“Don’t Worry — You’ll Figure It Out”
Learning how to teach design
“Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out.”
When I started teaching design more than 20 years ago, my director assured me I would figure out how to teach. Like so many other new teachers, the administration assumed that because I had vast experience as a professional designer, I would know how to teach the subject with finesse.
I was launched into the studio classroom without supervision or mentorship — much less any pedagogical preparation or understanding of how students learn or how to construct effective syllabi. I had no knowledge of techniques for successfully facilitating dynamic learning experiences. Through trial and error, and semester after semester, I was left to figure it out. As I accumulated more experience and studied my colleagues’ pedagogy, I realized that how teachers teach plays a pivotal role in their students’ academic and career trajectories.
Teaching isn’t mastered through perfunctory, one-off workshops. Rather, the cultivation of pedagogy is a complex intellectual and artistic endeavor. It is like a lifelong pedagogical Möbius strip that intertwines theory, research, and practice. And while keeping up with our creative disciplines is equally essential, and endless, all our domain knowledge and its capacity to effect positive change is worthless if we don’t have the skills we need to teach effectively.
To succeed, we need to learn an array of teaching techniques and hone them over time. When we broaden our pedagogy, we start to identify which specific tools and/or techniques will allow us to connect meaningfully with our diverse groups of students. We can use different tools from our toolboxes of teaching techniques — or “pedagogical dexterity” — to strategically customize how we approach each student and ensure we communicate with them using techniques that best suit their unique learning styles.
Through my research and my personal experiences in higher education, I have found that high-quality, student-centered pedagogy boosts students’ sense of being in a supportive classroom community and promotes inclusive, safe learning environments. Masterful teachers understand how to create environments that enable students to take more risks, explore diverse options, develop creative solutions, challenge staid thinking, and subsequently innovate in their work.
Effective pedagogy produces significant short- and long-term benefits for our students, colleagues, and institutions. It heightens students’ interest in course content and encourages them to complete their degrees. Most importantly, it strengthens their personal development. In fact, researchers have long maintained that teacher effectiveness is the single most dominant factor affecting both student academic gain and student retention.
The quality of teachers’ pedagogy also can significantly affect a school’s reputation. After all, optimal learning environments enable students to produce high-quality work that, in turn, is recognized by industry professionals via awards, internships, design commissions, and other accolades. These boons directly bolster the school’s prestige.
As graduates, our alumni’s successes further bolster the reputation of the school, which in turn attracts a greater number of top students to the admission pool. Out of this a pedagogical ecosystem develops, one where the amount of time the institution invests in its faculty members’ pedagogical training directly correlates with the positive — or negative — futures of our students/alumni, the institution, and the design professions themselves.
As we all know, student retention is vital to the survival of all academic institutions. However, it is especially critical at art and design schools, where tuition-dependency is exceptionally high due to their comparatively low endowments. Many of those who drop out face much more challenging career and life trajectories than their continuing peers. They are also saddled with gargantuan student loan debt, which, in the United States in 2022 surpassed $1.7 trillion. These exorbitant rates of attrition and the accompanying losses of college revenues can be positively and directly impacted by increased levels of high-quality pedagogy. By investing in teachers’ pedagogical development, schools increase the quality of teaching, leading to higher levels of student retention.
We will never be able to thrive as design educators if we leave our novice peers alone and on their own to learn how to teach themselves how to teach. We have too much at stake when it comes to our students’ careers, lives, and the future of higher education. We simply cannot continue to perpetuate the use of this broken model. Instead, we must promote a more supportive culture of pedagogical training for faculty across all design schools. In doing so, we elevate our job from a straightforward and noble career path to an innovative, dynamic, and rewarding art form that forever changes our students’ lives.
Steven Faerm, Ed.M.’15, is an associate professor at Parsons School of Design and author of Introduction to Design Education: Theory, Research, and Practical Applications for Educators. Learn more at www.stevenfaerm.com.