Why Art and Design Higher Education Needs Advanced Pedagogy

“Anyone? Anyone?”

This is perhaps the most iconic recent representation of an ineffective professor in modern visual culture and cinematic history. In the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ben Stein delivers an infamously monotonic lecture about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. How closely does this performance remind us of past teachers we’ve had – and loathed? To sit in these professors’ classrooms was pointless, if not tortuous. Regardless of their often superb subject knowledge, such gross inability to inspire, motivate, and connect with students rendered the professor and his/her teaching virtually moot.

During my fourteen years of teaching in the undergraduate Fashion Design Program at Parsons The New School for Design, serving as Program Director between 2007 and 2011, I’ve come to understand the remarkable difference between knowing fashion design and knowing how to teach it effectively. This was particularly evident during my early years in the classroom. For many of us new to the teaching practice, our assumptions of the teacher’s role consisted of simply delivering knowledge to self-motivated and responsive students, often using the same draconian methods employed from our former college professors. The teacher dictated knowledge, the student wrote it down, and a test was issued whereupon the student was expected to parrot-back said knowledge, something education theorist Paulo Friere famously coined as the “banking system” of education.

In contrast, today’s art and design classroom educator must adopt a radically different role and pedagogic strategy owing to several circumstances. These include expanding online education, globalization, evolving curricula, and an ever-shifting student population. These factors will require educators to maintain currency in their respective discipline while possessing, in equal measure, a sophisticated ability to impart this knowledge using diverse pedagogical techniques.

The rapid growth of online education and vast quantities of internet resources require educators to develop stellar pedagogical skills. Today from the comfort of your own home, you can be awarded a four-year bachelor’s degree without costly dormitory expenses, time-consuming travel, rigid course schedules, and other inconveniences. Such factors are particularly salient in exorbitantly expensive urban areas like New York City, where I teach. Why should a student plunk down $40,000 per year if the same information is accessible online? What are the benefits of working side-by-side with a professor? Motivation. Inspiration. Personalized teacher-student guidance. Mentorship. Access to peer-learning. Healthy competition inherent in any classroom context. And much, much more. The reasons are many and the students’ abilities to maximize these human-to-human benefits will require educators to possess highly sophisticated pedagogical techniques.

Faculty members must also possess exceptional pedagogical skills due to our radically shifting professional landscape. The shift is severe, as described by Linda Darling-Hammond in her book The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future (2010). Darling-Hammond asserts the top ten in-demand jobs projected for 2010 did not exist in 2004. These new jobs are being created due to new knowledge, which in turn has contributed to industry’s hyper-globalization and far more complex and interconnected systems. This growing complexity is reshaping design education, and it is only through effective pedagogy that academia can successfully redesign programs and curricula to meet these complex changes. And, let’s not forget the professor’s “unique” pedagogical techniques in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; this teacher’s delivery of information left students in near-catatonic states, sleeping, or desperate to exit the room. If students are to be successfully equipped for this increasingly complex and uncertain world, educators must create a dynamic learning environment so that students are motivated to learn.

The new mission of education – particularly art and design higher education – will be to prepare students for this uncertain professional landscape. Students must be ready to enter jobs that do not yet exist, produce ideas for products and problems that have not yet identified, and adopt technologies that have yet to been invented. To do this, students need to acquire broader, transferable skills that will allow them to adapt successfully in the future landscape. In short, design education is shifting from the long-held vocational emphasis of “making” to a broader, more interdisciplinary “design thinking” focus. This focus is similar to the liberal arts model that provides students with academic breadth and thus prepares them for our increasing knowledge-based economy. It’s not just an evolution, it’s revolution for design education. Sound daunting? It is. And if higher-education continues to suffer professors who possess inadequate pedagogical skills, the institution, its students, and the industry will suffer.

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.