Work in Progress
by Ponto

On Education

“The Bauhaus considered Design, Art and Architecture as part of the same venture and most of designers educated in a similar way share these ideas. However, we have to consider that in method and in outcome Design and Art are still different.”[9] Design can be made without resorting the value of Art, because it may claim to solve a problem, provide a service or otherwise do something which combines contextual values, derived from an assignment or a research question.

Education in general —since it is a present that would respond to a future— has the need to be, like society itself, in constant mutation. Nowadays Art & Design Education seems to be stuck in repetition due to the strategies of standardisation and homogenisation that are overtaking educational institutions. This situation is generating a crisis on this sector asking for a period of self-reflection and revaluation. Today’s educational models are a reflection of models that responded well to the past but don’t fit as supposed to the contemporary society or design situation. By questioning how relevant is Education to both society and the individual we can maybe abstract a new and more relevant future for Design Education that would hold and reflect the contemporary reality.

There is a long history within Art & Design Education of artists and designers establishing alternative educational models in order to transfer their knowledge to a younger generation. Free Art schools have emerged since the 17th century because they perceived a gap between state run Art & Design Education and what artists and designers really needed. Bauhaus (from 1917 to 1933) in Germany is one of the most relevant examples. It reinterpreted the traditional notion of “artist as teacher” and “Art School” itself. The Bauhaus model, organized around the framework of Johannes Itten’s onion diagram, was obviously conceived in a special context, but nowadays it has been appropriated by state run Education around the world. In the United Kingdom the implementation of the Foundation Year or A Levels which break down disciplines and skills in components are a reflection of that appropriation. Darren Raven —course leader of the FdA Design for Graphic Communication course at London College of Communication— in a recent interview[1] affirms that most of the students that didn’t have that sort of “Bauhaus experience”, normally have less trouble with the complexity of a design project because, most of the times, they don’t overfocus on the craft. In that sense it might be sensible to think of a new educational model that doesn’t involve the Bauhaus framework.
Dexter Sinister[2] shares the opinion that this Bauhaus model is outdated and adds that the time it was conceived in couldn’t be more different to ours since, for example, nowadays the laptop is everyone’s common medium. Dexter Sinister proposes an alternative method for a foundation course reflecting the way of how lots of practices are jumping over disciplinary boundaries which obviously conflicts with the current Art & Design school model, inspired by Bauhaus.

Technical knowledge has become less relevant in Education today since it has become more accessible thanks to step-by-step tutorials that can be easily found online and offline. The University has then to get away from technical learning and become a place to exercise the mind where some skills are still involved but they are only there to help the student to prove the conceptual strength within a subject.
The Problem Based Learning (PBL) method, introduced by Derek Portwood and Carol Costley of Middlesex University on SEDA paper 109 (July 2000)[3], can be seen as an alternative system to address the current needs. It consists in having students at the centre of the learning process which occurs in small groups. Tutors would act more as facilitators or guides rather than teachers. This method forms the basis for an “organised chaos” that stimulates the development and use of students’ cognitive problem solving skills whilst generating new knowledge that is obtained through means of self-directed learning. This way, research not only becomes part of the educational background but also part of the design process, allowing students to not only develop technical skills but critical thinking as well. The one-to-one tutorial system is also deeply valuable for the individual student but since the learning takes place in a group most of the time their discussion could lead to more complex outcomes. However, PBL can also be problematic because projects are focused on wicked problems when there is not a correct way of doing or solving them. In that way it is difficult for the student to recognize his achievements or progression within a discipline which can un-motivate the student and also make the assessment more difficult. Another problem of PBL could also be that it could lead to transdisciplinary outcomes which make it difficult to be included in programmes that are focused on a specialisation or a path. In that context Darren Raven argues that because the elements of the group choose to sit on one discipline, being a disciplinary or transdisciplinary group, it is about what can they do as a group to solve that wicked problem. But this could also present a problem to the courses’ departments that have pathways and want to grow students into a certain type of ‘ready for the market’ since transdisciplinarity could be something that transcend the pathway.
Joshua Trees [4] argues that by creating pathways in school the negative side to it is the overspecialisation and the positive side the sense of community it allows for. On the other hand, Art & Design students are more oftenly adopting independent platforms outside of the curriculum (such as Department21) in order to achieve cross disciplinary and collaboration beyond the limitations of more traditional departmental structures. Sophie Demay [5](ex-member of Department21) argues that by “creating pathways you are not overspecialisation yourself but blocking your practise and what you would be capable of.”. The critic JJ Charlesworth in the article “Crisis at the ICA”[6] makes the point that cross-disciplinary requires the reality of disciplinary base for practice in the first instance which makes transdisciplinary Education in the undergraduate programs problematic. He argues that you need to be rooted into a discipline before you cross over it, otherwise cross-disciplinary is just hollow and general surface without a specific depth. However if you are in a context of a school and a discipline doing a project that might cross your discipline, your starting point is still your discipline. Polly Hunter, Stephen Knott and Bianca Elzenbaumer wrote, on the article ‘Interdisciplinarity’[7], that on a postgraduate level of study it should not be about specialism alone but about questioning the mechanisms of these specialism which is essential to see how the one specialisation fits in the wider context. On the other hand the way that Education is structured nowadays is about what can you do as individual whilst it should maybe be what can you, as an individual, contribute for a group of people or society in general.

