The practice of teaching

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Many artists and designers consider teaching as either as a career in itself, or as one part of their practice. But how do you prepare for your first experiences of teaching? Chris Mitchell, head of the Academic Development Office at the RCA, shares his thoughts 

Preparing to teach

“In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!”
– Mr Gradgrind (in Hard Times by Charles Dickens)

The first experience of teaching can be a frightening one. You stand in front of a classroom of students, your throat dry, your heart racing, your head full of doubts. Do your students want to be here? Do you want to be here?

At the RCA we run a number of two-day workshops for students interested in teaching. At the start of the workshop we ask participants what their greatest concerns about teaching are. The most commonly expressed concerns are:

  • Not having enough subject expertise
  • Not commanding sufficient authority
  • Lacking confidence in public speaking

These concerns are all perfectly reasonable. They may also reveal hidden assumptions about what the purpose of teaching really is. After all, I could attempt to teach guinea pigs to recite Shakespeare, or teach elephants how to calculate Pi. It does not mean that they will learn it. Equally, I could lecture to a room of motivated RCA MA students on the history of brutalist architecture and they may learn nothing. Teaching does not necessarily lead to learning, nor does learning necessarily require a teacher. It is a humbling thought that sometimes our students may learn despite our efforts rather than because of them.

If teaching is – at best – a process that facilitates learning, then we can place less emphasis on the performative aspects and more on creating an environment that enables that learning to take place.

I know where I'm going 

“The first duty of a lecturer — to hand you after an hour's discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever.”
– Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own

What is learning? In the case of Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times, learning takes the form of the memorisation and reproduction of pre-defined knowledge, transmitted from teacher to the student. If, in contrast, you are hoping to encourage students to think for themselves, it is the application of that knowledge that is meaningful. Better still, it is the original application of that knowledge so that new connections are made between existing ideas.

Irrespective of what your educational philosophy is, in order to design learning you need to understand what it is that you are hoping to achieve. In higher education, the principles that underpin an education are usually expressed as 'learning outcomes'. These are a series of expectations that define what a student needs to demonstrate in order to merit the award of a degree. At undergraduate level these are informed by a series of ‘subject benchmark statements’. These serve to define a set of common standards across all undergraduate programmes.

Defining learning is difficult, and the temptation is sometimes to focus on those things that are easy to measure. This may be a mistake. Instead, ask yourself what knowledge, skills and qualities you want your students to demonstrate.

Red or blue pill?

Once you have defined what you want your students to become, you need to consider how you help them get there. You might find yourself bewildered by choice. After all, there are a lot of methods that you can choose from. They include:

  • Lectures: I talk at you
  • Personal tutorials: I talk with you
  • Seminars: You talk to each other
  • Crits: You show and discuss
  • Workshops: You learn by doing
  • Briefs: You solve this problem

In practice, the definitions between methods often blur. The key challenge is in making an informed choice about what methods you use. Each particular method has its own strengths and weakness, and it is unlikely that any one method can meet every ambition. Try not to use any method by default (i.e. because it was how you were taught).

If, for example, you would like your students to learn how to use the new widget crank, it might be best not to lecture them for an hour on the finer points of widget cranking. A workshop would probably be more effective. Equally, if you would like your students to improve how they give and receive critical feedback then a personal tutorial might not work as well as a critique in giving them experience in doing so.

All that is solid melts into air

You never stop learning how to teach because nothing is fixed. Students change. Subjects change. Institutions change. As such, it pays to keep reflecting on who you are teaching, what you are teaching and how you are teaching it.

Thankfully you don’t have to do this on your own. You have three invaluable resources to draw upon: your students, your peers and educational research. Consulting each of these on a regular basis will help to keep you on your toes.

In formal education most institutions will also offer you the chance to study for an educational qualification as part of your ongoing staff development. In higher education this will normally take the form of a postgraduate certificate (PGCert) in education.

O captain! My captain!

Not every teacher can inspire students to quote Walt Whitman from atop their desks in their honour. It is difficult to teach with such expectation on our shoulders. Nor perhaps should we.

Instead, if we believe that teaching is a process by which we hope to facilitate learning, we can share that responsibility with our students and in doing so encourage them to make those new connections for themselves.

Chris Mitchell is Head of the Academic Development Office at the Royal College of Art and a tutor with the Centre for Learning and Teaching in Art and Design. He blogs on educational ideas at http://seventimes7.wordpress.com/