SEVERANCE. Class displacement for alternative paths of learning in a vocational graphic design course.


This paper intends to reflect on two projects of teaching art and design implemented in a vocational course of graphic design at Escola Artística e Profissional Árvore [Artistic and Vocational School “Árvore”] in Porto, Portugal. Those projects took place outside the regular class of graphic design: the first one was an interchange project between a German high-school in Zülpich; the second, named Tecer Outras Coisas [Weave Other Things] is an art and design ongoing project with unemployed (volunteers), teachers, students and artists in a textile factory (Coelima) in Pevidém (Guimarães, Portugal).

The class displacement took place with the starting point established from the conviction that there is another way of teaching, which does not assume the border positions between subjects and pedagogy, teacher and student: a performative space of construction where students decide and build their own thinking and therefore their project.

We consider two ways of reflexion:

a) What means a 21st century school? What ideas, concepts, practices, pedagogy’s? Who are the professionals, what relations between school and “out of school”?

b) The case study projects; based on action, how the theoretical research in art education establishes connections to the will and the possibility of change?

Key words

“Artistic Education”, “Social Sustainability”, “Problem Based Learning”, “Learn by doing”, “Action-investigation in art and design”, “Modern and Post-modern school”, “Teaching Graphic Design”;


The ocular-centrism, the visual culture, or the mediated world aren’t exclusive phenomena nowadays. However, it becomes increasingly important to understand the paths in which today students are stimulated by multiple devices and interfaces, that operate directly in the modes of subjectivation and construction of knowledge. The projects presented here share this idea and assume themselves as learning experiences through visual projects where the design process is mobilized as a strategy for teaching and learning.

In a school three decades old, born at late 20th century, grounded on a modernist tradition from Bauhaus school, there are signs of willingness shifting to a school of the 21st century, in a will to connect to the breathing of contemporaneity.

Art and Design are eternal candidates to an experimental teaching, becoming a vast territory of essay where learn by doing can be applied. The proposed methodology is an investigation based on action and practice of a communication design project, inside a national curriculum and class program, which is being developed in Árvore School in the last years. This change and knowledge mobility are the result of mandatory interdisciplinary and the will of the artist-teacher that looks upon reality in a critical way and wishes to build a laboratory space and change its teaching practices. These projects aren’t limited in time, they are ongoing projects in a school and course that started five years ago.

Today students are stimulated by multiple devices and interfaces and live in a mediated world where knowledge isn’t necessarily built in a classroom. The classical confinement of the classroom and school as a protecting entity and a per si change of the individual, is something far from today’s life. The attractive “outside world” is always coming in the classroom through various interfaces and mechanisms. At the same time Design teaching in particular isn’t an accomplished outside reality. Design is an exercise of projecting for the other one, for the needs detected in this world. The teacher is in this mediation of forces with an established program and a mandatory list of goals and competences. The complexity, diversity, interaction and multiplicity of supports are concepts out of the curricular normative structure. But the reality lived in the classroom asks for the need and pressure for change.

When we perspective the teaching-learning process, we are talking about not only knowledge but also, what is still more important, the meaningful result of it. In this process there are three primordial and relational characters: the contents, the context and the personal relationships. The result will thus be the meaning of the learning, which is relevant in comparison to the student and to his future career.

Teaching through visual projects that use the the design process as one of the strategies is already widely accepted by the research community in artistic education. The way we are trying to implement and test some of those methods in concrete projects at Artistic and Vocational School Árvore is what we are going to describe here: the dynamic exchange of experiences, the role of the teacher and of the artist, the role of the student and his future career, the gains that can result or not from the teaching-learning process.

The projects

These projects have in common the change of the normal space of the classroom, its displacement and consequent lesson structure, the subject matters, patterns of work and the interaction with schoolmates and teachers. The projects presented here have different features: the first one (called Zülpich) was developed on the basis of international interchange between EAPA and a high general school where the German students have an integrated component of Art and History of Art. The second project “Tecer Outras Coisas” (Weave Other Things) is a space of dialogue and construction among students, teachers, artists, designers and ex-workers of the textile area as volunteers.


International interchange projects are implemented to try to connect school to a mediated reality closer to the students in which the English language is a priority. This interchange is part of European School Network (ESN-European School Network, which includes several high-schools from various countries: Portugal, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, Poland and Hungary. After putting general and technical matters together, the students are invited to involve themselves in a series of workshop shaped lessons to be taken with colleagues and teachers of other countries.

