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Every year I give a talk to PhD students, new members of academic staff and visiting tutors who are embarking on a PG Certificate in the Management of Learning and Teaching in High Education. I’m asked to talk about ‘Academic Practice’ and the importance of being a reflective practitioner. To put it more simply, I give practical tips and hints about teaching. Nothing mind-blowing, but a set of principles to apply to University teaching.

As programme leader I have a lot to do with the strategic development of programmes, teaching approaches and the promotion of ‘best practice’. As a design lecturer I participate in a wide variety of teaching delivery modes, from practical workshops in drawing, lectures on critical theory and material culture to brief writing and one-on-one tutorials on design practice.

What I’m trying to do here is be a reflective practitioner – I’ve had to think about what I’ve learnt over the last decade, I hope it may be relevant and interesting to those embarking on their teaching careers. My first point is:

1. Teaching is really difficult

It’s a fine art. I started my career feeling that my job was to create ‘great designers’. I would crit work and deliver lectures to promote a certain way of designing, a certain way of thinking – hopefully engaging students enough to inspire them to do ‘good design’. However, as I progress in my career I realized that this isn’t actually my job. It’s merely a convenient side effect. My main job is promote learning, the fine distinction is that students can produce unsophisticated design work but still have an excellent learning experience.

This is difficult to remember in the current academic climate, where the aim is to produce world-class research in order to build your name as an academic. The ‘outcome’ of your work is judged, but not necessarily the learning experience you have gone through. We currently operate in a target culture, ‘research assessment’ means that our careers grow or die by our output. The focus is on the goal, not the process and leads to my second point…

2. Learning is all about the process, not the product

This doesn’t mean that if a student produces a terrible essay at the end of a course it’s ok, but educators need to continually focus on the learning experience, which can be distinctly different from the outcome. What is rather handy, is that a reflective, enthusiastic learner normally produces good ‘product’. But it is key to think of this as a side effect – don’t loose sight of the process of learning – because that is the mainstay of our jobs.

The experience they go through throughout their time at Goldsmiths should be tranformational, their essays aren’t transferable, their thinking, thirst for knowledge and enthusiasm is.

My third point is trying to unpick what ‘reflection’ actually takes place as a tutor, how and when do you reflect, how can you fit it into your teaching practice, so point three is:

3. Reflection has different temporalities

The reflection process of a lecturer comes in different guises and temporalities:

Real-time reflection: This form of reflection happens in real-time, during the session. It’s essential to how a session plays out. Teaching demands that you are adaptive and open to change. If it’s not working, find a new way to engage the group. Questions to ask yourself: How am doing? Why are they all falling asleep? How do I explain this more clearly? What do I do now to regain their attention?

Postmortem: After every lecture, workshop, briefing, spend a few minutes to reflecting on how it went. Make notes, file them, when you come back to the session the following year, re-write, improve. Questions to ask yourself: Did the students understand? How could I improve? Is the content pitched at the right level? Did the whole group engage, if not, how do I adjust the delivery in order to keep everyone engage – like in war – we don’t leave anyone behind!

Meta-level analysis: At the end of the course, you need to reflect on how your programme of study fits in with the wider curriculum, how do your ideas fit with other courses? Is there a smooth progression between levels and courses?

4. Sparking imagination

The most important reason for us to be here is to spark our students imaginations. It’s important to stand back from the content, the detail, to understand the impact and relevance to our subjects to our students lives.

The good part, is that we live in fascinating world, your job is to show them how wonderful it is. This means that it’s important to remain enthusiastic. The daily, yearly grind of an academic can be tough, but the best way to make your job brilliant is to show your love and excitement for your discipline. Enthusiasm is contagious… be proud to be a cheerleader.

5. Research into teaching

There is swathes of writing on how best to integrate research into teaching, but I’m talking about something slightly different. How does your own intellectual drive become apparent to your students. One clear and easy way to do this, is to bring personal obsessions into the classroom, lead by example. In some ways social media has changed how this is done. No longer do students have to hunt down cutting edge journals to read your thoughts and ideas, they can read your tweets, blog or look at your flickr stream.

This introduces interesting questions around privacy and boundaries between your private and public lives. But I have found over the years, if you embrace it, it can work.

6. Debunking complexity

One of the most important roles we have as educators is to unravel the messy complexities of our subjects. It’s very difficult to remember what starting to study a subject at university is like, our students sometimes miss the ‘most basic’ of skills, language and knowledge. Therefore, breaking down complex language and difficult concepts is essential. Encourage a space of confidence where there aren’t any ‘stupid questions’.

One of the ways I do this, to the annoyance and frustration of some of my students, but to the benefit of others, is to read out quotes, deconstructing them in real time – breaking down each sentence, contextualising the ideas, defining the difficult words. It’s like a lesson in close reading.

