Highways, Byways and Leaving a Trail

21st Century Art School Curriculum

What would Bauhaus tutors and students think of our 21st-century art schools? What would feel familiar and what would feel alien and remote from their experience? How would our contemporary understandings of art school curriculum differ from early 20th-century contexts? Susan Orr wants to discuss the concept of the art school “sticky curriculum” that she developed together with Alison Shreeve.


mattyphotographyy (Pixabay)
The sticky curriculum comprises of skills, practices, and theories, and the ways that these components stick together creates a personalized curriculum for each student.

[Translate to English:] Überschrift

Art school students are explorers who forge their own paths into new creative territories. Using a navigational metaphor for this article I will argue that a sense of lostness is a crucial part of an art school education. Consider a student arriving at art school today to study design. There will be ele ments of the course mapped out in formal written documentation. The student will have access to quite detailed information about how the course is structured and how they will be graded online.


About Susan

Susan Orr (London) is Dean of Learning, Teaching and Enhancement and Professor in Creative Practice Pedagogy at the University of Arts London. She has co-authored “Art and Design Pedagogy in Higher Education”.


I suspect this would have been very different in the Bauhaus. In today’s art school there is much greater written codification. This reflects the wider political climate of low trust, audit, and public accountability coupled with a desire to surface and make explicit the hidden curriculum to address concerns of mystique or elitism.

The influences of the Bologna Process, and the wider academization of the art school have resulted in arts schools becoming part of the university sector in some countries. The formalizing and documenting of art school higher education has meant that course leaders feel compelled to set out in very precise terms what the learning offer is. The print and online information given to art school students today might be described as the formal curriculum, a route map which guides the learning, but it certainly can not encompass everything a student might learn.

An ontologically ambiguous space

Students do not navigate the creative curriculum in the way they might follow a route on a app on their mobile. The art school needs to retain its position as a liminal and ambiguous space that helps students to play and to find their own creative solutions. The contemporary art school is an ontologically ambiguous space where students experience disruption and uncertainty. Students need to experience risk and failure in order to develop their creative practice. In other words: they need to feel lost ...

Clearly it is impossible for contemporary art schools to codify the “route” for getting lost ... This is where the art school goes beyond the written documentation. In our book we describe this as the “non-reified aspects of learning in the curriculum, sticky elements because they are harder to pin down, are less formally acknowledged”. The key point is that there needs to be an element of getting lost in order to support, develop, and sustain creativity and to prepare students for the uncertainty of 21st-century work contexts and world chal- lenges. Alison and I refer to the teaching approach that is required in these contexts as a “pedagogy of ambiguity”. Our concept of the sticky curriculum comprises the formal (reified and documented) and informal (harder to identify, messy and elusive) aspects of knowing and practicing, and both aspects of the curriculum co-exist in the art school.

I want to offer an explanation about why Alison and I adopted the word sticky to describe the art school curriculum. Sticky is a term which has multiple meanings in English, and we used it to convey the challenges, conflicts, dilemmas, and ambiguity that are entangled in the creative curriculum. Sticky simultaneously has positive, negative, and indeed perplexing connotations. We talk about sticking points, sticky places, being stuck, getting stuck, getting stuck in, sticky weather, and sticky patches. More recently, university leaders and website design- ers talk about the need for their campuses or websites to be sticky—they want students or users to stay engaged and on site. Stickiness is usefully ambiguous.

The sticky curriculum carries the potential for serendipitous outcomes. A sticking point is difficult to negotiate and working through a sticky patch is challenging. Students need to develop tolerance to push through the stickiness to engage in deep learning. Students can find that a lost and sticky place can, with engagement, patience, and determination, transform and open access to new creative territory. Built-in stickiness can be a deliberate pedagogic strategy to develop and deepen students’ learning. For example, students might be given a one-word assignment brief or they might be given a future dystopian design challenge to address. Stickiness in the curriculum offers the possibility for diverse and personalized creative responses. The sticky curriculum is a term that captures the multiple and complex meanings and layerings that comprise the art school curriculum.

Decolonizing the Arts Curriculum

Within the sticky curriculum lostness is to be cherished; but this is not about abandoning our students in the middle of a desert and driving off. The art school route map is perhaps more like a compass—we show the student the overall direction of creative education but leave creative space for the students to chart their own route to create personalised learning. Students pursue individual journeys that are uncharted by tutors. This is a form of enquiry-based teaching and learning.

In popular parlance, curriculum is the word used to describe the content of a course. In the famous Gropius curriculum wheel image, we see that all students were offered a foundational course in, amongst other things, colour theory. I would argue that today there is very little agreement about the foundational knowledge an art school student needs. The so-called “theory” aspect of an art school curriculum differs enormously across departments, colleges, and countries. 

Contemporary design education theory borrows from ethnography, sociology, history, politics, architecture, philosophy, cultural theory, design thinking, history of art, and more besides. The curriculum is determined by local, educational, economic, and political parameters, as well as being shaped by the expertise and interests of individual tutors. Foundational design curriculum is wide ranging and highly contested. We know this intuitively when we recognise the differences between student graduate shows from diverse college/region/ country boundaries and across the years/ decades.

Courses create cultures or micro-cultures with their own characteristics and practices which imbue the students’ design practices. In some art schools, these micro-cultures reflect values and content that ex-art school student leader Shelley Asquith called “pale, male and stale” and many art school students campaign to bring in to the curriculum previously marginalized and intersectional perspectives. These debates point to the struggles linked to the construction and legitimization of particular forms and kinds of design knowledge. There are developing global debates about the need to decolonize the design curriculum. 