This project had two meetings, the first one in Portugal (from May 1st to 6th. 2011) and the second in Germany (from October 1st to 8th. 2011). Both in Portugal and in Germany the students lived during a week at the host families homes of their mates, which resulted in strengthening links and comparison with other typical family habits and living.

The main goal of this type of activity is to acquire competences at the English language level, the comparison with different teaching systems, to know alternative ways of teaching matters relating to art and design, all of this among other more general goals linked to communication, sociability and knowledge of other realities. The main theme of this interchange was the Art or the Artists of each country. In the Porto workshops the Bauhaus school was the mote to develop a series of typographical monograms with an auto-reflexive feature. The scheme of lessons, contents and times, was previously established by the German teachers by e-mail with the Portuguese teachers. During the Zülpich workshops, poems by Eugénio de Andrade and Porto city pictures were the basis for a composition exercise finalised with an illustration.  Every lesson was given in English and brought together in the same classroom students and teachers of both countries and different learning processes.

At the very beginning of the lessons scheme confrontation of opinions took place between teachers and the matters to be developed. In Germany, the History of Art and Design is taught not in a chronological way but in a thematic one. On the contrary, in Portugal we see and teach History of Art through a chronological way of a dialectic and linear analysis of events. The first problem was to organise the Portuguese teachers in order to prepare the students for this different way of approaching matters. The issue of the design of a letter, of the type of letters could thus be the common basis to explain the evolution of the alphabet design, the introduction of modernity and post-modernity in design and composition following the Bauhaus principles. Consequently, matters concerning Drawing, History of Art, Graphic Design, Graphic Workshop and English could work together by interchanging knowledge and devices in the same working place. Gathering in the same workspace several teachers of different origins, learning experience and qualifications, promotes a transforming and knowledge exchange energy. The teacher doesn’t know just about his/her working area, he/she must meaningfully develop the knowledge of other matters and exercise continuous updating, either at the technical level of technological use or facing the contents of other matters and new themes of common interest. In Portugal, before the arrival of German students and teachers, there were several meetings to prepare teachers in which the ongoing matters were “taught” in order that everybody could get the same information level. In spite of the whole process being monitored by the teachers involved, the students had the freedom of choosing the paths of their investigation and production, whether or not working alone, defining the final target and the production procedures.

In Germany, poetry of Eugénio de Andrade was the starting point for a workshop about illustration. Posters about the city of Porto, about the poems and the work of some illustrators were the tools for lessons and workshop. Once again, students had the freedom of choosing the paths of their investigation and production, whether or not working alone, defining the final target and the production procedures. They searched about fruits and dance (as it was the  poems theme), experience textures, smells and movements. They could use any type of materials within the following structure: first they search, second they choose, finally they do and explain why.

It is not simple to show the practical results of these workshops as they are just artifacts, a number of illustrations and compositions. Though the work proposals included the construction of objects, this is was not the main goal. In Art the deepest results are not always the most noticeable.

Back to the main theme, the “out-of-place” classroom, the main question placed by this project is the learning made not exclusively inside the school but in a different educational and cultural environments, where similarities and differences are countable. The self-reflexive process of students and teachers involved in this experience is the most important conclusion. “After all, they are not so different from us”, it was commonly said. To play our practices down and give room to students to build and show their projects as an individual affirmation and a contribution from and to the collective was the goal. This project showed how an artistic project can be the motor and partner of cooperation, of the cultural, communicational and personal development of everyone concerned, students and teachers. It promoted the cultural diversity, the respect for the other, citizenship, and also developed enjoyment for diversity of artistic and cultural expressions.

Weave Other Things

The project “Weave Other Things” is located in a room of the textile factory Coelima, in a small town named Pevidém, near Guimarães in the north of Portugal. It has resulted from the will of an artist and also teacher at EAPA, Max Fernandes, to make a clearly artistic project which would be self-sustainable supported by the Borough and Town Councils, and that could bring together the Árvore school (teachers and students), volunteers (ex-workers of the textile industry and living in the borough) and artists or designers. It is a passionate project to its creator and all participants. Everyone is there by personal will and with a big wish of learning-teaching. The students take part in this project inside the curricular training and internship, in full-time during four weeks, 8 hours a day. They are requested to talk, interact and build together with the volunteers and artists, accordingly to their needs. First, students search for a “problem”, something that the village may need. Afterwards, they define the methodology and concept they will implement to attain the outlined target. Volunteers also help defining strategies and methodologies within their area of expertise or just by giving their opinion. Volunteers have an active and assumed role, sometimes very technical, “mechanical” and repetitive as they did in the past when worked in the factory, as well as they became actors in the “action”, determining the thrust of design projects.

