Developing Curriculum for Seasoned Professionals to Enter Academia

image: Shawn Balon
image: Shawn Balon

Gray Hair Matters: Developing a custom MLA Curriculum for seasoned professionals to enter academia

Design professionals with substantial practice experience have usually amassed a wealth of acquired knowledge and lessons learned over their career. Moreover, they have the gray hair to prove it. There could be a benefit to having those professionals impart that experience onto the next generation of designers as instructors in university landscape architecture programs.

For professionals with a Bachelor’s degree who may be interested in this pursuit, how does one prepare to make the transition from practice to teaching? Most positions for teaching landscape architecture begin with a minimum requirement of an MLA. However, what about having this qualification prepares one to be an effective teacher?

I asked myself this question when I decided to enroll in an MLA degree program at the University of Georgia (UGA), with the express desire of transitioning from practice into a teaching career. The question became the focus of my thesis as I worked toward proposing a custom MLA curriculum designed to prepare seasoned practitioners to enter academia and teach landscape architecture.

Research Methodologies
After identifying key components of design based education and pedagogy a triangulated research design was created including:

•   An extensive literature review on design pedagogy
•   The use of reflective practice to document and understand the lessons learned from the author’s experience within the UGA MLA program
•   Accumulation of data from a questionnaire sent to current instructors of landscape architecture at programs across the United States

Data from all three sources was analyzed and sorted by the author into three individual lists constituting what might be considered ‘critical pedagogy’ in design education. These lists were ultimately compared and analyzed for common threads of knowledge with the goal of arriving at one master list of pedagogical elements considered imperative for inclusion in the proposed curriculum.

The proud author on the left with his first class of students image: John Anderson
John Anderson on the left with his first class of students
image: John Anderson

Data Generated
Not surprisingly, the amount of data generated defining critical LA pedagogy was substantial in both general and design-focused categories; speaking to the complexity of the subject. At a basic level, pedagogy includes technical level skills – promoting critical thinking, effective classroom management, student assessment, and lesson plan development. It also requires certain interpersonal traits including empathy, inquisitiveness, motivation, and patience, as well as the need for effective written, verbal, and graphic communication skills. The results from the instructor questionnaire were particularly enlightening, offering a snapshot of current instructor’s opinions and thoughts on teaching and life in academia.

Results – Tiers of Critical Pedagogy
The creation of a matrix helped to sort and prioritize the data. Elements repeated from one methodology to the next were given a higher priority, creating two tiers of critical pedagogy. In keeping with the format previously established, two categories including Technical Data and Interpersonal Skills were used to list elements.

Technical data image: John Anderson
Tiers of Critical Pedagogy: Technical Data
image: John Anderson
Tiers of Critical Pedagogy: Technical data image: John Anderson
Tiers of Critical Pedagogy: Interpersonal Skills
image: John Anderson

The Curriculum
The proposed curriculum includes a unique combination of individual research and study, ‘on the job training’ in the form of student and instructor interactions in classroom and studio settings, and personal interactions with current faculty and administration. Each course included in the curriculum includes a list of Tier One or Tier Two critical pedagogical elements previously identified. The curriculum addresses one hundred percent of those critical elements by the completion of the program. Throughout the program, students are required to keep a continuous journal of reflective writing. The journal is an integral component, intended to enrich the educational experience, both cognitively and personally.

This curriculum fits an accelerated one-year MLA program. The class sequence begins with a broad understanding of design based education and ends with a more refined focus on a personal pedagogy, the completion of a well-crafted academic curriculum vitae and a thesis project.

Program schedule image: John Anderson
Program schedule
image: John Anderson

Conclusion
The practitioner/educator program provides successful graduates with the following educational rewards:

•   Knowledge, experience, and reflection of higher education instruction
•   Pedagogical training in preparation for teaching in a design based program at the college level
•   On the job training in both studio and classroom settings with specific pedagogical learning outcomes from each student and instructor interaction
•   A line of scholarly inquiry for post graduation pursuit along with a more grounded understanding academic research and scholarship expectations

The author believes it takes a combination of instructors with differing backgrounds and specialties to provide a rich and rewarding academic experience for students in landscape architecture. Upon completion of this one-year MLA program, the practitioner will be prepared to teach and contribute to a landscape architecture program in a substantial and meaningful way.

by John Anderson, ASLA, Principal of Anderson Design, Inc. in Atlanta. John is a landscape architect with thirty years of practice experience, as well as being an aspiring educator. He welcomes further dialog on the subject of landscape architecture education. He can be reached at andersondesign@bellsouth.net.

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