Talk About Teaching and Learning
November 20, 2012,
Volume 59, No. 13
Preparing Undergraduates to Work in the World
Many professors agree that preparing young adults for a world of unknown possibilities is an ever-changing challenge. The university model of education gives us a chance to mimic the professional world while removing many of the risks that students will find in the world. Within this reduced risk environment I design my studio courses as a model of the professional world in which students can develop a set of concrete skills, increase their own level of self-awareness, and learn how to reflect on their own ways of working. While studio and design projects are the basis of education in design school, this model of education also shows how classes that focus on projects can help all students to understand the critical lifelong skills they will need to develop to work in the world.
Model of the professional world
To prepare design students for their work as professionals, design education is built around the studio class and experience with supporting classes in technique and theory. The reason for this is directly related to the work environment of design professions: designers work in studios. While there is no specific blueprint for the professional studio, this way of working is a common element across all design disciplines.
The professional and educational studio practice is built around projects. Each project is different, requiring new knowledge, new experiences, and new information resulting in an unknown number of possibilities. Projects allow designers to employ their life’s philosophy, working knowledge of materials, technique, and technology, knowledge about social interactions, cultures, and cities, among many other things. The project is an outlet for one’s creativity and a way to impact other individuals.
To model this type of practice, each week students progress through parts of the design process. Each part requires students to produce work, reflect on that work, and communicate why they did what they did. During a presentation and review, students communicate what they learned and what still needs to be worked out. At the end of each review, students are responsible for identifying their next step.
The outcome of giving these projects within this educational structure is a range of explorations so varied that I could not teach each student how to do their specific work. Instead, I can only teach a general approach to everyone then provide specific feedback to each student based on his or her work.
Tools for developing skills, self-awareness and reflection
I start every semester by conveying to my students: “I can’t teach you everything. Every new project is going to require new information. And this is true for your entire design career.” If students see their professional life as a continuous learning process, it relieves some of the pressure of learning everything right now. I take advantage of this reduced focus and work on teaching tools that prepare them for continuous learning. I have found these five tools to be the most effective: 1) Learn how to learn, 2) Utilize your own experience and behaviors, 3) Think critically about your work, 4) There is no “right answer,” and 5) Take responsibility for your decisions. I reiterate these tools on a weekly basis in many forms and many times without planning.
1. Learn how to learn—I ask my students to pay attention to how they learn by trying to learn in different ways. If I find a student only reading for inspiration, I challenge them to go to the wood shop. If someone is making only models, I challenge them to draw. Some students are surprised they can gain a new understanding from new activities. They find that making a physical model taught them something unexpected. They learn how to go about gaining information. They begin to understand that building a model will teach you one thing, reading will teach you another, while interviewing people produces another set of information.
2. Utilize your own experience and behaviors—Many students are unsure of what they already know, or worse, think they don’t know anything. How we move, listen, look, think, and respond are learned behaviors. We learn through our own experiences. Our experiences are influenced by our environment, the people around us, and our culture. If students are aware of the external influences, they can understand their experiences and behaviors and gain insight. This tool is about understanding that there are shared experiences. These shared experiences provide an immense amount of information about how to design and why.
3. Think critically about your work—Every time a student responds with “because I like it” the follow-up is always, “why do you like it?” While working on a project, everyone’s personal likes and dislikes encroach on their work. One has to spend time thinking critically about why they like and dislike what they like and dislike. What experiences have they had to influence their response? When students start to be critical of their responses, something in their creative process starts to shift. Students start to ask themselves and those around them questions. They start to find that other people have different responses. This leads to more questions. Each critical viewpoint leads to a new design.
4. There is no right (or wrong) answer—For every design project there is no right or wrong answer. This is reflected in the fact that at the final critique 15 students propose 15 different responses. If there is no right or wrong answer, you can explore a much broader range of possibilities. This becomes harder in the professional world when a client has specific needs and a budget to be met and zoning codes define what is safe and what isn’t. These are additional design parameters that influence what possibilities can be proposed. Even with these parameters there are still variations that are produced that can achieve the same results.
5. Take responsibility for your decisions—This may be the hardest tool to implement. Once a designer has produced work, it is proposed and reviewed. Proposals require walking the viewer through their decisionmaking process. This opens the designer to being asked, “why did you decide to do that?” Or the more intense question: “why didn’t you do something else?” Taking responsibility requires a student to stand behind their work, admit it can be different, admit they were influenced, admit to personal likes and dislikes, and admit it may be flawed. Those students who can admit these things and say, “this is my design proposal” are opening themselves to feedback and interpretation. The feedback can be, and typically is, the most informative part of a project. Feedback allows a designer (student or professional) to gain new insight into his or her own work and learn something new.
Throughout the semester I will focus explicitly on these tools and other times they are subtly in the background. Each student finds his/her own way of using these tools in their own process. Some use them on a daily basis while others use them when they feel overwhelmed and unsure.
As a professor, I find these tools help ground students to their work at hand. Because their current work mimics their future work, they are more likely to engage the exercise. They can practice being a professional while having the time to build their skills, confidence, and process. Students use these tools and projects to build a framework for future work.
Andrew Dahlgren is a lecturer in undergraduate architecture at the School of Design and
the recipient of their 2012 G. Holmes Perkins Undergraduate Teaching Award.
This essay continues the series by the Center for Teaching & Learning that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts & Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.