(Re)designing an integrated Fashion Contextual Studies programme: a Semio-philosophical view on HE creative teaching

This article presents a philosophical reflection of creative teaching. It focuses on the changes in a Fashion Contextual Studies curriculum at the University for the Creative Arts. Looking for answers in Structural Semiotics and Phenomenology, the work exposes the methods used to curate a new year 1 programme which aims at integrating Contextual Studies and the Design units of the course. Resorting to writing in Psychology and Marxist Education as a means of validating the choices made, we expose our notion of “critical practice” and its role in informing both academic and creative work. The aim is to eliminate the traditional opposition “theory vs practice,” preferring an ideal in which the different specialisms are understood as different steps in students’ development. The second part of the article presents statistical data and its analysis, aiming at measuring the impact of the changes in unit surveys, students results, their engagement with the library and use of academic sources in their work – a method in line with the tools used by universities to measure their own achievements.

Published on 18th October 2018 | Written by Marilia Jardim | Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash


Written in response to the External Examiner recommendation of sharing best practice in teaching and curriculum design, this work addresses the changes made in the BA (Hons) Fashion Design at the University for the Creative Arts, Epsom, in the academic year 2017-18. The unit addressed in this article, “Introduction to Fashion History and Theory,” is the only “theory” component of a course formed, in year 1, by three more unities: Design, Pattern Cutting/Construction, and Illustration/Visual Communication. Validated in line with what is common practice in UK’s creative courses today, the unit known as “Contextual Studies” is responsible by providing introductory knowledge of the Humanities, as well as subject-specific content (for Fashion Design, that includes Art and Fashion History).

Historically perceived as a unit disliked by students, and producing poor results – both in grades, with a large number of fails, and in quality of work, which was not relevant academically or to their personal experience in the course – the core issue about the programme I inherited was the lack of connection with the remaining units in the curriculum, opposed to the “Design block” (Design, Construction/Pattern Cutting, Illustration/Visual Communication) in which the same project was followed by the three units, promoting total integration in the work produced. That was no surprise, considering that the Contextual Studies unit was newly embedded in the course, still transitioning from a model of generic “Options” delivered across all courses, which was heavily present in the curriculum validated at the time of my appointment.

What is exposed in this article, thus, is an investigation divided in two parts: the first, a philosophical reflection on how to conciliate content, and the demands and constraints of the programme with the short number of sessions, while positioning Contextual Studies not as a “theoretical support” to students “practice,” but as a fundamental part of their studio projects; that section will include a contemplation of the meaning of “critical practice” in the framework of the unit and course, and its role in the model of curriculum exposed throughout this work. Secondly, I’ll expose the analysis of quantitative data which aims at providing colour to the impacts of this change, which were perceived almost immediately by other tutors, especially relating to students ability to research and to critically translate their research visually.

The theoretical background which informed the choices made in the designing of this programme relates mainly the works of Algirdas Julien Greimas, belonging to the scope of Structural Semiotics. Those theories were the ones which made possible to conciliate all the demands and constraints of the programme, but mostly, to look for answers in Semiotics rather than Pedagogy relate to a personal believe: that the theory is not there mainly to be learned and taught, but to be lived. Secondly, the project is heavily “contaminated” by Phenomenology, namely the ideas presented by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time which, subsequently, were referred to as Heidegger’s “philosophical pedagogy.” Finally, reconnecting with the theoretical background studied during my teaching qualification, the works of Marxist pedagogue Paulo Freire, and the psychologists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky will sustain the validity of the choices made from an educational point of view, although the objective of this experiment was precisely the one of searching answers outside traditional Pedagogy and Education literature, with the view of welcoming an interdisciplinary approach to my teaching practice.

