Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      April 1999 Volume XXII Number 1

Teaching by Design
by Eric Pfeffinger

When C. Thomas Mitchell came to Indiana University Bloomington in 1988, he had just finished his Ph.D. in fine art and experimental psychology and was chiefly interested in the book he was planning to write; his new teaching job was a useful means to that end. Now, Mitchell is an associate professor of apparel merchandising and interior design, and teaching is at the center of everything he does.

C. Thomas Mitchell, associate professor of apparel merchandising and interior design and director of the Center for Design Process at Indiana University Bloomington, working with students. --credit

A lot has changed in those ten years, Mitchell realizes as he looks back on them from amid the stacks of Miles Davis and Frank Zappa CDs in his Memorial Hall East office. "I had no teaching experience at all, and no specific experience with this discipline." In addition to his Ph.D., he has a bachelor's degree in architectural design and a master's in engineering. "It was a little intimidating," he recalls "At first, you go into the classroom, you're just surviving. Then you can begin to work with it."

In the process of working with it, Mitchell has become a vigorously reflective teacher--so reflective that he can break down into stages his own pedagogical development, which evolved to respond to the changing needs of students. "When I first arrived at IU I'd say: 'We're going to read these pages for these days, and discuss it.' That worked for a while. But it became clear that there was a fundamental problem that needed to be addressed: students weren't incorporating the theories I was teaching into what they were actually designing." Design majors divide their time between studio classes, which focus on technical and geometrical issues, and more theoretical classes like Mitchell's Design Methods and Contemporary Issues in Environmental Design. He also teaches What is Design? From the Teacup to the City (and Beyond). Though Mitchell teaches both studio and theory courses, he admits that the latter "are probably closest to my research interests. I introduce people to other issues so they will think more broadly." But it's a problem if students fail to carry discoveries made in Design Methods over to their studio work. "That's the point," Mitchell says. "These issues should affect what they think about and do."

He first tried to address the problem by assigning study questions to help direct the students' attention to the practical design issues in the reading, but found that to be only partially successful. At the time, Mitchell was also working on his second book, New Thinking in Design, and he conducted an interview with John Seely Brown, director of research at Xerox. "They've developed what they call 'situated' or 'grounded research,' which they use in developing products," Mitchell explains. "The idea is: rather than coming up with a theory about how people interact with the world, you situate what you want to learn in the context of how people actually interact with the world."

This experience, for Mitchell, provided an illuminating insight. He applied for--and received--a teaching grant to apply situated research to teaching, and it's an approach he continues to employ today. "It really revolutionized things," he says. "When students see the utility of what they're doing, they do a much better job of it from the outset. Before, in Design Methods, I'd have taught students to use certain techniques- observation of environmental traces, observation of physical behavior, literature surveys--and then said, 'Go apply this.' The link was weak. They were doing it solely as a student project."

In contrast, Mitchell now begins at the point whose theory meets practice. On the first day of class he might hand out a twenty-five-page transcript of an interview he conducted with the chief architect of the recent redesign of Bloomington's College Mall. In it, the architect discusses in great detail the process of working with a client to finalize a design. "Students have no idea how complicated it is," Mitchell points out. "The architect talks about the presentations they'll one day have to do to win contracts like that, about what it's like to have to satisfy people other than themselves and their design instructor. It's a bit of a shock for them at first." Mitchell might follow that up by having this students tour the facility with the mall's head of maintenance, to identify good design ideas that don't function well day to day.

Mitchell's latest book, co-authored by Jiangmei Wu, is Living Design: The Daoist Way of Building (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998). The book, which grew out of a study by Wu, now a consultant in IUB's Teaching & Learning Technologies Laboratory, but then a doctoral student under Mitchell's direction, illustrates the interplay between Mitchell's research, writing, and pedagogical interests. Wu prepared a visual survey of Chinese architecture (from which this image is taken) and then identified and analyzed the major design principles embodied in various buildings. In the book , Mitchell frames Wu's conclusions in the context of the theory of "user-responsive designing" he has developed in previous monographs. This image is a bell tower in Tai Gui, Shanxi province, China. --credit

Mitchell uses this kind of field experience as "a touchstone for the rest of the semester." He adds, "The rest of the course runs relatively smoothly because they can see the relevance of it all. Otherwise I teach it almost exactly as I did before, but now they see the theory in relation to their own work."

Mitchell has also found that such an approach has an impact on student learning. "Basically, I feel that in a typical course you can expect 20 percent of the class to do whatever you tell them to, and 20 percent not to do so well. With a purely theoretical approach, you lose that middle 60 percent. With a situated approach, the vast majority of the students catch on to the relevance right away."

This semester, teams of students completed the process by presenting their group research on various design issues in the form of Web sites that can be referred to in class and over the course of their time at IU. "I'm almost anti-technology; I'll use the blackboard whenever I possibly can," Mitchell admits. "But the Web offers three advantages: links to situate issues in a larger context; good quality image reproduction; and an efficient mode of distribution."

Mitchell finds it both intriguing and gratifying to observe the patterns of interaction between research and teaching throughout his career thus far. "My initial interests were very theoretical," he says. "Working on my first two books led me to discover the importance of situated learning, which influenced my teaching. My third book, Living Design: The Daoist Way of Building, grew out of a project by my graduate student Jiangmei Wu, and now, my fourth book is all about teaching. That squares the circle. It's now all one stream for me." Forthcoming from McGraw-Hill, Mitchell's The Architect and Designer's Research Guide sets forth on paper what he's been practicing in the classroom. "It's how you apply situated research, not to make your students better theoreticians but to make them better designers," he says.

"I sometimes get accused of my work not being theoretical enough," Mitchell laughs. "Actually it's a completely new theory of design, but presented in a way intended to help designers." In fact, Mitchell observes, "I'm always doing research on new trends, and it always feeds into the classroom, even if students don't always realize it. When you use the situated approach, the distinction between research and teaching goes away." He smiles as he quotes John Seely Brown quoting physicist Arno Penzias: "There are only two types of research: that which gets used--and that which doesn't."

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