Teaching and Learning


Many problems assigned by design teachers provide little learning for students other than the experience of doing. The focus must be on factors that influence learning rather than on what is presumed to be an interesting problem. Teachers are obliged to define and present problems in a manner conducive to student development. Learning is not an automatic consequence of teaching. Effective teaching entails identifying what students gain by doing problems, and using content, process and criteria directed toward learning.

Teachers deal with percentages more than they care to admit. They should strive to provide programs in which the best students excel, the group in the middle is elevated and enlarged, and only a small percentage of students fail. Weak or strong students will proceed at their own pace, while the main block of students in the middle benefit most from sound pedagogy. An appropriate definition of pedagogy is systematized instruction or principles that promote student learning. Students who exhibit a lack of interest in learning should be dropped from the program during the first year. This action should be taken without exception or regret, because these students seriously detract from the program for committed students.

All students do not learn in the same way nor at the same rate. Some learn from success, others from failure. Learning may be erratic. For many students, learning is the cumulative effect of all course work; while for others, the learning is centered in one or two problems.

For some students, understanding might not come until much later. There are students who actually learn more from classmates than from teachers. It is more effective for some students to move from the general to the specific; while others learn by progressing from the specific to the general. Most students learn through doing, but others learn from exposure; a few learn from hearing or reading about design. There are even students who learn by imitating work of other designers. All students learn by a combination of methods. No wonder teaching is such a challenge!

I am as guilty as any other teacher of giving sequences of one shot problems; a series of unconnected assignments based on graphic design applications. For example, posters, album covers, annual reports, corporate marks, packaging, advertisements or similar projects, that students can accumulate as portfolio pieces.

It was not until later in my teaching career that I became aware that students who executed well on a particular assignment seldom carried over the experience of doing that problem to the next one. This suggested to me that students were being orchestrated through critique. They were influenced by other student work, or guided to such an extent by the teacher's helping hand, that they were not growing as students. At this point, I began paying more attention to problem definition and objectives.

Problem Definition - Basel Pedagogy
My approach to problem definition evolved through contact with Inge Druckrey and Hans Allemann who joined the faculty at The Kansas City Art Institute during the mid-sixties. They were graduates of Armin Hofmann's program at the Kunst Gewerbeschule in Basel.

Bringing teachers from Basel grew out of a situation that occurred at the Kansas City Art Institute. I realized our upper-class students were undisciplined; they could not handle formal values as well as students from previous classes. I had been dependent on hiring graduates from Yale University as teachers. I favored those who advocated Josef Albers' educational philosophy and teaching methods, and they usually taught at the introductory level. In 1957, Albers retired, and my well for teachers
went dry.

My faculty and I were too busy doing community projects and professional work to stay in the studio for an entire period. We came into class, gave a critique or presented a new assignment, answered questions and then turned students loose. This was workable with Seniors, but it was unproductive for Juniors and Sophomores.

In looking around for another source of teachers who could fill the gap in our faculty, I discovered the work of Armin Hofmann's students. I was greatly impressed with their design performance, especially the visual sophistication and intelligence reflected in their work. It was evident that there was a strong pedagogical basis for Hofmann's program. I wrote Hofmann a letter explaining my predicament and asking if he would be willing to send graduates from his program. In 1966, he sent Inge Druckrey to us. In 1967, Hans Allemann came from Basel, and John Baker joined us from the Royal College in London. After two years each, Inge and Hans returned to Europe, and in 1970, Ferdinand Steidle came to our faculty from Basel.

In our program, grading at all levels was done through individual student reviews with the entire design faculty participating. At student reviews, I focused on work done under the direction of the Basel graduates. The problems that they presented and the imagery interested me. I asked questions about criteria, objectives and process, and carefully listened to their remarks and criticism of student projects. Absorbing and interpreting the information seemed crucial to me, and I was attempting to translate their comments into my vocabulary. Not only was the idea of using the Basel problems uncomfortable, but it was impractical. My background was very different, and I was not at ease teaching processes and imagery which were unfamiliar to me, even though I understood the value of the objectives.

It was obvious that aspects of the Basel pedagogy could strengthen our program. However, it seemed to me it would be more effective for American students if I could devise content, criteria and processes achieving similar results that would be suitable to our educational conditions and student temperament. I admired the methods and content used by Inge and Hans. Their students demonstrated highly desirable qualities in terms of performance and attitudes. This was especially true as it pertained to their enthusiasm for the work. The students also acquired greater sensitivity for visual nuances, self-discipline and better work procedures. At the same time, I recognized that at the time there were significant differences between American and Basel Graphic Design programs and students.

My speculation was that teachers at Basel guided students through problems with little articulation of criteria. A major part of the learning process was through problem definition and student self-discovery. This requires more time for students to assimilate understanding than is generally allocated by most programs in this country. The imagery connected with Basel pedagogy was more rigid and abstract than was customarily found in American programs. Problems were limited in scope and greater emphasis was placed on visual relationships; professional attitudes were stressed over professional practices.

My impression was that Basel students were better educated before attending art school. They were more serious about education, and it was uncharacteristic for them to question assignments or instructional criticism. European students appeared to have greater respect for their teachers. They had better work discipline, could maintain focus and had more patience with the rigor of their studies.

The Kunst Gewerbeschule was a trade school offering a certificate for satisfactory completion of a five-year program. Graphic Design had a small enrollment compared to the large number of students in American programs. The Basel program revealed a strong pedagogical approach to design education reflecting its highly qualified faculty.

Students were carefully screened for admittance, and only selected students were permitted to advance after the first year. Students worked in classes from eight o'clock in the morning through the day and often into the evening. The Basel program consisted of five-years of concentration in art and design.


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