7. Contextualisation…

…of ideas – make ideas real, use examples that locate ideas in your students lives. One of the great strengths of Goldsmiths (in my mind) is the heady mix of popular culture and complex theory. Agamben and The Incredibles, Foucault and The Game of Thrones (insert long ramble about exceptionalism, biopower and gender politics) by contextualising our subjects, we make them relevent, memorable and enjoyable.

…of their learning – why are they doing this in relationship to their whole study. Now this is particularly difficult for visiting tutors asked to guide students through a seminar series. Understanding the ‘master plan’ of a programme is important. Understand the philosophy, goals and approach of your colleagues. In particular with Design education it’s important to contextualise learning in light of their future careers – this doesn’t mean that you align everything with professional practice, but you discuss the transferability and quality of the experience they are gaining.

8. Humor / Humility

Don’t be superior, people learn best from people they connect with and admire. Academics have the tendency to act superior – they waft in, deliver their words of wisdom, waft out. Most people in the position to lecture are smart, but being clever isn’t enough, be nice.

9. Visual stimulation

If you do presentations (slides), think about the pace and design of the slides. Slide Crimes are not acceptable. This isn’t me being a design snob, but you need to use powerpoint/keynote to it’s full power. It becomes another tool to create memorable and interesting ideas. The power of visuals to stimulate minds is well explored. But it also becomes a place where you can think through ideas. Visualising the abstract enables you to think in new ways.

10. Good timing

This isn’t about comic timing, although this can help, I mean timing in terms of when to introduce certain ideas. Don’t hit students will full theoretical barrels on day one. Easy them into it. This isn’t only about course overview, it’s about individual sessions. How to build up complex – staging I think its called in proper education writing – is important to allow all ability groups to engage in the lecture. If you loose people, at least it’s only for a short section.

Good timing is also important in terms of the pace and length of each session; make some quick and hard hitting, others can be slower and more reflective. Some can last a full day, others only need to be twenty minutes – it takes courage and confidence to do a short lecture, but it can be really effective.

11. Organisation and communication

This is professional life 101, so obvious, but I see this mistake happening over and over again. Be organised, don’t be late. A key to making students feel secure is to (appear) to be organised. The bumbling eccentric lecturer is a romantic image, but it doesn’t garner trust. Always let your students know what they’re doing when and where. Make sure reading is available and rooms are ready. Know what the plan is and communicate it clearly and precisely.

12. Shifting pace, flipping roles, experimenting

See your teaching practice as a practice – you’re researchers / experimenters / thinkers… take the same approach in order to innovate in your teaching. Every lecture you give, every brief you write should be an experiment. Risk. Put yourself on the line, somethings don’t work, it’s okay, as long as you learn from it. Be open and honest about trying out new things, students respond really well to knowing that they are embarking on new ground – they feel important – involve them in your evolution.

13. Let them lead way

This is one of the hardest things to achieve in teaching, but it’s essential that students own and control of their learning process. Your challenge is to build student confidence so they choose to take control. Make sure you don’t just focus on the few vocal students, find ways to give everyone a voice.

14. Never patronise, never underestimate

There’s a institutional tendency for academics to try and avoid undergraduate teaching, implicit in this is an assumption that the most challenging, ground breaking work happens at the higher levels (with PhD being the zenith). I disagree with this, undergraduate students, particularly in design are where the action is. Their ideas are fresh and their energy and ambition impressive. The lack of prior knowledge enables them to boldly fumble into knotty and difficult areas.

15. If you’re not learning from your students, you’re probably doing something wrong

University education is, very much, a two way process. Learning from your students is essential to continued success and the avoidance of ossification. Be open to change your understanding and boundaries of your discipline. Use your students to bounce and develops ideas. Allow them to push you as much as you push them.

16. It’s all about mediating/encouraging curiosity

Academics as gate keepers of knowledge is a long gone role. Access, curation and generation of knowledge is no longer the primary role of the lecturer, therefore what is? How do we adapt to the 21st Century? How do continuously engage and excite our students, whilst remaining at the top of our game?

17. It’s all about questions, not answers

Never pretend to know everything, ask more questions that you give answers. See teaching as a continual process of experimentation and discovery.

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Over the last few years at Goldsmiths, I’ve seen and encouraged a fascinating trend towards an engagement with performance. Within other disciplines (and in design theory) this has been called the ‘performative turn‘, but I’ll leave it to others, far more rigorous than I, to explain the theoretical genesis.

What I’d like to do is show a few projects and talk about their implications on design practice. I’ll also try to make initial steps in trying to connect design to contemporary art practice.

Performance has always played an important role in design (I’m not talking about performance in terms of functional efficiency). The communication of a project – be it in front of a client, a peer group, conference audience or general public, requires a level of performance. How the story behind a project is constructed and told makes an enormous difference to its reception. I’ve always encouraged my students to embrace the performative nature of project crits and presentations. If you design, direct, practice and perform your presentations you’ll go far. It’s a skill, that if mastered, will make you invaluable to a design consultancy.

