Chi – Ting………possibly my worst year7 joke.

Displays for learning in the Graphics Studio

Checking out another blog that I follow I read a post about cheating, the why and the wherefore.   Now I have to say that I really think that cheating is a waste of time, so much effort for so little gain, but it did remind me of a particular theme that I explore with my pupils.   One of the problems that design teachers face is that if you are honest in your teaching you will find yourself trying to overturn behaviours and skills that other teachers have spent a long time inculcating into your pupils.  Well let us be charitable and say that we find ourselves teaching the appropriate time to use those skills.  Let me give you an example; designers explore multiple avenues of thought without censoring them to allow themselves the opportunity of coming up with the best idea.  Almost all our education practice celebrates the ‘right’ idea or answer.  Why do teachers of Maths have to spend so long drumming into their students the need to show the method they used as well as the answer?  The logic is perfectly obvious but it operates against the rest of education which focuses on and rewards the right answer.

Back to design with year 7.  What I need to teach them is a set of skills that will allow them to design with fluency, skills that will help them to consciously break designer block and open up their thinking to fresh ideas. skills that will give them the flexibility to respond to different problems in different ways.  I start by asking them what teachers call iot when the copy other peoples ideas from books and of course the answer comes back, “Cheating.”  Then i tell them that not only will I not tell them off for cheating I will actually give them better marks if they do cheat.  By now, of course they are all on side with the guilty pleasure of the anti establishment game.  So then I go for the terrible joke, asking them if they have heard of Judo, karate and Tai Chi?  Of course they have so then I tell them that I have a black belt in……….works best if you write it on the board….Chi-Ting.

Well if you have stopped groaning now lets get back to the point which is that designers do not work in a vacuum, they store up visual ideas in their heads, their sketchbooks, their cameras and their phones, ideas which they filter, modif,y explore and combine in new ways. ( If you want some academic background to this read Arthur Koestler, “The Act of Creation”  where he explores creativity and comes to see it as a previously unknown synthesis of two or more ideas, check out David Pye, “The Nature of Design”, now quite dated but still full of interesting insights.)   What I want to teach my children is the ability to use other peoples ideas and designs, to select, modify and adapt them for their own purposes.  What I also want to do is to make them look in a particular way.  Time to make things explicit again.  Like most teachers I have showcases in the corridors full of what I consider to be useful or interesting design ideas and pupil work.  I would like to think that my displays are so  eye catching that every person in the school stops to look at them.  Of course they don’t.  I ask them to think about what they looked at as they came into the room.  We talk about the snap shot glance that most of us use to check the room followed by the focus on what we think is significant.  We then model how a designer might enter the room by literally rubbernecking, the peculiar swiveling head movements of the average tourist anxious not to miss a sight.  The point is that most people might see a chair and recognise its utility but a designer would look at it in a different way, noting interesting shapes, use of materials, references to famous designs and so on.

Once we get on to sketching design ideas the opportunities come on their own.  “Sir, he copied my idea!”  “Well done, take a house point!”   Yes, sharing ideas and working them forward from the response of others is a design skill too.  Indeed it is sometimes really hard to distance yourself sufficiently from your idea to recognise faults and weaknesses, somebody else can really be your friend then, especially if you are able to accept that criticism of your design is not a personal attack on you.  At a recent seminar with a design practitioner one of the suggestions that was made was that the standard art school group crit would be e very beneficial thing to introduce into school design.  This takes a bit of courage, what if they really pick on the design by the weakest student?  A useful trick from assessment for learning, two stars and a wish.  This means that each student has to find two good points about the design and one thing they wish was different.  You might want to use a different name for the technique with more senior students.

Last one for the moment, how do you shift yourself over the design block?  Let us suppose that you are sketching designs for a stool and they are all looking a bit the same as each other, nothing is really working.  Two ideas, both of which I use.  First one, think of a geometric shape, triangle, now sketch a design based on triangles, repeat as necessary with different shapes.  The second idea I have swiped from a colleague entirely in the spirit of design you understand.  He keeps on hand some laser cut acrylic tangram sets.  When someone gets stuck with ideas he gives them one and they play with the shapes to spark off ideas.  Both are conscious skills and both work at a similar level.  They are ways of breaking the lock on ideas and freeing up the creative stream.

My desperate year 7 pun just hints at the way in which design teachers have to start unpicking the ways in which the education system stifles real thinking, there are times when the structures that need to exist to make cheating an option are necessary but if we want to teach our young people to think, to be able to handle knowledge and ideas then we must show them that there are times when that sort of approach is worse than useless.

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