Teaching Philosophy: A Designer’s Pedagogy
Every person is a natural-born learner. And I believe that every person is also a natural-born designer, too. It is my philosophy to meet students where they, wherever they are. All students, especially in higher education, come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. As every individual brings value to the classroom, they will also come from different starting points and have different needs. I am a person-first educator and I understand Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: that people can’t learn unless their fundamental needs are being met or if they are struggling with personal issues as a parent/caregiver, patient, or otherwise outside of school. I believe in radical acceptance and radical listening and empowering students to be agents in their own learning for personal success, whatever that means for them. After a student’s personal needs are met, only then can they engage in active learning, moving through the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Students move from the lower levels of learning: to remember and to understand, to higher levels of learning: analyzing, evaluating, and creating. This is core to what we do as designers, we acquire knowledge, synthesize what we have learned, and create fresh designs to wicked problems in the communities that we engage with and serve.
Education is not really about teaching. It’s about the students and their personal gains; it’s about their learning. Learning, like the design process, is iterative, connected, and resilient. In each course and in every classroom, there are unique opportunities and constraints. My philosophy is to always meet students where they are, with empathy and compassion. In addition, I know it’s my job to challenge students as they develop from students into emerging professionals. With the right scaffolding in place, everyone is a learner, and everyone will be provided support to develop the designer that lies within.
I’ve learned that my job as an educator is to facilitate learning; to create opportunities for students to discover new ideas and explore old ones. Especially in a post-COVID-19 world where higher education was turned on its head overnight, it is more important than ever to foster anti-racist, inclusive, accessible, and student-centered learning communities. The world will likely go back to face to face instruction for most; but there will still be some learners who need the flexibility of hybrid and asynchronous courses. There was a revolution in higher education this year and educators were forced to push their boundaries and test out new pedagogies. I am one of them and I am here for a new brand of teaching and instruction in higher education.
In a learning community, students create space where individuals are encouraged to pursue their interests while simultaneously covering fundamentals and core curricula. Throughout the semester, a series of un-grading exercises help evaluate student learning. These include reflective writing, journaling, and artifact creation. Learning is a peer-to-peer activity. Individuals grow through their experiences together, it is the instructor’s job to guide students and offer iterative, constructive feedback.
Anthropologist Michael Wesch’s approach to evaluation is to recognize the unique starting points and differences with each of his students and to provide individual feedback and encouragement during assessment. Instead of shutting students down with failing grades paired with no explanation, he tells them “not yet” and has them continue to develop their skills until they meet or exceed the requirements for course learning objectives. By doing this, he maintains trust with his students and helps them to realize they can be successful, even if they don’t quite make it on the first attempt. This approach lends itself to teaching both studio courses and conventional courses. Combined with rubrics that set metrics for measuring learning, this approach provides scaffolding and support for students; where everyone knows what is being asked of them and what are the tasks that must be completed to attain either a passing score or earn more time because they’re not quite there yet.
Alternative modes of evaluating student learning and obtaining classroom experience are integrated into the courses I teach. For instance, students are invited to critique and reflect on their experience at both the midpoint and end of the semester formally, but are invited to give feedback at any time. Course evaluations during finals are not useful for current students to improve their classroom experiences. How can I help them get more from the course if I don’t provide them the space and opportunity for dialogue early on? In this way, students are empowered and I can correct-course when things aren’t optimal. When students feel like they are being heard, they will continue to speak up. And with a tighter feedback loop on my part, not only can I make immediate changes and improvements, but we are strengthening trust in the learning community we are co-creating. Trust is imperative for the learning experience for everyone.
Student learning is not assessed simply by testing or quizzes as in conventional classroom environments. In my courses, students show their growth and progress through written, reflexive writing samples taken at different points in the semester. Alternatively, students can demonstrate their understanding of the concepts and mastery of the computer programs through the project deliverables, when they share their progressive sketches, drawings, and plans. Each of these tasks illuminates the different ways they are growing and developing as critical thinkers and designers. It provides me insight into what their skills are and what they have learned in the past. And for me as the instructor, this allows me to gain invaluable information about my students, which helps me know them. This is essential to the constructivist theory of learning, where students’ learning is based on making new connections with what they already know. When I know who is in my classroom, I can help to fill gaps in their knowledge, providing scaffolding that helps them make connections and leaps into new areas of content and inquiry.
Because teaching and learning are a practice in communication, in a studio course, instructors and students activate these skills through sketching, desk critiques, pin-ups, presentations, deliverables, and conversations throughout the term. Learning happens when students are interested and invested in their work. So it is important to structure studios around landscape issues, with prompts and challenges designed to capture the student’s curiosity and challenges them to think about their own philosophical stances and biases in response to complex, wicked problems. Central to all projects must be the directive for students to strive to produce equitable, sustainable, and resilient designs. It is the only way forward in a world where systemic racism, ecological exploitation, and unchecked privilege creates landscapes of division, exclusion, and oppression.
As an instructor in a design discipline, my teaching methods are rooted deeply in case study and problem-based learning. By using real communities with real issues to frame the problem statements given to students, I am able to both present practical applications of the design process and guide students through individual and group scholarly inquiry. Students are exposed to conversations with real stakeholders and must learn how to listen to the people that they serve. Society is rich with diverse cultures and experiences. Respecting and appreciating the differences and common ground between groups is essential for students to develop into global citizens. With this approach in hand, students can develop their ideas through grounded exercises in writing, drawing, and proposals of design interventions because they are working with real clients and stakeholders in context. I believe it is important for students and practitioners alike to ground their work in research, so in my classrooms, projects are developed through lines of reasoning and analysis, tracing back to policy or defensible criteria. I ask my students to identify what they are trying to accomplish and then I help them work backwards to understand which pieces of data or information are necessary to develop their ideas.
As with all of my projects and assignments, I invite my students to incorporate their personal interests into their work. I have included language like this in both of the sample syllabi for courses I have developed. In doing so, I encourage students to focus their projects on aspects of landscape architecture that interest them, whether it be planting design, hardscape, or issues of social justice and equity. If the end result is to have students develop portfolio-quality documentation, which would require an in-depth exploration into how to produce work using design software, students are encouraged to select a site they enjoy or are interested in as a model for the site features they incorporate into their own designs. In this way, students are able to show their software proficiency and also showcase their personality and interests in their portfolio. To achieve a classroom culture that is truly engaged and excited about their projects, I set up opportunities for students to talk to each other about the work they are doing so they can get used to the experience of the constructive collaboration that occurs in design offices. In this way, I can achieve active and engaged learning, critical thinking, and dialogue among students which results in a cohort that is proud of their work and confident to talk about their designs with others.
Teaching and learning does not occur in isolation. A student’s experience in the classroom does not begin and end when the enter and leave the space. Teaching and learning is collaborative, iterative, and reflective. As a faculty member, I believe that we must get to know our students from the time they enter the program until the moment they are ready to present their capstone projects and graduate. We must mentor and monitor their progress along the way so that every student gets the time and attention that they deserve. As instructors, we are perceived to hold all the power, but we must make room for students to see that they, too, are agents in their own learning. We are here to educate the whole person, being sensitive to each individual’s needs, strengths, and weaknesses so that we may build them into emerging design professionals.