A More Responsive and Responsible Design Education

While design education is changing globally, today’s student has increasingly complex and differentiated needs. When I attended Parsons in the early 1990s, pre-internet and before such hit shows as Project Runway made design a social and cultural phenomena, my experience in fashion design was nearly identical to my classmates. These students’ similar skill levels and knowledge of fashion design allowed faculty to teach across all students equally before we all marched the rarified world of Seventh Avenue for jobs. One style of teaching, one type of student, all with one narrow career goal in mind.

However, the diversity of our college students today – shown in their entry-level skills, professional goals, and differentiated learning styles –is increasing. For example, some of my students have been designing and making clothes since they were adolescents while others have never enrolled in an art course due to their secondary schools’ budget cuts. This broader student demographic is prompting educators to reexamine their teaching methods. In today’s classroom, effective teaching and learning requires faculty to establish far deeper and more personalized teacher-student relationships if they are to successfully guide and nurture students. To do this, teachers must possess a high quantity of pedagogical methods to draw from, while also having keen sensitivity to know when to use certain techniques, and how to best apply them for each individual student.

If teachers fail to adopt such sensitive measures, the results can be catastrophic. Linda Darling-Hammond underscores this in her book The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future (2010). Students who receive three ineffective teachers in a row may achieve at levels that are as much as 50 percentile points lower than students who receive three highly effective teacher in a row. This could be the difference between one student who graduates and another who doesn’t.

And then there is our obligation to deliver a superior education to our students. This has always been academia’s goal, yet it becomes even more meaningful when considering the cost of a college degree today. Since 1978, the cost of tuition at US colleges has increased more than 900%. Student loans recently surpassed credit cards as the nation’s single largest source of debt, edging ever closer to $1 trillion. The rise of articles in today’s media question the value of a college education owing to such inflated costs. Given the financial burden undertaken by most students, shouldn’t they receive only the very best from their faculty? Faculty who are gifted not only in their academic and disciplinary knowledge, but who are exceptionally well prepared to support the unique needs, goals, and learning styles of each student? A teacher who can surpass their traditional role and become a mentor? “Teaching” and “Educating” have never been more different.

To prepare faculty for this differentiated role, we must research successful pre-college models in which pedagogy preparation has been prioritized and supported. High levels of teacher-training are particularly noteworthy in Finland, Singapore, and South Korea where teachers receive extensive preparation and as a result, students excel on international test scores. In all three nations, dedicated mentorship is provided by veteran teachers for beginning teachers; faculty are well trained in pedagogical practices and are consequently well prepared to develop effective curriculum and instruction that meet the demands of the subject matter, as well as students’ needs; and ongoing support is provided to teachers for professional development through subsidized coursework or other forms of learning in pedagogy. Novices are not left to “sink or swim” in the classroom, and experienced faculty are given opportunities to improve while mentoring younger faculty members.

This emphasis on teacher training in pre-college settings has had remarkably positive effects on students’ performance. According to Darling-Hammond, whereas the US has an estimated retention rate of 15 to 20% of its pre-college students annually, European and high achieving Asian nations typically hold back less than 1% of students each year. In addition, teachers with solid preparation and ongoing mentorship typically stay in the teaching profession longer. These experienced educators are able to improve and increase their pedagogical skills over time, strengthen the academic community, and mentor new faculty. Studies have shown that without such preparation, faculty often leave their institution due to feeling overwhelmed, or they adopt a teaching style that focuses on control, often by “dumbing down” the curriculum to what can easily be managed.

If art and design higher education and its graduates are to flourish, institutions can no longer employ a “sink or swim” mentality when hiring faculty for the classroom, no matter how accomplished they may be in their discipline. The increasingly diverse goals of students and graduates, the complexities of the future design industries, the need to evolve the role of the educator, and the shifting student population are just some of the reasons why art and design higher education must prioritize pedagogical training for faculty. One only needs to research the astonishingly successful statistics of those nations that incorporate rigorous pedagogical training for their educators to understand the future potential.

the author

Steven Faerm

Steven Faerm is an Assistant Professor at Parsons The New School for Design. He has authored two books about fashion design and numerous research papers about design education, lectures internationally, and has received several awards for excellence in teaching.