Kairos 22.1


Toward nomadic pedagogy

This webtext has centered around two main questions connected to enabling learning spaces for sustainable futures: 1) What roles may spaces for learning outside of the studio have in design pedagogy, and 2) how may learning in spaces out in the world bring about design dispositions that are enabling, productive, and relevant to designing for sustainable futures?

We have framed our investigations within nomadic pedagogy. In outlining pedagogy as nomadic, we have included the aspect of speculation as a mobilizer of intention and an expansion of territory, terrain, and learning spaces as multimodal and multiliterate landscapes. These are internal and external. They concern seeing and sensing, reacting and performing. The emergent and dialogical character of the nomadic pedagogy through and for design included pauses, critical moments, reflections in interviews, and exchanges between students and participants in various places and moments. The imagined, the envisioned, the storied, and the specifically located were factored into this journey of gathering others’ stories with the aim of re-telling stories of self on return to the contained and known space of the studio.

In drawing on the evocative language of Elizabeth Ellsworth (2005), who spoke of the challenge in materializing “pedagogical forces in and through places of learning” (p. 17), we have revealed the anomalous places of learning where pedagogical intent shapes space, time, experience, and objects as “vehicles through which we come to know differently” (p. 37). These all share, in one way or another, concerns for putting inside and outside into relation. We highlight this process as being one of enactment, hence mention of the performative, and describe where curriculum and pedagogy are drawn into a closer relationship with one another, collaboratively and dialogically (Heyer, 2011; Schleppegrell, 1995; Shawer et al., 2012).

The notion of reconfiguring educators’ conversations is important for this study, as it has to do with finding ways of bringing about dialogue that evokes the passion we have as educators to harness “[a] force through which we come to have the surprising, incomplete knowings, ideas, and sensations that undo us and set us in motion toward an open future” (Ellsworth, 2005, p. 17–18). We find resonance here with Rachel Fendler’s description of the nomadic qualities of learning mobilities that is “attentive to the de-territorialisations, transgressions and disruptions that characterize the learning process” (2013, p. 786).

This section has three main parts. We first reflect on what we label agentive selves. Here we discuss what it means in a design-centered nomadic pedagogy to give weight and space to students’ own agency, and individual, as well as group, creative and constructive expression through design. Next, we present a set of abstract propositions and responses concerning learning spaces and sustainable futures as encounters and intersections, crossovers and distinctions between design, rhetoric, and pedagogy. We close by pointing readers to a second, alternate journey and its ultimate performative realization at the AfrikaBurn festival. The creative, cultural, durative, performative, epistemic passage presented on this journey extended early in the following year into a second experiment that led to participation in a major alternate arts festival and Fiscilla’s final sacrifice by fire.

Agentive selves

Through a spatial and journey-based interface, this webtext has embodied a multimodal, qualitative inquiry-based investigation into ways to support dynamic learning for undergraduate and postgraduate students of design. It does this through supporting their emergent roles as critically engaged and resilient designers able to transition toward sustainable design practice.

The analysis has lifted a discursive and reflective account of the spatial relations between learning within and beyond the design school as a formal institution. It has highlighted some of the implications for widening our communicative contexts for curricular change through pedagogy enacted nomadically. These include examining learning in context, along with the role of context in learning. We have traced how learning that was nomadic and spatial in quality opened up internal spaces for agentive design dispositions to emerge on the part of students (Erstad & Sefton-Green, 2013).

We have drawn on accounts of how students reflected on and displayed dispositions of resilience, adaptability, and self-awareness through their experiential encounters during the journey. We conclude that design pedagogy, when enacted in a collaboratively nomadic manner, reveals to its participants a way of seeing themselves and others differently, yet relationally. This alternate view of self proved to be pivotal in this learning setting. It provides some insight into how we, as design educators, might open out and lightly hold the pedagogical space as one that is filled with potential. This is important so that the emergence of agentive learning selves can evolve in ways that are responsive to the possibilities inherent in multiple places and spaces, as we transition our design education toward futures that are sustainable—ecologically, commercially, technically, and culturally.

Propositions on pedagogy, design, and sustainability

We see there being three main findings concerning relations between pedagogy, design, and sustainability. These relate to climate change, nomadic pedagogy, and transition design. Under these categories we list six main propositions and their implications for design pedagogy and related research.

Climate change and design education for sustainability

1) A speculatively, imaginary, and expansive move is required when designing for sustainable futures, in order to go beyond the limitations of a market-driven economy. Alternatives to the status quo need to be storied, envisaged, and acted upon. The challenge is to move these conversations and stories beyond purely receptive arenas and into curricula, and subsequently into the market-driven economy itself. These alternative stories can open up ways for educators to critique curriculum as it is enacted. It allows them to invigorate their roles as curriculum-makers who are able to materialize the pedagogical forces at play within learning spaces. We highlight this process as being one of enactment, hence mention of the performative and its strong collaborative component as one of the key pedagogical implications.

