The importance of not knowing: reflections of a designer tutor

Matthew Ward on his SB129 blog.
Posted 12th September 2012

Here Ward discusses the role and nature of being a design tutor, reflecting on key themes and approaches to improving as an educator in higher education. He discusses the importance of being adaptable, open to change, testing different modes of teaching and approaches to the topic to develop new teaching strategies, approaching teaching like a researcher, experimenting and reflecting to continually improve. Students should be encouraged to take control of their learning, the tutor encouraging students’ curiosity and enthusiasm for the subject rather than purely delivering the subject. Sessions should encourage an exchange of ideas in both directions, tutors being as willing to learn from the students: “If you’re not learning from your students, you’re probably doing something wrong.”

Read the post here: sb129.wordpress.com. Full text below.

The importance of not knowing: reflections of a designer tutor

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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