December 12, 2012
I wrote this in late June of 2011…about a year and half ago when I was on the brink of beginning my own distance education teaching career. Carolina DeBartolo was one of my grad school profs who also became a thesis adviser. You may know her from such books as Explorations in Typography. Her eye for type, printed material, and great design is truly amazing. And, her ability as a visionary…believing in her students and pulling the best work out of them (even when they have long given up hope for themselves) inspires me through every grading session and lecture. We met in a cafe in Sausalito on a foggy, rainy day and for a couple hours she told me some of her story and gave me lots of wisdom….which I immediately wrote down and have re-read many many times.
This past week and a half has been my self-proclaimed “10-days-of-adventure-and growth.” I ventured out to Utah, Oregon, California (and several points in between) to both meet my profs from grad school and my future co-workers. The trip amounted to an odd mix of long days in the car, long coffee dates with people i’ve only ever previously emailed (something I, thankfully, seem to get better at with every meeting) and near constant positive expletives at the dazzling views, mountains, ocean, and food.
One of my best meetings was early in the California leg of my trip with one of my most revered profs, Carolina DeBartolo. Carolina is an author, designer, teacher, and all-around super amazing woman. She’s from the east coast, well-traveled and has an inscrutable eye for typography…kind of the complete package in my eyes. Carolina’s tough love and eye for detail engrained humility and perseverance in me throughout my grad school years. Her lessons deeply marked my grad education and continue to influence how I conduct my daily deisgn-filled life. Needless to say I was overjoyed that she had free time to meet with me during my Cali stay.
And so we met on the Sausalito coast and drank cappuccinos and ate teeny gourmet muffins and Carolina talked about her recent book release and the process involved and also imparted some amazing teaching wisdom. I sat across the table from her and felt both exceedingly giddy with caffeine and adrenaline and exceedingly awkward and unprepared for the new lifestyle into which I was about to plunge headlong.
What follows are seven summary high points of our talk, specifically regarding the teaching of design. As she was speaking I kind of wished I’d begun recording all that she said but, as I didn’t quite have it together enough to think of that as she was speaking, I furiously reflected on everything we’d covered once I’d returned to my hotel room. Something tells me I will be returning to these points, and my elegant cappuccino experience, many times over the next few months…
7 Things I Learned From Carolina About Teaching
1. Start at the beginning with your students.
Find out what students’ “ground level” is and teach from that point. It may be lower than the level of the course, but if you do not find their true knowledge base what you teach them will not connect to what they already know. Meet your students on the rung of the ladder of knowledge where they are and teach step by step upward from there. Avoid simply asking “do you understand?” as their answer will invariably be “yes” because people are often embarrassed to admit that they do not know or understand. Instead, ask them to explain what they claim to know to you and, if they stumble, guide them and assess their true level of understanding.
2. Don’t teach people what they already know.
Teaching students what they already know results in them tuning out your info and disengaging with you, the lesson, and ultimately the class. A disengaged student is very hard to bring back and indeed once you begin building past what they do know to what they do not know, they’ve already tuned out so they won’t be paying attention to the new information.
3. Let the students teach each other.
Begin every session with a brief review. Ask students to “teach you back” an abbreviated version of the previous lesson, consisting of key points or actions. Teaching a concept shows mastery and successfully sharing with their peers builds confidence in every student. Never take for granted a student’s verbal assertion that they understand a previously taught concept. Cold-call on students for information, explanations or commentary. Create an atmosphere that makes them feel that when they are in your class, they are “on the spot.” Like all aspects of design, actively showing is better than passively telling.
4. Never re-teach a lesson.
If a student asks you a question about a lesson or concept that you’ve taught in a previous class, don’t put your current day’s agenda on hold and begin re-teaching that material. Instead, ask the question back to the class. See if anyone else in the class can explain the concept while you monitor their explanation and adjust or guide accordingly. Teach students to teach each other, teach themselves, and take control of their own learning. As the teacher, you are their initial guide but ultimately they must be responsible for their own growth and retention.
5. Condescend your lessons to the level of your students but always demand perfection in outcome.
Make students’ tasks simpler, but push them to make their design artifacts as perfect as possible. Confidence and design success are born from small triumphs. Unnecessary complications in the name of style or “design cool” will only mislead students and degrade their performance. Do not be afraid to “send it back” and tell students to redo their work, even if it means redoing it from the ground up. The very act of scrapping it and starting again will make it better because all students learn through repetition. Students will feel frustrated. Students will rebel against the prospect of redoing. But in the long run, they will make a stronger product and someday be better designers because of it.
6. Reflect regularly upon what’s been learned.
End every critique session with a “what did we learn” review. Elicit the key points from the class and make a list that each student can take away. Always promote reflection on the design process and contextualized results over prescribed process or dry memorization.
7. Have boundaries.
You do not need to be available to your students at all times. You should have a robust life outside of your teaching. Students need to learn that, as in a client relationship, there are times when their teacher can and cannot be accessed. Students have to learn to manage their own project schedules. As their teacher, you are their coach and biggest fan, but you are not there to hold their hand every step of the way, create their projects for them, or put your life on hold for their convenience.