3. Principles behind Employment by Design

There are a number of important teaching principles behind the Employment by Design process and many of these you might not be familiar with. Some of them may even seem quite difficult 

Design based learning

Employability by Design is a very specific mode of teaching and It relies on problem-based and constructivist learning methods. It is not a didactic teaching method and, unlike some other subjects, it does not (and should never have) have specific predefined learning outcomes. 

The intention is to:

  • switch the focus of the ‘class’ from teaching to learning,
  • use real problems that do not have simple solutions or single answers

This can be difficult if you are used to didactic teaching approaches or subjects. As teachers we are very often put in positions of authority and are expected to ‘know’ all the answers. But real problems are rarely perfect and how people respond to these is a key aspect of employability – it’s not only about what you know; it’s how you go about knowing. 

It can take a bit of time to get used to this approach so here are some top tips to get started:

Teachers should coach, not teach: the focus should always be on student-led inquiry, hence the teacher should rarely give an ‘answer’. Instead, the activity of the teacher is on helping students develop their own inquiry and knowledge. Be a supportive colleague rather than an authoritative figure – feel free to engage in their inquiry with them! Remind yourself (and show them) what it’s like to be a curious student once again!

Real problems are complex, not simple: there are no perfect problems like those that exist in exercise books. Real problems are messy, tangled, hard to understand and are rarely understood by the people who even claim to have the problem! The exploration and discovery of problems is important.

There are no solutions to some problems: following on from the above point, many problems have no perfect solutions at all and the only thing we can do is try to find the best solution. Encourage students to take this approach – to try several ‘solutions’ to find out what ‘best’ means!

Every solution is a problem: Very often we think we have solved a problem only to create another and the world is littered with ‘solutions’ that have not been considered fully. Challenge your students not to accept their ‘solutions’ and provoke them to consider the impacts of their ideas. 

Design is practical knowledge. Designers ‘think with their hands’ and the knowledge that they produce is no less valid than the knowledge produced by writing. But, like writing, developing the ability takes time and practise. So let students practise making and try to find as many different ways to draw out the knowledge they are creating with their hands..

If you want to learn more about the ideas and theory behind these there are resources at the end. But the best way to find out more is by giving it a try and learning from what you do. That’s constructivist learning!


It is just as important to act on what you learn. You can only really find out what changes work by trying them and this is especially true for the Employability by Design method.  

The basic cycle is:

Do something > get feedback > reflect > make changes > repeat

This cycle can also be applied at different scales. You can do this with the overall method (what big changes would you make? E.g. Hold the event in the morning and afternoon with a lunch break). You can do it with individual recipes (what medium changes would you make? E.g. Change a presentation to make the instructions clearer?). And you can do it with steps within a recipe (what small changes would you make? E.g.?).

But most importantly, you do not need to wait to make changes! If something isn’t working during a workshop then change it. The Employment by Design method, like the real problems it is intended to work on, is not a perfect solution and it needs to be changed to suit whatever conditions you find. 

This is where having a team teaching approach can also help and by asking ‘how do we think it’s going?’ regularly, you will start to reflect and iterate as a team.

Learning through failure

There is a key condition to the iteration cycle - it works best when something doesn’t work!

We learn most from failure because in order to respond to failure we have to change what we did that caused the failure. This means we have to try to understand what happened and how it could be different next time (and hopefully better).

This basic mechanism is central to design where ‘failure’ is not a negative thing: it is a way of making progress towards a goal by avoiding the things that definitely do not work.

Taking a similar approach to learning means allowing students to fail in order that they can recognise the failure and then change what they do the next time. This mechanism works well with problem-based learning where there are no solutions, only responses. Using design in teaching we want to encourage students to engage in better responses to problems.

So encourage and allow failure: encourage student to try things out and be ready for failure. When failure occurs, reinforce the fact that a failure is a piece of knowledge of what to avoid and that’s not really failure!


Making a workshop like Employment by Design work is difficult. There are many small details and apparently insignificant behaviours that can affect it. Having good (active and continuous) facilitation during the workshop is absolutely critical because you simply cannot predict everything that will happen and plan for it. 

Good facilitators will:

  • Constantly scan the room assessing the general atmosphere and energy in the room as well as looking for small problems and issues. 

  • Interrupting tables where necessary to clarify instructions, rebalance groups, or to push students even further when they think they have ‘finished’.

  • Monitor time and instructions 

  • Look out for imbalance in groups and change members if they become dominant or quite

And remember, with a team teaching approach, you can take turns to watch the room or divide your work by groups, or simply have an organic approach. But, like good teachers everywhere, you will always be looking out for opportunities to facilitate learning!

Last modified: Wednesday, 26 Feb 2020, 14:15