Teaching Beautifully: Consistency not Uniformity

If there is one thing Penguin books does really well it is consistency. Take a look at their Classics series, the black band with orange and yellow text has only been around for a few decades and yet it is instantly recognisable as a Penguin classic. Generally you know from looking at it that this is an authoritative version of the text, usually with a good introduction and notes. That said the Classics range covers texts from every corner of the world and every corner of literature. It covers Anglo-Saxon chronicles, French revolutionary novels and poems about the South Downs. In that way it’s similar to our curricula across a school day, a student might drop in to Gothic novels, letters from WWII fighter pilots, Buddhist scripture and the finer points of mathematical formulae before they even break for lunch.

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Each one of those topics, just like every Penguin Classic, has its own place in history, discipline and geography but each ought to be given some consistency as they are taught to students of the same age, in the same place just as Penguin publishes their books in the same series for the same English-speaking audience.

Penguin is really adept at using cover art to give their books a context. Above we can see that the use of paintings and photographs is done judiciously, some are directly connected with the text like the portraits of Cicero and Pepys, some are contemporary works of art like the manuscript illustration from The Age of Bede and some have a more abstract, artistic link like the use of cubist art on Descartes’ Meditations or the use of Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac to illustrate the central story used by Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling. As designers of curricula and resources we can do the same when trying to teach beautifully, we can access just as wide a range of art and illustration to bring context and concreteness to our information.

The level of consistency varies throughout Penguin’s catalogue. If we move from Classics to their recent non-fiction publishing efforts we see from the covers it is difficult to see any hint of commonality – Hatherley’s exploration of communist architecture is accompanied by a pastiche of Soviet design, McCulloch’s books on Christianity use paintings of Jesus and an angel whilst Mason’s political text incorporates bold typefaces and plain colours.

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Take a look then at the spines. Although (logo-aside) it is nearly impossible to tell from the cover that these books are all published under the same imprint when you see them on a shelf the bright orange, black and white spines immediately bring them together as a series and remind you this is a Penguin book you are looking at.

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At this point I really need to clarify something: I am not advocating for the kind of school-wide enforced consistency that is prevalent in many schools and MATs. That of colour-schemes, logos in every corner and the same front used without a fault. That is corporate design and not educational design. Educational design should focus on making teaching better and making learning as frictionless as possible – of course we can, and should, consider aesthetics but what is beautiful in the corporate world is not what is beautiful in education. We should have our own aesthetic, an educational aesthetic of art and design which is consistent when it aids teaching and different when disciplinary boundaries require it.

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Instead of school-wide consistency (which is out of most of our remits anyway) it seems like a department-wide consistency is more achievable. Although I don’t think having a ‘style guide’ in the corporate sense is particularly useful for schools it could be useful to think about how and why they are used. British Rail’s (as seen above) makes sure that passengers are never confused by different symbols, fonts and logos being used across the system and builds a visual language which has variety within it but an overarching identity. Our resources could use something similar, reducing our student’s cognitive load and adjustment time and aiding learning in the process.

In my own practice, whether I’m teaching Buddhism or Plato, I make sure to use the same symbols for reading, writing, questioning etc. When I teach Christianity I always use the same key words to refer to concepts, the same images as visual stimuli to memory and the same format when presenting Bible readings.

Here you can see slides from four different lessons on four very different subjects but with one unified visual style. You might think these look dreary but this is the bread-and-butter of my teaching and it would be adding to cognitive load to make these slides (or booklets, or worksheets) too visually arresting. I’ve spoken at length about bringing in aesthetic beauty in the form of art but that needs to be apart from the ordinary in order for it to be appreciated.

I know that often planning and resource-making is a piecemeal process that occurs over the course of several years, often with many teachers involved. For that reason thinking about design is not as simple as implementing a style guide. Few of us have the time or inclination to change the typeface on every worksheet or add symbols to every presentation but it is something we can bear in mind for the future. Since the start of the year I decided on a font, a set of symbols and a colour scheme and (as seen above) I have used that in all new resources I’ve produced (as well as in notices for my room and personal projects). To my mind this consistency does aid learning by reducing cognitive load so it is worthwhile from a cost-benefit point-of-view – you can decide for yourself if you agree.