Notes on the Learner Centered Project:
In May 2003 the 25 students, of the Masters Class at IT Delhi, and I stood around the 1929 Austin 7 and everyone was grinning – we had done it, the grin said. In January when we started there were two facts – a course in technology that needed to be done – and a derelict vintage car that needed restoring. I had taken the car into the classroom and had asked if the students would be interested in restoring the car as the way for them to learn about manufacturing processes. I cite this example to illustrate aspects of my teaching practice, which is both, student-orientated and focuses upon the educating event. This specific example illustrates my view that the content of education is arbitrary, open to negotiation and if it belongs to or is owned by the student then the educational event becomes charged with energy.
Much of pedagogic practice in design uses the approach of project-based learning. Referred to as the studio, the actual practices vary quite widely from the truly student centred to the extremely authoritarian. Where the latter prevails in learning communities, students feel quite dis-empowered and alienated. In my time at RMIT I have seen a particularly arbitrary practice where halfway through a project the student’s work may be taken away and given to another to complete. Many in the teaching community favour this as the way to give the students a sense of what it is like in real practice. I disagree with these practices and justifications and have a sense of pedagogy informed by my sense of the university as the location for student to grow.
Context and Location is Important
A significant part of my practice is the location of the projects and explorations within the wider community. Over the years I have brought industry into the classroom, in the form of problems solving for industry, or as funded projects for students to work on. I have played a particular role in these instances; I have briefed industry about educational priorities taking precedence over commercial imperatives of the company and have always managed to construct a free space for student explorations. By the same token the masters topics I take up for supervision have to offer a sufficient scope for field work and community interaction.
I do lectures that I believe are a treat to attend – they are well prepared, there is music, sometimes film clips and lots of provocation – I consider public speaking as one of my strengths and have a vast experience of speaking at all manner of gatherings. I use these lectures to construct arguments and treat these events as stimulation for discussion. Since I have been at RMIT I have also done two lectures for the interior and architecture programs in the way to apprehend “the other”.
As supervisor to postgraduate students I work assiduously to build the spirit of the project. I am keenly orientated towards the student over their content and have on occasion said – a good research project does not have to be correct, it can be a failure, but it has to be well argued. It is early days yet for my PhD supervision, and I have some small successes in the way my students are shaping up.
Teaching and Learning
I focus on learning experiences. I agree with many that regimes of evaluation are the single biggest contributor to the negative aspects of student learning experiences. So I experiment with evaluation practices and do not privilege grades. Hence I got together with two others and we did a workshop about learning contracts called ‘grades at the beginning of the course’. I have for years asked students to set their targets and go for their chosen grades. I usually set up peer evaluations and train students in class on the right way to give detailed textual feedback. Often this results in short workshops for students to design and develop dimensions of assessment. I discovered years ago that students functioned at very high levels when the grades were taken away. Simon, teaching CAD in 04, experimented with grades at the beginning of the semester and got astounding results.
Risks and Rewards
I encounter the risks and rewards of my teaching practice almost daily. Among my former students the feeling of mutual respect is alive, my past students are still in touch and eight of them are serving as mentors to students in the studio course I am teaching next semester. I keep getting invitations to attend weddings in different parts of the world and have an unending stream of baby pictures that come to me. We talk, we meet in different parts of the world (Raja and I travelled to Venice and Verona three years ago) and its an ongoing conversation. I get from this a sense of the value of their learning experiences with me – and of the value of the content, what they privilege and how well I prepared them to go through life. Sure many drop out, but the brightest stay – they would be the ones who felt the significance of the educational experience the strongest when they were with me. There have been some spectacular disasters – failures in students some with industry projects – and some breathtaking successes.
I encounter daily the sense of the risk – I will lose my job – that things could go wrong. Students have often come to me saying my course was too complex for them – I then walk them through their expectations and show them that they have been setting up their expectations too high. This becomes a location of their understanding themselves and their relationship to the university – I say initially to all students that they should get a life – so they must aspire for just a pass. I call this the cruise mode – and say that higher grades are not all that valuable for their growth. This is usually an exact opposite of what they have heard – and they at this point say that a weight has dropped off their shoulders, and that this has become their favourite course, they show this by coming to all the classes. A big proportion of them then go and completely complicate their lives even though they promise themselves they would take things slow – and my job becomes one of showing them what they were doing to themselves and were they aware of it. This is the point again when they usually fall in love with their topic and this route, this progression can suddenly change their way of looking at the project. They will at this stage say ‘what I am doing is not work’, and I will agree for work is that thing with negative connotations. I leave them alone for the rest of the journey the learning project for me is complete. They will go on and make things and produce the design and all that they consider the valuable part of the learning experience. Only years later will they admit, sometimes not at all which is okay too, that there was something there that changed things for them. Every time I take this trip with a group of students I am unsure if it is the right thing to do and tell myself that I should just make reaching the goal at the end the objective of the class. But every time I am tempted to sit back and let the student tie themselves into knots and then go in and start talking to them. This way of teaching is stressful but its week five or so in the RMIT semester that I look out for and can feel the rush of joy when things take off.
The Perfect Class
As a teacher I have often dreamt of the perfect class: you walk into the classroom, you have eager learners, and they just soak up everything you have to offer. This happened to me in a curious way in Israel. I was my first lecture; 35 students, complete silence and no laughter at my jokes. I stop and ask if something is the matter they say no. I am later told that as ex-military people (every Israeli does a few years of military service after school) they can concentrate hard and take in stuff completely like at a mission briefing. In the classroom in Australia I see a huge diversity in student backgrounds and cultures. This makes the classroom truly international and multicultural. My past experience of teaching in different countries has made me particularly attentive to different learning styles, and different cultural expectations of teaching and learning. In every context I see myself as an outsider and this one fact keeps my teaching practice in a state of constant evolution. In the first years of my teaching career I would spend an inordinate amount of time planning classes, mapping student growth and reflecting upon what was achieved. I have over the years seen a lot of young teachers go through this first season of teaching – in the same way I have seen them mature into confident teachers and reflect that I have been through as much of a change. I am still changing though I return often to a core system of beliefs. First my core: My pedagogy is located in my community work – it is significantly about people and their process of becoming confident and mature individuals. As a thesis supervisor in recent years of masters students I have had an intimate and full hand in facilitating the growth of a fairly important bunch of designers – some of whom dominate the design scene with heart warming assurance.
I have seen some fine examples which have informed my teaching practice – one who never criticized his students, who always had an encouraging word – some who led by example, some who gave up promising careers to work with the poor and underprivileged. All of which gave me a sense that I was working for a better society – by having an active hand in shaping the value system of society through my students. I do not teach to train manpower for the workplace – I teach to make young people become leaders. Teaching for me is not about courses – but about learning communities and leaders/ and fostering them.
Grades at the beginning
Learning Lab at TVB
Learning Blog TBC