrial Design Engineering in Delft. At first, it was a very traditional classic Mechanical Engineering program. However, I moved on towards more design-oriented and human-computer interaction types of research, focusing more on interaction design. Then I did my PhD in Delft, too, and was very much involved in already working with, for example, Caroline Hummels, on developing new courses that were much more hands-on, exploratory and bit future-driven. So, the projects that I was working on in my final master’s were related to concepts that only came to the market 10 or 15 years later. We were already looking into the future and trying to create and prototype what the future would look like. Then I did my PhD, following some of the initial ideas that I had in my Master’s. After my PhD, I moved to Eindhoven. I have also spent a couple of months at Stanford University, at the Center for Design Research. I had a look at the d.school, as well as worked together with people that were at the cross-section of robotics, a medical hospital in Stanford and design. It was an interdisciplinary area that we were working on. We worked with the robots of the future, basically. After Stanford, I came back to the Netherlands. I got a position in Eindhoven, first as a teacher. Karolina Moss was the program director at the time, and I remember it was a rather forward-driven program based on competence, centred and self-directed learning. Thus, I started helping and teaching all sorts of. Then, I got involved in all sorts of activities related to how the university would grow towards future students, and different mindsets. While building up my research line, I was suddenly asked to become a program director. I was the program director for the first five years. Then, I stopped for three years and went to Denmark to build up my research in the meantime. I was then program director again during the COVID pandemic. So, I spent another two years being the program director. Together with Isabelle and Rick de Lange we started innovation Space. I have always been trying to explore and experiment with giving responsibility to students. I think that that was the most interesting thing that caught my attention. With my first group of students, I was very strict, coming from a dark background in Delft, where studies were very methodological. I wanted my students to follow a very strict design process. I ended up having a lot of unhappy students at that time because they wanted to have their own vision and identity and not mine. Hence, I started to revise and reconsider my procedures. I think one of the most important things is the ability to let go and trust the students within a particular context. I wanted my students to realize that they are not here for me or for us as teachers, but they are here for themselves. As soon as they realize that a mind shift occurs that I think is required for self-directed or challenge-based learning. So, I personally have an aversion towards students that asked me what they need to do to pass the course.
Chiara: Okay, right. Interesting. Especially the last part when you mentioned your first experiences teaching and being perhaps a bit strict, and then realizing that the students had their own identities. It is very essential, and very inspiring. I think it is something that other teachers, who are transitioning towards CBL, also experience: the letting go process. Do you have any advice?
Miguel: In the discussions that I am having with other teachers, the toughest thing is letting go, I think. Yeah. It’s, it’s not my responsibility. My responsibility is to support students in achieving their ambitions to the best of my capabilities. However, if students do not have any ambitions, I do not need to support them. That is how I feel about this. If a student does not have ambitions and fails a course, it is not my responsibility. I think many young staff members want to get the students through the learning process as good as possible and help them eventually passing the course. I think that is something that I already was able to let go at some point as I did not care about students not passing. I cared about students that wanted to learn. Sometimes, one gets accused of being elitist perhaps by approaching teaching in this way. The students that I coach I always try to coach to do the best as possible, but because they want to learn. One could say that they then become sort of an elite, but not because of having more money, but because they have different perspective, and they want to learn. Then, I will support them to the best of my abilities to learn. But I am not going to support them to pass.
Chiara: I understand. The bar is a little bit higher than just passing the course. You mentioned a bit about coaching, maybe you can tell me a little bit about it.
Miguel: One of the big mind shifts of one’s attitude is to be able to let go of your role as an expert. The pyramid of knowledge is turned around. Our expertise is limited. I do not claim to know everything about everything within my research domain. My expertise is on helping or coaching to being open and having an attitude of combining ideas and thoughts and everything that I hear. I listen very carefully to what everybody has to say. And then, in my mind, I start designing and creating and offering opportunities. The same procedure goes for coaching. We need to listen to what a student wants to learn and achieve. I am then connecting that to what I know, which can be very superficial. Then, I am trying to inspire the students to dive deeper into that topic, and through the process of the students diving deeper into topic learning about the topic myself. So, it is not about me telling everything what I know to a student. It is in this dialogue that I have with a student where I try to help the student in making connections that they did not foresee, and in trying to get them to dive deeper to become an expert in a particular domain. They also help me learn about the things that they are developing, too. I think the key strength is in the ability to look beyond your own disciplinary borders even though it is going to be on a very shallow level, it inspires the students to dive deeper into these things. In the end, they need to become the experts in a particular area, not us as teachers.
Chiara: And how much would you say that you learn from your students?
Miguel: I mean, they are the ones that are doing the work, essentially. I am just listening and helping them to learn. However, students are the ones doing the research and contributing the world.
Chiara: This is also a big shift, right? There is a change in the power dynamic between a teacher and a student. Traditionally, there is one direction from the teacher to the students. What you are saying now is that we are making it teachers versus students more or less at the same level of listening and learning from you. Wonderful. You gave me some very interesting anchors that I think constitutes the CBL mindset so the self-directedness, and this sort of different relationship between the students and the teachers as their coaches. I am curious, when did you learn about CBL as an educational concept and how did you go about it?
