Design is difficult to teach in traditional ways of lecturing and testing. One defined learning methodology that applies well to design education is project-based learning. In an attempt to better understand the patterns of project-based learning in different design-related programs, we studied three small groups of teachers and students at an innovative academy based out of Shanghai Institute of Visual Art, entitled De Tao Master’s Academy, and compared their education style to that of subjects in regular programs at Shanghai Institute of Visual Art. Our goal was to seek patterns of cognitive apprenticeship in our subjects’ education, and find out (a) if it’s more effective than the traditional approach, and (b) can modelling (i.e. direct replication of learned material) be excluded from a design curriculum.

The information gathered through surveys, interviews and observation were segmented into six categories: (1) self-regulation, (2) creative thinking and thinking styles, (3) incorporation of cognitive apprenticeship model into teaching style, (4) teaching hours vs. self-learning, (5) individual vs. team work preference, and (6) learning environment and teaching resources.

We found that self-regulation was uniformly low throughout the sample, but that De Tao curriculum aimed to increase it over the course of their programs. Most students preferred small teams, with less than 5 students to do assignments and projects with, instead of individually working or working in large teams. Curriculum and interviews indicated De Tao programs had a higher focus on teaching creative thinking and independence, which reflected on design self-efficacy scores of their students when compared with SIVA students. Learning spaces at De Tao were observed to be better, and their instruction constructed close to cognitive apprenticeship. Coaching, scaffolding, articulation and exploration were evident in the design education methods adopted at De Tao. The ethnographic findings were related into an evolved social cognitive design framework, which allowed us to preliminarily contextualize design learning influencers.

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