Presented at FATE National Conference, 1988
copyright 1988 Mary Stewart

While working on a new 3D design curriculum, my colleague Judy Grunert suggested that we throw out our preconceptions about freshman education and seek instead the bedrock on which learning is built. We determined that learning processes and basic experiences were most fundamental. The approach proved so productive that we devoted subsequent meetings to identifying the experiences our students need.

In this paper, I will share this approach, using John Dewey’s Art as Experience as my primary source.

Why base a foundation curriculum on processes and experiences? Initially, it was easier to determine what we didn’t want than to agree on a new direction.

We didn’t want a Foundations smorgasbord. At Syracuse University, the foundation program serves eighteen majors, ranging form industrial design to painting to video and graphic design. Any attempt to serve the specific needs of all would result in a curricular nightmare: a bit of perspective for the interior designers; a smattering of anatomy for the painters; a photogram or two for the photographers. Beyond the incoherence of such a program, we feared that this approach would deny the value of the freshman year in itself and reduce the foundation program to a pseudo-education done in anticipation of the REAL stuff in each major. While we agreed on the value of perspective, anatomy and so forth, we concluded that the framework supporting the curriculum required a broader base.

A more theoretical approach, adamantly isolated from application to a major, seemed equally hazardous. At Indiana University, I worked in a rigorous program derived from the highly intellectual Albers approach. Even the best students made little direct connection between foundation exercises and subsequent coursework. Students with less inclination for theory often viewed the foundation year as a form of purgatory, demanding their endurance rather than stimulating their enthusiasm. We wanted energy as well as rigor. And, through our emphasis on experience, we sought to build a cohesive, flexible program, equally powerful in itself and effective as a basis for future work.

Using Dewey, let us consider the philosophical basis for this approach. First, we must define experience in terms specific to our needs.

Through the very process of living, experiences in general terms occur continuously. However, these everyday occurrences are disjointed and incomplete. They are rarely integrated with our past and are too ill-defined to offer a foundation for the future. To be integrated with our existing knowledge and gain definition, an experience must run its course to fulfillment: there must be resolution. Quoting Dewey: “Its close is a consummation, rather than a cessation.”

An experience in Dewey’s terms involves the distillation of an aspect of life. It has a definite beginning, middle and end, and as such, stands out from previous and subsequent occurrences. It has a power and unity that distinguishes it from common events.
For Dewey, an experience posses these qualities:

  • There is deliberate movement toward the outcome,
  • The process is valued in itself,
  • The conclusion is a culmination: a closure, not an arbitrary arrest.

Making sense of an experience requires substantial interpretation and careful consideration of context. For Dewey, an experience is dynamic, yet integrated and complete. He writes: “Every successive part flows freely, without seam and without unfilled blanks…There is no sacrifice of the self-identity of the parts. A river, as distinct from a pond, flows. But its flow gives definition and interest to its successive portions greater than exists in the homogeneous portions of a pond. In an experience, flow is from something to something.” Like a river, an experience is unified by a pervasive quality that distinguishes it as a whole.

What is the pervasive quality that distinguishes the Foundations year? I suggest that the pursuit of knowledge in three forms becomes heightened in any first-year college experience.

  • First year students need time to expand and redefine themselves. Through self-knowledge, they can better select majors and develop self direction.
  • First year students must expand their understanding of the domains of art and design. Few arrive with a solid understanding of traditional art history, and knowledge of design history or contemporary practice is even weaker. Without an understanding of the richness and complexity of visual culture, students are unable to develop solid critical judgment.
  • First year students must gain knowledge of various forms of creative problem-solving, such as divergent thinking, convergent thinking, metaphorical thinking, and so forth. This form of knowledge increases their independence and provides the basis for lifelong learning.

What is the best curricular climate for experiential education? You need:

  • rich resources: students from diverse backgrounds, who can bring a wide range of experiences to the course, combined with a broad based curriculum, offering a productive balance between academic and studio courses.
  • small class size and active learning. By working in collaborative teams, students can contribute a great deal to the overall learning experience.
  • sequential assignments that offer structure without rigidity. Each experience must have a clear beginning, middle and end. Each experience should build on previous assignments and anticipate upcoming assignments.
  • encouragement. Experiential learning requires enormous risk-taking, sustained concentration, and serious self-study. For students accustomed to following instructions, the adjustment is both exhilarating and exhausting.
  • time for reflection. Students need time to integrate each experience with existing attitudes. For Dewey,”Taking in” any vital experience is more than placing something on top of that already known. It involves reconstruction, which may be painful.” A balance between action and assessment is essential.

In an experiential program, we must identify and value the experience each student brings to the course and tutor each, as an individual. Rather than confronting a room full of blank slates, we must value each student as a storehouse of resources. Some of the experiences I find most valuable are:

  • experiences with collaborative as well as individual problem solving.
  • work with various forms of ideation, including journaling, collecting, brainstorming, comparing and contrasting.
  • transformation of media: Dewey argues that an artist’s thought is directly embodied in his/her work. Through art, thought and manifestation merge. Comparisons of media help students understand the effect of form on content. Some transformations include:
  1. from 2D to 3D to 4D
  2. from small to large scale, including conceptual entry into a work versus physical entry into a work,
  3. experiences with kinds of time: linear, nonlinear, memory, etc.
  4. variations in density: from a single voice to harmony to polyphony and counterpoint, even to cacophony!
  5. At the end of each assignment, students need time to assess the creative process used and understand the experience gained.

What are the advantages of an experiential approach to foundation education?

  • Process is of equal value as product; learning is seen as a continuum. We can’t possibly know what ideas or skills our students will need when they begin their careers in the 21st century; encouraging lifelong learning is essential.
  • An experience-based course develops greater continuity between art and life. Thus, non-majors as well as majors can gain more from their experiences in an art studio.
  • Experiential learning accentuates the positive. All experience, including the failures, can increase learning.

I believe that an experience-based curriculum can build on the student’s past experiences, focus the Foundation year on the present, and create a solid bridge to future learning.