Miguel: Well, the term CBL was coined four or five years ago. So, that is when I learned about CBL. However, CBL has been in the way that I work for over 15 years. As a designer and an educational researcher, this concept was nothing new to me. It is just a label that people gave to something that I have been doing for more than 15 years perhaps.
Chiara: Right. Did the arrival of this label make your life easier, and have there been any changes at all?
Miguel: Now everybody wants to do CBL. It is just a label that people give to something that they try to explain. It is like design thinking.
Chiara: And yet CBL is now part of the TU/e vision, right?
Miguel: That makes it somehow easier, but then, others claim it as being theirs. However, it is not something that you can claim. It is a concept, a way of working, and an attitude that is rooted into people.
Chiara: I hear you saying that the arrival of this label has made things actually more complicated because people tend to appropriate, so then they claim it as a thing.
Miguel: Yes. Now there is also the CBL compass for organizing the education system in a certain way. Some people do not need labels to organize their teaching, in my opinion.
Chiara: I understand that this is obviously very applicable to you, because, indeed, you have been busy with CBL even before it became a buzzword. What would you say about the ways of approaching this concept?
Miguel: As somebody who has been teaching in this area, I suddenly became an expert, and everybody wants to know everything and how you do it. But, as I said, I learned this in around 27 years, I will not be able to teach you in six months how to do this properly.
Chiara: There is maybe some frustration as people would like to have a quick solution. They think that they can make their own CBL courses now that they have your decades-worth knowledge.
Miguel: And who is going to pay those 27 years? There was this very nice quote on LinkedIn the other day that goes something like: “You are not paying me for the half hour that it takes me to do the job. You are paying me for the 15 years that it took me to learn how to do this job in 30 minutes.”
Chiara: How do you see the role of innovation Space as maybe the expertise center that can help these teachers approach this educational concept?
Miguel: I see it more as a coaching role. It is practice what you preach. The way I envisioned innovation Space, when we conceived it, was creating a center with experts that are running CBL education in innovation. Then, if teachers want to learn how to develop CBL, they come, look, and participate. They are not going to come and teach their course; they are going to do it together with the experts. I am not interested in joining your course, to become the CBL expert. It is something like designing the shape of your car at the end of the design process. Instead, I want to be involved in this design process from the very start and shape it together with you. So, you can learn from me, but I can also develop and contribute my expertise to the design of the car. It is something you do as a designer, right? The designer is not somebody that gets all the technology, and then gives it a nice color. I know I want to be involved from the conception to the color because it is also my work that is going into the design. Also, by doing it together with me, you are going to learn.
Chiara: It is also a matter of ownership. And what are you saying is that the teachers who want to be part of this letting go, they should come to innovation Space and work with CBL experts through being open and offering to be involved from the beginning—to really be part of that co-creation.
Miguel: You cannot make physics CBL, right? Of course not. We can start from developing a new course, if I am interested in it, and together, we make it a new CBL course. CBL is not a flavor or color that one gives to their course.
Miguel: I was always very adamant on making sure that innovation Space represented all departments and had the ambassadors, those already doing CBL, and their programs involved. Through that interaction, one can start conceiving new ideas. Then, teachers see which courses work and which not, which inspires them to work with others on creating new courses or changing the existing ones. The process is not supposed to be teachers asking: “Can you just tell me how to do it?”.
Chiara: Okay. Clear. I have a few more questions. Where have you seen, if at all, the bottlenecks of the CBL approach?
Miguel: The main bottleneck is the teacher; the ability of the teacher to let go. Another bottleneck is that you cannot do a CBL course, but a CBL curriculum. That is what I have experienced in Industrial Design. The moment we started to teach the basic courses CBL was killed. By the basic courses I mean Physics, Calculus, and others. Thus, CBL needs to be a full-blown concept that cuts across the whole curriculum. However, I am not opposed to the basic courses, I think they are very important. But the way that these courses were taught, from a very directive point of view of students just having to pass the courses to continue their studies, is what I do not like. From my experience, I had second-year students facing a complex mathematical problem that they need to address to solve their design. Although they have passes calculus, they did not know how to solve it because they forgot everything. I have talked to a lot of teachers of these courses, and some of them understood this idea of not just teaching Calculus, but about teaching students that mathematics is important for them as a skill or as a competence before becoming an engineer. Students are going to need those skills.
Chiara: Alright, so, there are two bottlenecks. One is in the inability of the teachers to let go and the other is that CBL is not used as curriculum philosophy.
Miguel: I always say: you need to start with CBL from day one. I always get complaints from students and teachers who say that a first-year student does not have a vision. Well, no, of course not. That is not the intention of a first-year student. But, if I do not ask them from day one to develop a vision, they will not have a vision in year three either, because they are going to start thinking about it in year three only.
Chiara: Exactly. We go back to the sense of responsibility and that it is okay that you may not be equipped right now and have not fully developed capabilities and competencies. But now, you are responsible for your work. I have one more question for you: What would be your best advice for the TU/e as we are in this sort of transition? What kind of milestones do we need to put in place in order that we do this transition right?
Miguel: Value your ambassadors and do not overload them. Do not define CBL as a concept, but as a philosophy. Lastly, trust your students, and let go.
Chiara: Okay, thank you Miguel.