Joseph Schwartz Makes the Case for K-12 Design Education

Joseph Schwartz grew up in Old Bridge, New Jersey, and attended the School of Visual Arts. Since 2003, he has been teaching computer graphics and design at Spotswood High School in New Jersey. I first met him in 2008 at a design educator’s conference at Kutztown University, Pennsylvania, where I was the keynote speaker. Schwartz recently received his MFA from the Get Your Masters with the Masters low-residency program at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which I direct. His thesis is “Designing the Future: Making the Case for K–12 Design Education,” and he has been an active presenter at conferences, working to bring attention to this important subject. He recently cofounded a nonprofit organization to aid in this effort.

What got you interested in the subject of K–12 design education?

I was approached to create a new program of courses at the high school where I was teaching art. The courses had to be graphics technology–based, but I was more interested in integrating design into the curriculum. Once I was given the green light, I started researching existing curricula for design courses at the high school level. I didn’t find much and this started my personal journey to learn more about teaching design at the K–12 level.

Is there design education abroad to compare to?

Absolutely! In the United Kingdom, design is taken very seriously at the K–12 level. Respected instructors such as Nigel Cross at the Open University and national groups like the UK Design Council take the education of K–12 students very seriously in this area. They realize that by 2020, design will be more important than ever—not only as a vehicle for innovation, but because it just makes business sense to be somewhat well-versed in design matters. Likewise, South Korea recently adopted a national curriculum that adds aspects of art and design instruction as an integral part of the K–12 school day. These are two countries that understand how important design education is to their national well-being.

At a time when the arts have been diminished in public schools, what are the possibilities of establishing design education?

The first thing to understand is the distinction between teaching fine arts and teaching design. While the lines can blur between the two because they both involve visual literacy, the delineation is clear. Teaching fine arts is a deeply personal experience, meant to give students an opportunity to express their own thoughts and feelings. The process of teaching design is an intrinsically external process, where the student learns to create with the purpose of communicating with others in mind.

One of the reasons art is generally so undervalued in schools is that its impact can’t be easily quantified. Yet, think about how the basic skills of art—such as using materials, working with color, creating shapes and images—are used every day, and how teachers assign and assess work requiring these skills all the time. Imagine a school day that doesn’t use elements and principles of design!

When discussing the instruction of design, things get even more interesting, because now you have a whole new level of visual literacy to talk about. With design, students apply their existing artistic skills to assignments that will be used, seen, and shared with others. This can be a very difficult concept for a K–12 student to grasp, but it can be introduced at this level.

What is the current state of K–12 design education in the United States?

There are those who want to see design taught as a totally independent and required subject, akin to a core curriculum standard such as math and language. There are those who want to integrate design education into regular classes and see it used as a teaching tool side-by-side with other methodologies. And there are those who see teaching design as unimportant—a frivolity we can do without, especially since so many children can’t meet basic literacy and math skills.

The interesting thing is that those who are talking about teaching design at the K–12 level are also at the forefront of the school reform movement—Sir Ken Robinson, Dan Pink, David Kelley, John Maeda. They aren’t talking about creating separate schools, either—they want to see design integrated into the mainstream curriculum. They talk about more architecture in science and math classes; more poster design history in foreign language classes; more environmental design (such as parks and monuments) in history classes. It’s all very simple, but very few teachers know how to implement it.

Which organizations are working currently on establishing K–12 design education?

There are quite a few groups interested in this. A study done in 2010 suggested that many of the jobs that will be in demand in 2020 don’t even exist yet. These will require new sets of skills and new ways of thinking that only those well versed in design and engineering will successfully navigate. The people who will be filling those jobs in 2020 are in the K–12 system right now and it’s up to us to make sure they are ready.

Because of this, groups such as ICOGRADA, the AIGA, AIA, IDSA, ITEEA, and NAEA have all started to address training. Organizations such as the Cooper-Hewitt, Stanford’s d.school, Worldstudio’s Design Ignites Change, No Right Brain Left Behind, and others have been working hard to get K–12 teachers and students involved in creative problem-solving exercises that specifically utilize design. IDEO has a great program in place for helping train teachers to utilize design thinking in their classrooms.

Early in 2012, a goal of mine was reached when I established my own nonprofit advocacy group, the Design-ed coalition. Cofounded by Dr. Robin Vande Zande of Kent State University and Cristian Fleming of the Brooklyn-based design group The Public Society, our goal is to make resources available to K–12 teachers, students, and parents interested in learning about design, its importance in the educational process, and how it can be implemented.

What do you hope to see happening within the next ten years?

Well, it’s a very exciting time to be a designer, of course. In my own design career, which has spanned 24 years, I’ve observed design go from doing paste-ups with Xeroxes marked “FPO” to electronic interactive publishing for tablets. Technology has changed so much and so fast, but the opportunities for designers keep coming.

In education, we need to simply calm down and come to realize that we aren’t like South Korea and Finland, whose students score very high on standardized tests. Those are inclusive societies that don’t have many foreigners and thus don’t have the educational barriers that we do. Here in the United States, we welcome all varieties of people. The trade-off is that our teachers have to work within those cultural, religious, and linguistic barriers. So we may not be the highest-scoring nation on the planet, but we are the most welcoming.

I see design as a tool that can be used to cut across all curricular areas, all cultural differences, and all learning types. My ultimate goal would be to see teaching design as a common-sense method that teachers of all subject matters, and students of all ability levels, can utilize.

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You might also be interested in Louise Sandhaus’s webinar, Design Education Today, available for download at MyDesignShop.com.

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  1. and what better way than to do it as part and parcel of teaching the technical theatre arts!!!!All of technical theatre is based on DESIGN — desgin the sets, design the lights, design the costumes, design the props, design the sound (now there’s a very interesting concept of design: aural design!!!), desing the advertising & program, design the projections, design the makeup.And theatre offers one big additional payoff for the student.  Their designs can come alive on stage or film as part of the school’s productions.  From concept through to realization.And even Kindergartners can get in on the theatre arts design action.