The teacher’s traditional role gets another dimension. He/her becomes a “guide” in the search and project, someone who follows the student project, guides him/her and leads him/her to make decisions based on individual responsibility and ethics. There are relations built and changed, not by teacher’s imposition but by discoveries and the will of walking a common path, that of the student with the teacher. To the teacher there is also a change concerning the knowledge issues and the control of his/her matter, once there is no longer the normal domination ground but the possibility of reaching distant territories. Without a defined object or target, the volunteers and students must decide, make choices and turn an idea into a concept. Students and volunteers sometimes become teachers, when they share experiences and knowledge by exchanging the information they know. Everything, decisions and creations, is made in group. “Non-formality is a fragility”, says Max Fernandes.  I believe this fragility can be transformed into a quality once it opens creation to the unexpected, to the casual, even to the mistake, thus creating a huge open ground of possibilities. In a non-strict environment, not controlled by an entity nor author dependent, the presence of the collective is permanent and gives place to a healthy creative energy without leadership, subordinates or hierarchy, promoting the common will to create, do and learn. It promotes an affective relationship between all without formal commitments, provides a common environment will and the exchange of experiences not only in the professional field, as life stories are told, dramatized and explored. Without the logic of productivity and reproduction in series like a traditional textile factory does, fashion collections for children and adults, publications and artworks were produced for the town.

The main feature of this very original project is the premise of social sustainability, of communitarian project bringing together generations and individuals with complementary knowledge from different areas and levels. It is clearly an artistic and design project with a real connection to community and school: people learn and teach each other; an unique relation among volunteers, students and teachers/artists or designers arises; a place of experiences and independence through everyone’s action bearing in mind the collective as first objective is born.


The questions mentioned at the beginning – a) what is the meaning of the “21st century school” concept?; b) based on action, how should the theoretical research in art education connect to the will and the possibility of change? – dind’t get direct and clear answers, but they can point out paths and clues. In a first analysis, these projects are valuable in terms of communicational, generational and cultural identity issues. However, in a deeper analysis, one of the main paths will be the universal access to the artistic matters based on an ethical, critical and self-reflexive sense, in a multi-subject route and in the construction of a multi-task project. The graphic design class should be a constant reflection about the process, the conscience about the world around us and the concern about the individual in relation to the community, never forgetting the tradition and the past as learning tools for the unpredictable future. The built artifact becomes secondary and is just a pretext of interconnection and construction of affective group relations. It is no longer tied to authorial and individualist issues so common in a certain time of modernity. Concern for shape gives room to the importance and clarity of the process. The result shows the chosen route, firstly of study and approach and developing methodologies and open techniques out of the restrict borders of art or of design. Visual intelligence, the sense of criticism and self-criticism, ethic sensibility and aesthetics intuition will grow in face of images and visualilty.

In relation to teachers, artists and designers, the changing agents, it is necessary to reformulate a more flexible and comprehensive curriculum with the matters concerning the work by and with all professionals, by opposition to the usual individualization of teaching and practice. This attitude implies a constant updating, reflection and self-criticism, as well as more responsibility and sensibility for art, community and citizenship issues. It is very important to understand the environment where the school is located or where it may operate, to act on it without forgetting local traditions and culture and looking at the future with technological, aesthetics and social change as the goal to be attained.

The school and design workshop leave their usual space and explore the whole world around. A design project implies that the creator should search and know his/her target-public, as well as the social and cultural features where it is implemented, and its ethical and conceptual issues.

Art is contextualised, domain borders are scarcely defined, and focus is given to contents over shape or aspect. The integration of art with other matters happens accordingly to this way of thinking. In art the relationship of ideas with shapes attains the doing. The construction of a project must be based on the crossing of concepts, ideas and experimentation.



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Year 2012
Type Conference Proceeding
Publication Proceedings of Insea 2012 European Regional Conference. Arts Education at the Crossroad of Cultures.
Local Lemesos, Cyprus
Language Português, English