In 2010 I received an award for teaching excellence from my university, nominated by students for the second year running which is (it goes without saying but I'll say it anyway) quite an honour. Anyway, I was asked to give a short presentation to colleagues on my "teaching philosophy" which caused me a few problems! I thought I'd post the presentation and some thoughts ...
I hate getting my hair cut. I don't know why, I just do. It could be the whole trying to articulate what it is you want. When I used to go to a barber I discovered I could simply say "Number two round the back and sides, nice and short on top" and have done. Nowadays I go to a salon which is about five times more expensive but I don't think I'm being judged quite so much by all the other blokes sitting around talking about football and cars.
One of the drawbacks of going to a salon is that I have to say what I want in more interesting language, usually involving the word "choppy". I have no idea what it means in the context of hair but it sounds like I know what I'm talking about which, when you're a novice in a world of experts, is quite important I think. I'll come back to that later but for now, the main reason I'm starting with this particular metaphor is that I'm not the chattiest of customers.
When I used to go to barbers they would never talk to me. Perhaps I sent out clear signals that if asked if I'd seen the Arsenal match the night before I'd not have a clue what they were talking about, so they just saw me as a quick way to make a tenner without having to exercise their mouth. (Just realised that could be read in diffferent ways, oh well that's your mind coming up with your own metaphors now. How rude.)
But a salon is a different place. They want you to come back. They're trained to put you at your ease. They talk to you about stuff (and have a remarkable memory for what you told them last time). I'm getting better at it, but I've come to realise that one of the reasons I go to a salon rather than a barber is because if I go to the same place and get the same stylist then because they remember what I said last time I only get asked my least favourite question once.
"So what do you do?"
I hate that question. It's not because I don't know what I do, it's because it's very difficult to explain in a word. Sum it up as "I teach" and you're not really doing it justice. It's a huge source of frustration to me and many colleagues in HE that the act of "teaching" is so misunderstood. The belief that we just give lectures, or that "contact time" is the measure of quality, or that we're "out of touch" with "the real world". Actually don't get me started on the whole real world thing. Why is someone who works in advertising said to be living in "the real world" while someone working in academia isn't? Or someone researching a cure for cancer? Doesn't make sense.
Anyway, let's put it like this. I could say "I teach students, I counsel them, ensure they're fit and healthy and are getting help if they need it, I listen to their problems, I advise them, I sit on committees, I manage other people, I juggle finances, I hold the fate of several hundred people in my hands, I travel the country and occassionally the world, I advise politicians, I work with industry, I write new courses, I assess existing ones, I occasionally have time for a cup of soup at lunchtime and if I'm lucky I go home early so I can sit at home and carry on doing it, into the wee small hours and over the weekend in return for which I get to wear pretty much what I like, get a few extra days' holiday if I get the time to take them, and if I'd had the good sense to have been born 20 years earlier would be in a job for life I could retire from early on a big pension, but I didn't so I don't."
So really, it makes more sense just to say I teach. That way I still get my hair cut.
If I make the mistake of saying what I teach, well I might as well grab the scissors and do it myself because "design" is universally misunderstood. "Oh I wanted to be a designer" is a common reply but that's okay. "My ten year old brother does that" is slightly less acceptable. "Is that where you make stuff all day?" they might say, confusing me with their school Craft, Technology and Design teacher (or whatever they're called now) who looked after all the thick kids who couldn't quite manage the complexities of more demanding subjects such as, well, anything.
I got out of design partly because I was fed up with the fact anyone I worked for thought they were the actual designer and I just controlled a mouse. Little did I know I was swapping that particular profession for the only other one that everybody thinks they can do as well, if not better than, the experts.
All of which probably combines to convince you that I really don't like teaching, that I find it enormously stressful, and am just one big cynic about both my profession (education) and my subject (design). Well, some days, yes that's true. But we all have days like that (or months, sometimes).
Truth is, there are times when something happens to make you remember why you do it. And it's actually not the profession or the subject which I'm frustrated with, but the things that get in the way - the politics, the lack of vision, the reluctance to change, the limited view of students, the protectionism... it's only a minority but the problem with the moaners is they get you down and they never shut up. And then one day you wake up and realise you're starting to moan yourself - just like I've been doing now!
You have to have a sense of irony in this business otherwise... there's nothing.