2) Immersion in real world contexts related to the design problematic of climate change produces learning that is characterized by deep listening, empathy, and a relational awareness that is grounded in finite resources. Meaningful engagement in the context of the problematic is what much of design thinking advocates, and many toolkits are available that facilitate a staged process. What is different in our case is that the nomadic journey was designed to put students in closer contact with resource-stretched communities, taking them out of their comfort zones so that learning became embodied and felt. This process yielded a different kind of learning that tempered dispositions toward a greater tolerance for discomfort, responsiveness to the unexpected, and was productive of solutions that were co-created. This was a major learning takeaway.

3) A transdisciplinary approach allows ownership of the design process through co-creation of a community of practice, where resilient, adaptive, and trusting dispositions emerge. As educators preparing students for design’s wider socio-cultural role, we have observed real value in facilitating learning spaces that are collaborative and openly exploratory between design domains, with processes that are semi-structured. This implies that educators and students need to develop a sensitivity toward shared expertise through a weave of design oriented multiliteracies that expands the range of choice within a design challenge, thus enabling students to become competent problem solvers. One of the key results we see is that the cultivation of dispositons—such as thoughtfulness, humility, criticality, reflection, resilience, courage, and stillness—can yield more sustainable design solutions that may emanate from shifts in a students knowledge, behavior, and emotions.

Design-centered nomadic pedagogy

4) Pedagogy that allows reflection in and on action reveals the de-territorializations and transgressions characteristic of the learning process. This becomes richly charged when students performatively enact their emergent identity and agency in relation to contexts in and out of the studio. Reflection during design activity is challenging, as often the process is deadline driven and bound by constraints that don’t allow for deeper noticing of emergent agency. This would suggest that educators need to orient their pedagogy to enable this to happen. Shifting the locus of project work nomadically appears to heighten awareness and draw attention to agentive selves as they evolve. A key contribution is that the design in nomadic pedagogy operates at a content or subject level and as a design for learning potential that is dynamic in status and character.

5) Planning meaningful learning events cannot be fully envisaged beforehand. Design pedagogy that is framed as nomadic sets in motion and opens up spaces for learning; it also may nourish the emergence of learning moments that count as meaningful for students, and these may be varied, anomalous, and situated in their experience of unfolding situations. For educators who are less trusting in these processes, this can be threatening and unsettling. Similar to students being allowed a safe space to learn and to make mistakes, staff also require experience of facilitating pedagogy that is less prescriptive and generically defined, and to learn how to create spaces for learning to emerge meaningfully. We see that an open pedagogical aspect rather than a deterministic learning agenda makes it possible to find out how to design in context. Making spaces for learning, and through leaving processes partly unscripted, can assist students in developing knowledge about sustainable design through engaged and emergent experiences. These are ones that occur and are revealed through engagement with settings, people, and processes, of seeing the effect of climate change on sites and as conditions that promote new design ideas and thereby fuel their roles as future designers.

Transition in design

6) Communicating experimental design pedagogy toward curricular change remains an important means of ensuring design education is responsive toward sustainable futures. A curriculum that is fixed and bound by constraints, such as timetabling and staff capacity, becomes confined and unresponsive to change. Additionally curriculum-by-accrual constantly places design educators in a defensive stance toward the inevitable need for new skills and literacies. As we have found in the writing up of this research, there is an emergent quality to the pedagogy that can best be described as trusting in a process that will bring about appropriate learning. Producing the documentary film was, among other objectives, an endeavor to bring about collegial discussion and to reveal some of how that process happened. This webtext in its multimodal character and spatial rhetoric is our attempt to appeal equally to educator–researchers and design educators, revealing the emergent qualities of the project under analysis so that others may draw inspiration for further experiments of their own. Our own research transition has been to articulate our learning journey as students and educators so that it is available online as one example of how transition design and transitions through design may be realized and shared. In our educational context of transformation, this is most important to exhibit and to discuss beyond this single research account.

Into a performative space

This journey is only one half of what was achieved with Fiscilla the fictive story gatherer. A second team of co-creative travelers, students, designers, educators, and researchers began a last and final journey with Fiscilla to the AfrikaBurn creative community festival in a remote semi-desert wilderness. This festival is a sister act to Burning Man held annually in the desert in Nevada, USA.

The second journey carried forward our approaches into a new set of challenges with new applications—into a place somewhere between the design studio and the real world. This saw 4th-year design and 1st-year architecture and interior design students working together to transport Fiscilla toward her final installation place. As students negotiated extreme climate conditions in the wilderness of the semi-desert of the Tankwa Karoo—where certain rules for participation demanded a culture of respect, sharing, and zero environmental impact; new learning experiences were plentiful. Here students and educators had to negotiate the complexities of logistics and the making of a creative installation for public performative engagement and sacrifice by fire. We are currently writing up this second investigation of nomadic pedagogy.

If the journey to Namibia allowed us to travel a route along and across nomadic design learning, AfrikaBurn presented a fitting opportunity to take the training wheels off and test our collective ability to expand spaces for design learning within one location in a remote and open-ended communal and expressive place—rich in the affordance of speculative, locative, and performative dimensions of design learning.