Monday, May 10, 2010

Fish and fishing

The first year studio review at Cornell last Wednesday got me to reflect quite a bit on teaching. It's not hard to imagine how crucial this formation year is to a student's future career. The question is, what does education mean in this process? What's a teacher's role?

A Chinese proverb says, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." When we talk about architecture, what education should offer are series of techniques and ways of thinking. It should be more about how to design than the design itself. If a teacher is trying to impose the form of a box, it's like saying "here's a trout - there's no other fish out there."

Even with my limited knowledge, I know there are also salmon, tuna, cod, herring, mackerel, sardine, catfish, and monkfish... Perhaps the first thing a teacher should do is to ask the student, "What do you want to achieve in your project?" The fundamental issue of design is its intent, or purpose. What does it do? Why do you make it like this? First year students may not really know how to clarify their minds. The teacher's job is to guide them through it, help them to discover good ideas from what they see, and keep the ideas clear through the process.

After we have a clear idea, we can talk about techniques. How many different ways are there to catch a fish? Wikipedia says hand gathering, spearing, netting, angling, and trapping. I've also seen noodling. And where to look for the fish? I'll suggest Norway or Canada if you want salmon. Southern US if you want to try noodling. Here, the design intent acts as a pointer to systematic and rigorous explorations. Various reiterations would be done but they shouldn't be random. Experiments are not aimless wanders - they are usually conducted in a structured way.

Suppose the student catches a big fish after several attempts. What's next? Well, time to cook. A good design still needs a good presentation, which includes graphic illustrations and verbal description. A teacher's role here is to help the student find the most effective recipe to communicate what the design is all about, from intent to process to the final materialization.

Imagine all the steps mentioned above went smoothly, we would have a yummy dish on the table. (Bon Appetit!) But don't forget, the bottom line is that the student should be able to have a same, if not better, quality meal again tomorrow.

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