I've been teaching design for around ten years now, and I came into it via a route that was rather different from most other people I know. For one thing, I didn't go to art school so I never went through the same education as my peers. For another thing, as I'll mention later, I didn't go to university in the conventional sense. So I arrived in design education without any of the tradition of "art school", or indeed of full-time educational institutions.
I think, in many ways, that has been a huge advantage. My first day of teaching involved me helping to assess work from the previous year. My new colleagues explained to me how they did it: they found a piece they thought was an A and put it at one end of the room. Then they found something they thought was a fail, and put it at the other. Then they arranged all the others in some sort of order. To them, this was logical. It was the way they'd been assessed around 20 years earlier. To me it was... well, a little strange. I had no teaching qualification at that point (in fact, when I asked for staff development to get one, everyone thought I was mad), hadn't encountered concepts such as learning outcomes or assessment criteria, but I knew somehow that this was wrong. It was my first experience of how not having gone through a traditional art school education meant I wasn't trapped by tradition, but I also learned very quickly that questioning tradition would get me in to a lot of trouble.
Education, and design education in particular, is very proud of its tradition but very bad at being able to see what is really a bad habit.
Within about a year I'd somehow been promoted from green-around-the-gills lecturer to programme leader of a National Diploma, HND and a BA programme all at the same time and quickly set about making some changes to the way they were organised and run.
I realised recently that I don't see myself as delivering a "thing". "Design education" is seen as an entity that exists and is delivered, pretty much the same way it's been delivered for decades. There are certain things that have to be covered, and certain ways in which they are done. After all, it worked for the people who are teaching, so it must work for everyone.
What's odd about this is that one of the models of design education frequently cited is The Bauhaus. I still see the famous Bauhaus model in its circular graphical representation brought out at conferences and in proposals for new courses, or explanations of existing ones. And I find it rather ironic.
The Bauhaus was established on a principle of revolution. The first aim of those who set it up was to throw away everything that had been done before. They were fed up with the decades-old (actually centuries-old) model of art education that had somehow been adopted by craft and design and decided to start again. Everything went, and in its place came a philosophy that at the time was rather radical.
Today it's nearly 100 years old. It's not radical. It hasn't grown. It certainly hasn't accomodated new disciplines or practices. To take just one example: Trying to get computer-aided design or new ways of visualisation into the Bauhaus model is impossible because the only way to do so is change the model, and no one wants to do that. So what changes is what's being taught - students are told to fill their sketchbook before they touch a computer, because that's how we were taught, and how we might approach this "new" technology - which completely ignores the way that people who've grown up with these things use them (look at this YouTube video of a 2-year-old using an iPad for the first time http://tinyurl.com/yznfqco). Design education is still obsessed with "drawing" when designers actually "visualise" - the two are very different, but you'll have to look far and wide to find anyone teaching design who's prepared to stop life drawing classes and focus on something a bit more modern. I realised a long time ago that I sketch on computers. Occasionally I go away and draw a layout, but most of the time I use the screen as my sketchpad. Quite what drawing naked women has to do with that, I don't know. But suggest to some people that design students don't need to spend hundreds of hours drawing people in strange poses and you'd think you'd insulted their mother or something. It's odd. We have our sacred cows. And yet this is supposed to be a "creative discipline". Drawing someone is not creative if the ultimate aim is to understand them. And design is about the latter, not the former.
If the people who established The Bauhaus came back today and saw hundreds, if not thousands, of little Bauhauses all over the world they wouldn't be honoured, they'd be appalled. Because the spirit of constant revolution, of constant self-interrogation, of taking things apart and rebuilding them, died the moment the Bauhaus model was created.
The approach designers should be taking towards design education is not one based on replicating and preserving a tradition, but of innovation, experimentation, or risk-taking. Curiously these are the very principles we claim lie at the heart of the design process itself. Yet we don't practice them. We shouldn't be delivering a design education, we should be designing a learning experience. One that is flexible enough to suit the many different approaches students will take not just on our courses but throughout their lives.
And the first thing that has to happen in that design process is to understand how people learn.
This is a map. Of course it looks like a constellation but what it really is is a map of how I see something that in reality is extremely complex - pretty much how we look up at the universe around us and let our brains make pictures to help us make sense of it.