Forbidden Tourist: Nelly

Last year, with our second year students, I developed a brief with Nelly Ben Hayoun (you can read Nelly’s write up of it here) to push the performative/experiential part of our student’s design practice. It was a called The Forbidden Tourist:

In William Burroughs’ text The Invisible Generation he describes hidden operators, agents of change and design that sit behind the scenes forumulating and curating new events, experiences and interactions. Acting as the “Invisible Generation”, this week you are tasked to create ‘domesticated events’ in which tourists will be invited to experience new forms of landscape / sports activity / warmth / environment / diet / language / beach / sound / inhabitants etc…

The final presentations had to be ‘live and real’, performed, experienced and directed. The project was a great success with some fantastic ideas. One of the most important things I learnt throughout the process was that through ‘performing’ ideas – including getting members of the audience involved – it was evident whether or not the experience/idea/design would be valuable, exciting or intriguing. During the presentations, you could instantly tell if the project was a success. In some ways this combines presentation with a form of fictional user testing, they were performing to know. Here, prototyping is taken to another level, where ideas are exposed to an audience, events are ‘acted out’ and success is evaluated. Performance as a prototyping medium.

Forbidden Tourist: Bare Knuckle Tours
In this example, performance is placed at the end of the design process, where an object, service or experience is performed to convince an audience of it’s validity.

In the act of designing we set up certain behavioural trajectories, these have been described as ‘scripts’ by Madeline Akrich. Implicit in every ‘technical object’ is a set of assumptions (or predictions) of how a ‘user’ will behave and what ‘specific tastes, competencies, motives, aspirations, political prejudices’ an actor has through their agency in the world. What we need to be aware of is how this ‘inscribing’ takes place and the extent of influence a designer has over the inscription process. So by performing and prototyping the behavioural and social relations intended in a design, the designer can start to gain insight on the process.

If we abstract the ‘script’ from the object and focus purely on the social interaction, we have something close to the work of Tino Sehgal. His dematerialised approach to his art practice means that he makes ‘constructed situations’ – live events where ‘interpretors’ are given oral instructions by Sehgal and the event unfolds beyond his direct control. The work lives only in the memory of those that witnessed the event and in the media reaction to it. His current piece, in the Tate’s turbine hall, These associations, is well worth a visit. The work consists of a group of 70 volunteers walking, running, singing and playing. They move around the space as if they follow an untold set of rules and instructions, every now and again one of the participants breaks off to tell a member of the public a story. During my two visits I had a man tell me about the time he lived in a house boat on the Thames, a really close community, where once he fell into the river and nearly drowned. The other story was from an American woman who told me about her recent experience at the Olympics, and how hearing the national anthem uncovered a lost sense of national pride.

Tino Sehgal
I love the work, it feels awkward and strange, familiar and uplifting. When listening to the stories, I was genuinely interested, when watching the movements of the crowd I was confused and amused. I like the fact that I’m currently participating in the work right now: my text is part of a network of appraisal that constructs the media memory of a fleeting work of art. In terms of its relationship to design, I feel it fits perfectly. As designers we set up frameworks of action, then the messy reality of people shift and change our intensions – this is akin to Sehgal giving instructions, the allowing the work to evolve throughout its life.

It reminds me of a piece of work by Matt House and Martin Turner, for their final presentation, in response to a live brief set by Imagination, they designed a ‘rain dance’. In this project, the performance is both outcome and communication, it’s a way to express the essence of their idea, but it is also a proposal for a possible solution – a physical jingle to promote the appreciation of the British weather. Like a meme it’s released into the world to change and effect peoples attitude. It is through performance that we see the world change.

I’m also interested in how designers use performance as both a critical and generative tool. This year we had two great third year projects exploring ‘performance as method’. Larissa Seilern investigated how the ‘performative act’ could be used to ‘interrogate specific social phenomena and potentially instigate social change.’. In the video she tried to normalise the media view of beauty in the context of the streets of south east London. The activity calls into question the representations of women within advertising, but beyond that it allowed for Larissa to evolve her ideas and understanding of a space and topic.

The other project, Micro-rituals by Tom Marriot, elevates everyday action through video recording into  a performance to be used as a resource for design. Here, performance is integral to the design process. By isolating, editing and remixing banal activities into the beautiful and ridiculous, Tom unearths a rich seam of material to work with. His method looks to deconstruct the everyday in order to reveal the extraordinary. The performance is less in the ‘acting up’, but more in the editing of action.

This reminds me of George Perec’s idea of the Infra-ordinary:

The daily papers talk about everything except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask.

What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs every day: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?

Georges Perec, Approaches to What? 1973

This is where performance comes into it’s own, it acts like a mirror to the actions, relationships and events that make up our daily lives. It gives us the necessary distance to examine, reflect and understand what we do and why… surely a useful activity for design and designers.