A progressive design pedagogy that is reimagining teaching practices

A progressive design pedagogy that is reimagining teaching practices

This story is part of the 2022 RMIT Teaching Awards campaign recognising recipients who have contributed to improving the student experience at RMIT.  


Educators in Industrial Design reimagine methods of learning and teaching to produce contemporary design students and progressive teachers.


  • In 2017, the Industrial Design program was facing low CES results. This prompted the team to shift away from conventional design education, creating the My First 6 Months (MF6M) project.
  • The goal of MF6M was to cultivate a confident second-year entrant by addressing the three challenges confronting education in the creative discipline: diversity, socialising learning and embodying creative practice.
  • To execute this, MF6M placed the student at the centre through ‘project-based learning’ to allow students to learn through actively engaging in real-world projects.
  • The classroom was transformed into a studio to create a playground for peer-to-peer learning and assessments were socialised.
  • The teaching staffs teaching practices were reinformed to achieve the project’s vision of being a place for progressive pedagogy.


In 2017, three first-year Industrial Design courses were facing a major issue. The CES results were below acceptable levels. Over a four-year period, these courses had seen a few learning and teaching approaches implemented. And, these courses were largely taught by sessional staff.

The desire to shift how things were done in conventional design education, led to the creation of the My First 6 Months (MF6M) project. Set up as a five year long an inquiry into contemporary pedagogical approaches possible in design education, the project responded to the crucial fact that continuing staff would not be teaching first year courses.

MF6M uses learning centred pedagogy and blended learning within design education with the goal of cultivating students' independence and self-regulation as learners to become a confident second-year entrant.

If the first six months of university is a time of reckoning, then a boost to the creative drive can long sustain a belief in oneself.

Singularly, this shift in pedagogy highlights the absence of acknowledgement of the agency of the student in contemporary university education. A focus upon encouraging the students’ individual development and confidence to create self-responsibility in learning and assessment, while uniquely remarkable is also a highly risky proposition.  

Placing the student at the centre, then gave shape to an action research project addressing the three challenges confronting contemporary mass-education in a creative discipline: diversity, socialising learning and embodying creative practice.

So, how did the team execute this goal? 

The key to the MF6M project was privileging becoming over knowledge or content, creating the binary ‘Becoming:Knowing’ for students to navigate. ’You can enact the process of becoming a designer-like person’ became the program’s slogan hidden in plain sight.

In voicing this binary, the team moved away from mass education practices within university where design is broken into curricular bits to be learnt as theory and towards the practice of design through the repetitive implementation of projects.

The written content of the course was flipped to an online quiz to be done outside the classroom. Assessment was presented as a lifelong evaluation to help embed a constructive understanding for students. The notion of grades was reconceptualised as a trigger to reflect on their learning and development through peer and self-assessment.

My First 6 Months (MF6M) project team: Associate Professor Soumitri Varadarajan, Dr Caroline Francis, William Dim My First 6 Months (MF6M) project team: Associate Professor Soumitri Varadarajan, Dr Caroline Francis, William Dim
We see ‘traditional or mainstream assessment practices’ as a crucial corrosive influence in the way the creative drive of the students is diverted to justificatory practices.

MF6M renewed their commitment to ‘project-based learning’, a student-centred and signature design pedagogy in which students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects. This method is not just suitable for the times, but for the individual development of a student who wishes to become a designer upon graduation. This encapsulates the approach independent design schools have kept alive: supporting students to become robust creative practitioners.  

The face-to-face classroom was transformed into a studio / an office becoming more amenable to collaboration and inducing the creative practitioner in students.

This created a playground for peer-to-peer learning that allowed for risk taking and the embrace of failure as a crucial component of skatepark-learning, where permission to play enabled the collective acknowledgment of the unique expertise of individual students. 

In privileging teamwork (cave) we emphasize that the team members contribute to the growth and progress of the other students (commons) thus setting up the binary of the socialisation best captured in the Cave:Commons binary.

Program structure

The key element of MF6M was in the way it acknowledged the fact that students enter the contemporary university with very advanced and diverse skills.  

The student body thus constitutes a hungry individual, but also an ecology of capabilities, that can be [coupled] to produce some very effective design teams.

By incorporating a pedagogical approach that privileges students’ prior learning, we are therefore open to the ways of the doing or the ‘practising’ of design.

This ecology was fostered by placing students in teams comprising of precise roles and responsibilities like those to be found in a start-up founders’ team: leadership (CEO), technology (CTO), and design (CDO).  



Over the year, students, working in these groups, developed experience through working on six intensive projects addressing challenges. This, like sport and outdoor-education, utilised accelerated spurts of intense project work, followed by reflection and peer assessment.

Students in later years have pined for the rush of enthusiasm they experienced in their first year, in the MF6M defined program.

Regular presentation of work was required to support students to find their voice, constructively critique peers and listen to feedback about their own work.

At the conclusion of each project, students also served on panels comprising industry representatives and academic staff. 

We designed this activity to simulate professional practice and encourage collaboration between students, thus enhancing engagement and rapid capability acquisition.



Assessments were socialised and handed over to the students as a way to support learning. This included self-assessment and reflection, peer feedback and development of rubrics. This was crucial in developing self-efficacy and confidence in their work as future designers and reducing the anxieties associated with power dynamics in the classroom.

The teacher's role was reimagined in this project, as that of providing support and guidance, and benchmarking of standards and expectations early in the course, and oversight of the fairness and integrity of peer-to-peer and self-assessment through moderation.

The team believes it is vital that students have a strong awareness of standards and expectations as they engage in their learning.

This student-led approach is a result of the belief that teacher suspicion of students is a key factor in hindering their ability to adopt more progressive peer-to-peer ways of high energy learning. 

In this way, the teacher adopts the role of the “midwife-teacher” – akin to the midwife being a resource who is present at the miraculous point where the learner recognises and gives birth to their own knowing and being (Weimer 2013). And when the learner struggles, the teacher has strategies to help the learner breakthrough to understanding.  

For students to see assessments as a quality improvement tool, the team developed the 5+5 model – five commendations and five recommendations – for peer assessment practice.


Training sessional teachers

While it is possible to imagine the student as central to the project, it is easy to forget that the teacher is a crucial component of MF6M as the conduit of pedagogical innovations arriving in the classroom. It was crucial to reinform their teaching practices to achieve the vision for MF6M: to be a place for progressive pedagogy.

Broadly speaking, sessional instructors in the Industrial Design Program are generally made up of subject matter experts and industry professionals who had never taught in this way, do not hold a teaching qualification, and in the absence of specific instruction, generally default to teaching methods that are informed by how they were taught when they were students.

This we said was no longer okay, and that we would have to work collaboratively with the whole project team to explicitly implement the progressive pedagogical practices of this project.

Over the course of five years, MF6M served as an academy for training teachers in contemporary exemplars of best practice and concurrently coached each individual instructor as they navigated to reach a place of conviction, and to recognise that this is indeed a space for progressive learning and teaching approaches.

The team ensured that their teachers can dynamically shift and align with whatever learning and teaching context best suits or is available to the broad application of students’ needs to best leverage available resources.

This was essential as the diverse nature of projects, classrooms, and associated modes of delivery can vary every semester.

This cemented that the RMIT Industrial Design program is a place for progressive pedagogy.



Weimer M (2013) Leaner-centred teaching: five key changes to practice, John Wiley & Sons, Somerset.


Story by Khanya Sibeko, Communications Coordinator with contributions from the MF6M team. 

22 November 2022


22 November 2022


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RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.