In fact the map is how I saw Dundee a few weeks after I moved to the city to work at the university. I was fortunate enough to have about ten days to explore my new home before having to start work but in all that time I generally wandered between home and town, and the station to go to Edinburgh (my first time). The airport I sort of knew where it was as I'd flown in and had journeyed by taxi to my new flat. In my first week or so I was invited to a colleague's house for dinner and that got added.
I also visited an industrial estate to buy a new bike and that's not on this map because even though I walked there I honestly couldn't say where it was (and a few weeks later I walked in what I thought was the opposite direction and suddenly found myself in the same place...)
My point is that if you ask anyone to draw you a map of their environment, they'll give you something fairly basic with the landmarks being the places they go most frequently, and the routes as simple as possible.
This is everything else. Dundee - or most of it. It is far more complex than anyone who lives there could even know - even those whose jobs depend on them knowing where everything is. For example a taxi driver may know the location of each and every street, but does he or she know what goes on their? Do they have to? (Interestingly, this taxi driver skill is often referred to as "the knowledge", certainly in London where a cab driver's license is only granted after being able to demonstrate an intimate understanding of the connections between each and every street in the vast city).
So what's my point? Why am I showing you this?
Because a mental map is a good way of understanding how people learn, while a satellite-based map is a good example of how much of our approach to education thinks people learn.
Imagine we were running a course on Dundee. It would start at some arbitrary point, let's say the top left corner, and explore that area in depth. You'd find out everything there was to know about that particular sector of Dundee and, when you'd demonstrated you'd learnt it, you could move on to the next sector.
Now that's very thorough. It makes sure nothing is missed out. But imagine if you look down a road and say "what's over there?" Under this approach, the teacher would say "you'll find out one day".
What if you wanted to get from the top left hand corner to the railway station and then across the Tay to Fife? Under this approach you wouldn't be able to do that until the very end of the course, when you wander in to the bottom right hand side of the map.
And what if you were in a sector of the map that wasn't particularly relevant to where you ultimately wanted to be? Or had forced you to stop looking at the area you were in just now? Tough luck. We have a plan. We call it a curriculum, a body of knowledge.
Those of you who know Dundee will know that it's built around two long-extinct volcanoes, the "plugs" of which form two large hills. The largest of these is known as Dundee Law. It took me nearly a year before I finally got around to climbing it and I'm glad I did because I was able to see Dundee and everything surrounding it, north towards the Cairngorms, west towards Perth and Glasgow, east out to sea, and south across the bridge to Fife. I took lots of photos, this one included, and stared for an hour or more. I could see abandoned mills that I'd only heard about, and see where they were in context to everything else I knew. The industrial and social history of the city suddenly meant so much more and some of the things I'd walked past but never really noticed, began to make a lot more sense. I could see how the two bridges to Fife, the rail bridge and the much more recent road bridge, were more than just marvels of engineering but fundamental shifts in the way the people, the region and even the country operated. And I could see a small village over on the far left, on the corner of Fife, that I thought looked like a nice place to live. So I moved there.
This is how I see education. Get to the top of the hill, take a look around, see how everything relates, then head towards what interests you the most.
The way we teach now (and I'm talking mostly about design education but others may see this reflected in their own disciplines) is like a paint by numbers set. If you've ever done one of these as a child you will remember the process. You take paint pot number 1 and fill in any space with a 1 inside it. Then you do 2. Then 3. And so on. You have to be really careful not to go over the lines. 1 and 6 should never mix, for example. And you have to let each bit dry, and wash your brush thoroughly, before going from one colour to another.
At the end you've got a wonderful picture, it makes you feel almost like a real artist! But what have you learned? Nothing. Could you go away and paint your own picture without all the numbers and lines? No. Could you work out how light and shadow operate? What about perspective? Could you explain why the woman is smaller than the man, or the curtains so big? No.
You've completed the picture, but you've not learnt how to paint. It's a literal waste of time, something to keep you occupied at the time but it won't occupy you for much longer after that.
This was a much more interesting way of learning to paint. Any kid who grew up in Britain in the late 60s/early 70s would have seen Rolf Harris doing his famous large-scale portraits with his decorator's brushes and pots of paint while singing away and talking to the crowd. The fun for the audience was trying to guess what the painting would be ("can you tell what it is yet?") and there always seemed to be a magical moment where a seemingly random hotchpotch of colours and shapes would, with the addition of one or two lines or highlights, transform in to something instantly recognisable.