Leading this work is Dr Dori Tunstall, who has placed the need to decolonise the design curriculum at the center of her leadership as Dean of the Faculty of Design at Ontario College of Art and Design. Female, LGBTQ, black, indigenous and/or disabled designers bring insight and new perspectives that remind us that the sticky curriculum is not inert or unchanging.

Art school is about a becoming

At my own university (University of the Arts London), students and tutors have worked in partnership to create our first “Decolonizing the Arts Curriculum: Perspectives on Higher Education Zine”. Issues linked to the role of women and the Bauhaus have been discussed elsewhere, but wider intersectional and decolonizing debates have only emerged more recently. Multiple views and perspectives add to the complexity and stickiness of the design curriculum, where students need to build empathy and concern for others, holding fragmented and fused views of the world’s needs.

The most successful contemporary art schools offer students carefully planned learning scaffolds within which students are safe to take creative risks and “do their own thing”. There is a central tension between clarity (setting out the route) and ambiguity (you need to feel ok being lost). This is the stickiness of the indeterminate creative curriculum. The design curriculum supports the development of students’ knowledges, practices, and ways of being. It is concerned with supporting the development of the students’ professional design identity. Students combine dual identities as students and professionals from the moment they arrive in the studio. Art school is about a becoming.

Some art school students report that they feel like they are teaching themselves and whilst to an extent this is true because they direct their own learning an effective creative educator will be able to support and accelerate students’ learning. In other words studio tutors have a powerful educative role. The academization of the contemporary art school serves to foreground the teaching and learning approaches adopted by tutors.

In early art school contexts the emphasis for many art school tutors was on developing a peer community of artist/designers working together (as in Bauhaus) or more traditional master/apprentice “atelier” methods. I don’t regard these as separate approaches. In all communities of student and tutor designers and artists there are (often unacknowledged) power relations and hierarchies that can serve to advantage and disadvantage certain students. For example an apparently harmless ‘let’s continue this crit in the pub’ is exclusionary to certain faith students who don’t drink or students who need to get home to look after their children.

Leading the student through the creative learning forest

Today’s art schools teach greater numbers and more diverse students than 100 years ago and there is more recognition that design educators need to be able to teach as well as design. They need to be both creative and educational practitioners. Tutors today increasingly have formal opportunities to develop the teaching approaches they have at their disposal to support diverse students’ learning needs. For example, at my own university over 80 tutors a year study on our bespoke Postgraduate Certif- icate and Master’s in Academic Practice in Art, Design, and Communication. An effective art school tutor will help students make decisions about their creative development and will ensure they apportion their attention fairly so that students don’t feel that the tutor has favorites (a common challenge in studio contexts).

Rancière’s (1991) “ignorant school master” has much to teach the contemporary art school tutor. Rancière introduces the ignorant school master as someone who has “given [the students] the order to pass through a forest whose openings and clearings he himself [sic] had not discovered”. The students’ will to learn becomes their learning compass and the school master (or mistress) follows rather than leads the students through the creative learning forest.

In the sticky curriculum wheel that Alison and I created for our book, the students are placed at the center to emphasise their agency and stress the importance of student-centered learning. The contemporary art school curriculum comprises of knowledge, practices, processes, and materials. Studio learning is nested within the socio-cultural and political discourses of their time and geographic location. All art schools are imbued with values (often at a very tacit level) that help to determine the ways that students’ developing design practices are shaped, accepted, rejected, and valorized. Woven through the curriculum are digital practices that are enmeshed with analogue practices. The inter-connected layerings in the wheel combine to support the development of the creative self that is at the center of the students’ design learning journey.

This edition is concerned with celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus. Here I will very tentatively suggest two aspects of contemporary design education that I believe will look quaint or irrelevant in 100 years’ time. In 2118 I suspect that the term sustainable design will be obsolete, because to be other than sus- tainable will be unimaginable. This is hinted at in the current development of circular design cur- riculum. I propose that gender-based design (for example, women’s wear fashion courses) will appear to be hopelessly outdated because our conceptions of gender and identity will be trans- formed. These changes are hinted at by current debates regarding post-binary, gender fluidity and transgender.  I believe (and hope) that design students in the future will be able to see themselves in all their rich and intersectional diversity reflected and celebrated in the core design curriculum.

Sticky conclusions

The sticky curriculum comprises of skills, practices, and theories, and the ways that these components stick together creates a personalized curriculum for each student. If students successfully negotiate the sticky curriculum, they learn to manage and work through uncertainty. This prepares them for the unpredictable demands to solve sticky design challenges in the future.

All art schools need to decide when to give students a map and directions and when to leave them so that they find their own path and leave a trail. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds. One student might relish creative ambiguity which another student experiences as a chaotic nightmare. Students have wide-ranging capacities to tolerate ambiguity. The central question to explore is “What is the best ecology of structure and openness to support creative learning?”

bauhaus now

We don’t deliver creative education to students because our students do not follow a set path. Working in the art school sector, I regard the creative, educative and emancipatory potential of the art school as exciting and as full of promise as it was in the Bauhaus. Perhaps in that regard little has changed and the “sticky curriculum” and the Gropius “curriculum wheel” share common territory. The art school studio (whether virtual or physical) is still at the center of creative education.

Everything changes, nothing changes.

This article was originally published in the third issue of the “bauhaus now” magazine.

    [SO 2018]

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