New experimental methods, like Department 21[8], a interdisciplinary workspace established and run by students at RCA between January and February 2010, which continued as a community after the space was re-appropriated by the school, had created a challenging inclusive, radical and productive environment, as a space of transformation and of deconstruction, that might steer the RCA towards new models of Education. Based in the concrete process of peer-learning, Department 21 adopted a radical strategy towards a broader definition of Education, of practice and of cross-disciplinarity, and has created context for hybrid identities to develop, rooted in mutual support. In comparison the transdisciplinary and collaborative projects proposed by the school are always outcome driven, client based and with a very specific route, but one of the particularities of Deparment 21 is that collaboration happens without an outcome. Collaboration arises by working close to each other and happen spontaneously. Fay Nicolson and Carmen Billows on their article ‘Education’[9] argue that Department 21 was a ‘school within a school’ and by raising awareness and working towards the transgression of departmental borders, they were striving towards an ideal concept of Art & Design Education.

Independent, free Art schools (like the Bauhaus in their time) tend to be more successful, in part due to their short duration, which prevents them from becoming outdated like the institutions they criticise which are often pressured by regulational models established by government. What makes these educational models and workshops outside the state run environment more successful is that they are often populated by people that really want to be there, when inside the state run environment some of them could be there only to became the model of the individual established by society standards. However, if alternative Art schools manage to maintain their progressive utopianism in the long term, they could continue to provide important frameworks for playful research and experimentation. In that sense, by offering an alternative to the established model of Education and safe realm for experimentation, these alternative and independent platforms have been valuable contributions to the current and ongoing debate surrounding Art & Design Education.

There might not be a solution for the current crisis in Art & Design Education; but one way to start constructing it could be the re-design of a new way of educating. Will Holder, under the recent “call” for a new head of department for the Communication Design course at the RCA, as a result of the change of the administration of the institution, attempted to do so. His application was a proposal to make two sabbath years with no course, no teachers and with only workshops for two years in order to define what is actually needed in terms of Education nowadays. However utopian this idea might be, due to the complex logistic system of large institutions (which independent schools don’t have), Art & Design Education is in desperate need for change that locates the focus on the students and their positioning within current practice.

[1] Sa Fernandes, E. (2010). In conversation with Darren Raven. In: Sa Fernandes, E. The Collaborative Studio. London: 2013. (Un-published)
[2] Sinister, D. (2011). From the Toolbox of a Serving Library. In: Sinister, D Bulletins of The Serving Library #1. Berlin: Sternberg Press. p94-96.
[3] Portwood, D and Costley, C. (2000) The Problem Based Learning (PBL). Middlesex University (SEDA) Paper 109.
[4] Carrea, A; Edmondson, N; Kambi, M; Martinez, Y; Matinvesi, E and Trees, J. (2012). R[G]DE – Fail to redesign graphic design education. Available: http://www.martineztrees.com/files/downloads/rgde_transcript.pdf. Last accessed May 2013.
[5] Sa Fernandes, E. (2010). In conversation with Sophie Demay. In: Sa Fernandes, E. The Collaborative Studio. London: 2013. (Un-published)
[6] Mute Magazine, February 2010
[7] Hunter, P; Knott, S and Elzenbaumer, B. (2010). Interdisciplinarity. In: Hunter, P; Elzenbaumer, B and Franz, F. Department 21. London: 2010.
[8] Department 21 (Royal College of Art, 2009-2011)
[9] Nicolson, F and Billows, C. (2010). Education. In: Hunter, P; Elzenbaumer, B and Franz, F. Department 21. London: 2010.

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28 May 2013

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