This was painting as fun, and I learnt far more about the process of painting watching Rolf Harris than I ever did doing a paint by numbers kit. This is learning as "see what happens", "try it out", "give it a go", "zoom in", "zoom out", "come back to that bit later", "ooh that wasn't quite right", "ah now it makes sense".
So let me try to explain how all this makes up an approach to teaching. And I'm going to describe something I think is the biggest crime of the university education system: the concept of an "undergraduate" curriculum.
We all teach "subjects" and these exist within something called "a field". So imagine your subject as a physical field, with your students placed in the middle of it. Their job is to spend four years grazing in that field until they've covered every square inch of it.
When the lecturers aren't in the field with the students they are, in theory, out somewhere else developing new knowledge. The field - the subject - is in fact growing, but the bit the sheep are allowed to feast on is the same one their pedecessors were in. They may, if they're lucky, get a glimpse at those other areas, but chances are they'll remain completely oblivious to what it is their lecturers are getting up to when they're not actually in plain sight.
Employers often talk about graduates lacking "experience" which is pretty silly. Of course they do. They're graduates, not 20-year veterans of the sector. What they really mean is lack of "knowledge" and as I'll point out later, that's not lack of knowledge of how to do things, but of things' existence. I remember asking students if they knew who the candidates were in the US presidential election. Very few did. Some didn't even know there was an election. Now of course, I wasn't teaching a course in US politics and they weren't studying the subject so you may say "who cares?" Well we all should. What these students were doing was filtering out anything that wasn't "relevant" to their course. It goes much deeper than American elections, of course. Students didn't know there were new regulations on packaging coming in because that's nothing to do with design, right? Wrong. They didn't know that there was a fuss over mixed wards in hospitals, or a crisis over cleanliness on wards, because those have nothing to do with design. Wrong again.
The students were acting as students will, if their courses - and industry's expectations - are based on the concept of "experience" in a narrow set of skills, rather than "awareness" of context. It's the view from the hill versus the view from the street again. The former is contextual and easier to grasp, the latter is situational and detailed but difficult to relate to different circumstances.
If we fence our students in to one subject we prevent them contextualising, or even valuing contextual knowledge. And we paradoxically ensure they demonstrate a lack of experience because they are unable to link A to B when a situation requires it. The employer sees this as a lack of experience because they can do it, because they have 20 years or more experience. But only experience can make you experienced. In the meantime what you need is context and, buzz phrase coming up, "transferable skills".
Pierre Bourdieu wrote eloquently on this in Homo Academicus, when he talked about how academics - like all experts and professionals - establish rituals and rules to ensure that only those who play the game can get in. It helps us preserve our prestige, makes us impenetrable enough that people assume we must be doing something frightfully important and worthy of continued support.
And that irritates me. It has no place in higher education and it particularly has no place in a research-led institution.
We are also, in some cases, bound by external requirements - things that students must know how to do in order to qualify as an architect, an accountant, a dentist and so on. And our natural response to this - and the obvious expectation - is to produce a linear curriculum of things that students must learn first, then stuff they can do after that, then after that and so on, while all the time we are presumably engaged in developing our discipline in new and exciting ways.
We're the ones who break everything down in to a time line or a hierarchy. But for our students it's all new and potentially exciting. But if they have to wait four years before they can do the exciting bit, we risk boring them. And we also risk holding them back.
In design we have a concept known as rapid prototyping where we start making things quickly, get something out there that people can touch, play with, break. We learn from it, they learn from it. This is how I approach teaching. I don't lock the exciting toys away in a cupboard until the students have learnt how to bash the square peg in the right hole. Nor do I put them in the glass cabinet so they can see what awaits them once they learn that the triangle won't go through the circle...
Do you remember that Christmas when your family got a new board game and you opened it and got all the pieces out and then someone, probably your dad, insisted on reading out the rules. Remember how dull that was? Remember how difficult it was to follow? Remember ever just not bothering, and playing with the pieces the way you imagined you should? How exciting was that? And then, at some point, you began to figure out the rules, maybe looked at them again, waited for everything to click in to place - and then you beat every single one of your family and became so good that everyone vowed never to play it again and it ended up in a charity shop?
Just me then.
