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 that people can’t learn unless their fundamental needs are being met or if they are struggling with personal issues as a parent, caregiver, or otherwise outside of school. I believe in radical acceptance and empowering students to be agents in their own success, whatever that means for them.
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 inclusive, student-centered and accessible 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 a/synchronous 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 band 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 constructive feedback.
Because 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 forces them to think about complex, wicked problems. Regardless of what students aspire to, I understand it is my job to facilitate learning and help guide students on their journey.
As an instructor in a design discipline, my teaching methods are rooted deeply in case study and problem-based learning. By using 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. In this way, the class develops their ideas through exercises in writing, drawing, and proposals of concepts and design interventions. 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 pack 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 developing 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 something else. If the end result is to have students develop a portfolio-quality documentation, which would require an in-depth exploration into how to produce work in AutoCAD, students would select a site they enjoy or are interested in as a model for the site features they model in the program. In this way, they are able to show their proficiency in the program 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 constructive collaboration that occurs in design offices. In this way, I can achieve active and engaged learning and critical thinking, which results in a cohort of students who are proud of their work and confident to talk about their designs with others.
Evaluation of student learning and classroom experience is 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. It is not useful for current students to only have opportunities after the course is complete or near completion to provide feedback. How can I help them get more from their experience 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 free 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 the learning community we are co-creating. This creates trust between me and the students and improves 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. They demonstrate their understanding of the concepts and mastery of the computer programs through the project deliverables, where they can show through their progressive sketches, drawings, and plans that they are growing and developing as critical thinkers.
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. In addition, I know it’s my job to challenge students as they develop from students into emerging professionals. With the rights scaffolding in place, everyone is a learner, and anyone can be a designer.