Well anyway, that's how people learn. Or how some people learn. But traditional approaches to teaching at undergraduate level don't allow it. The trouble with the phrase "teaching and learning" is it assumes one leads to the other. It doesn't. You were never taught what red was, or green. You just scribbled. You were never taught the difference between hot and cold. You just put it in your mouth. You were never taught that cats scratched you. You just poked them with sticks until you discovered it for yourself. This is what we forget. Learning by discovery is the most natural thing in the world and yet we don't really do it. Because we have a "curriculum", a line starting at "simple" and ending in "complex".
And treading the dirt and the seeds from one field to another helps mix things up a bit.
And here's the best bit. Letting the students talk about what they've discovered when they meet their friends again is one of th most important acts in learning and one of the simplest we can make happen, whether by reducing contact time, and so increasing talking time, or by developing peer support, or building it in to assessment as we do in Design Studies... I can't give you figures but I can tell you what I know: simply reducing the number of lectures and increasing the amount of socialisation in the curriculum has improved our students' grades and commitment immensely. Because if someone tells you to go somewhere and do something it's never as much fun as being asked to choose your own adventure.
Do we want to be coach tour guides, sitting them all in the same place and telling them all to look out of the window at the same thing at the same time? Or do we want to set up base camp and let them wander around? I find teaching the latter type of student far more interesting than the former. And I think they find my course a bit more interesting too.
I used to run a course that gave every single student a two hour lecture on William Morris, and an essay question that about a fifth of them would choose. And I bet you a year later I'd get the complaint that "none of them know who William Morris is". Because that method of teaching is dull and rewards immediate performance.
My approach is to give students the skills they need to be able to find things out. Someone mentions William Morris to you? Don't shrug your shoulders and say "dunno", use those skills you learnt to go to the library or online and find useful, reliable informationt that you are able to connect to other things you know...
I remember when I first started teaching. I was running adult evening classes in Photoshop and had taken over the course at the last minute. The notes from the previous lecturer were basically a "recipe" list. Each week he'd show students how to do something different, like a chrome button for a web site (it was the early 2000s, they were "in"). Then the next week he'd show them how to do a glass button. The next week how to etch something in stone. At the end of the course the students would be able to do all those three things, but they wouldn't be able to use Photoshop. That's because he hadn't let them explore layers and blending modes. If a client came up to them asking for an image that looked like a bird had walked in snow, how would they do it? They couldn't, because they didn't have the recipe. But if they'd learned about blending modes and seen how they were used to create depth, they'd be able to work it out.
I could show you how to play Silent Night on the piano. But there's a big difference between being able to play a particular tune and the ability to improvise on cue. And learning how to play Silent Night does not teach you how to improvise.
But wait a minute, I hear you saying. There are some things a student needs to know before they can do other stuff, if only for health and safety reasons! And yes, you're right. I wouldn't advocate letting a first year medical student take out an appendix on day one, but neither would I keep its existence a secret for four years while they practiced cutting things open then sewing them back together again. That's the trouble with metaphors. They're not intended to be taken literarally.
But there's another reason: education and design are two of the most traditional and conservative disciplines around. If medical education had progressed at the same rate art and design education have over the past 100 years, we'd still be watching our insides being carved open because the chloroform hadn't soaked in to the cloth.
My philosophy has been, and is, to innovate. People call it change, like it's a dirty word, but innovation and creativity are at the core of everything we teach and practice. If design thinking cannot be the underpinning aspect of our own practice as educators, how can we hope to teach it to our own students?
My teaching philosophy certainly involves taking risks but it never involves me leaving a job and proudly saying the best thing I achieved was to change nothing. Universities don't exist to maintain the status quo, and nor does design.
I hold this idea high. We're here to teach people to learn, not to perform. I have learnt more about design teaching it than I ever did doing it. If I ever end a lecture, seminar or tutorial not having learned something myself, I feel it's not been a good session. And I continue to study. This year I'm studying Mandarin and Statistics. The process of being a student is fascinating - I find myself understanding what it's like to have deadlines, other pressures, to not quite understand something, to have something click in to place, to not know why I am learning something...
I recommend it to every teacher: take a course. Be a student.
If I ever put my ideas before a committee I'd never get them going. That's how design works. You test your ideas out, but you don't ask a panel to give you permission because that's when innovation dies. And anyway, it's easier to seek forgiveness than permission.