To measure results, the research resorted to different collections of data, including the samples collected by UCA to measure their own results, and data which is available, but is not part of the university’s formal processes of evaluation: the unit evaluation, a questionnaire students fill at the end of each project, which is based on the questions asked on the National Student Survey; quantitative data collected by myself to track the development of results from one project to the other, from one year group to the next, and the development of the same group through the years – that includes their final grades, their separate learning outcome grades, their use of sources in the essays, the pass/fail statistics; and finally, data provided by the Learning and Teaching Librarian, presenting the numbers of library loans of each courses both on Epsom campus and all UCA campi.

I also observed the development of students essays in two Year 1 groups (2016-17 and 2017-18), gauging the changes in their essays according to three criteria: originality (e.g. how distant the essays were from the examples presented in the classroom, or how personal/individual the work was, compared to other students interests); research (number of academic sources used per student on average); and quality of knowledge (how well students used their sources). Although quantitative data is far from being the only manner of measuring results, the choice of method aligns with the methods used by UCA to measure their own result, as well as with the methods used by national university ranks which are an important part in applicants decision making. More importantly, in the present case, the data provides a narrative which matches a visible, even if anecdotally measured change in the quality of work at both Contextual Studies and Studio Units – the only evidence of those, at the moment, remains a non-organised collection of students and colleagues testimonials.

1. Structural Semantics: designing content as a Semiotic analysis

The first, immediate challenge faced in the unit was the generic unit handbooks previously validaded, which require the unit “Introduction to Fashion History and Theory” to provide (in a total of 18 3-hour sessions): an overview of 20th century Art History and the relevant Socio-Historical Contexts; a History of 20th century Fashion; while also developing Visual Analysis skills, the ability to critically analyse a subject, and to communicate the results of their investigations in formal, written form. Such obstacle appeared to me as an opportunity: one that should be dealt with through the “attempt at a method” developed by Greimas in 1966.

The key aspect of Greimas’ method serving our project, presented in Sémantique Structurale [Structural Semantics], relates to the selection of the corpus, which is addressed by the semiotician as a reduced version of the phenomenon being analysed. In other words, instead of analysing the volume of information or cases – as is common practice in disciplines such as History or Anthropology – the method proposes categorisations, through which deeper analysis of a larger corpus becomes possible. The choice of what to analyse is not randomly made, but through a careful selection of sections, which attend to three criteria: representativity; exhaustivity; homogeneity (Greimas, 1966:142-5).

The first criterion, the representativity, determines that the section selected must sustain a relation of hypotaxis with the totality – meaning that the section can “count” as the totality. Greimas reminds us, nonetheless, that a corpus is always partial and never whole – there is always a broader context embracing each section, and so forth. The objective of the first criterion, though, relates both to “isolating” what one means by a section, but also what one means by the totality. Moving to the second criterion, the representative section must also be exhaustive, which means that the analysis of the section needs to be proven “applicable” to the totality. The criterion of exhaustivity somehow “confirms” the representativity: if the analysis of the part can prove valid for the totality, then that confirms the section as representative of the totality. Finally, the homogeneity, a criterion strongly grounded in the linguistic context in which Sémantique Structurale [Structural Semantics] was written, depends on an ensemble of conditions, or a situation parameter, which relates to the possible gaugeable variations in the corpus (Greimas, 1966).

How can such a heterodox method inform a programme to a course with “History” in the name? To cope with the time constraints – and avoiding to lobotomise students with 100-slide presentations with period images – a structuralist curation of content was much welcomed, in the sense that it permitted depth to be added, through sacrificing breadth. That meant to select themes[1] which were representative, exhaustive, and homogenous (and relevant!) to deliver a History of Fashion, which could be informed by the relevant bits of History, Art History, and Socio-cultural contexts whenever necessary. That decision, on the one other hand, was not entirely mine, but ingrained in a desire shared by the previous course leader who appointed me: the goal of creating a Contextual Studies programme which was not just “embedded” in the course, but fully integrated with students “studio practice.”

1.1. Curating an integrated programme: the role of Contextual Studies in informing creative practice

 The first insight into an attempt at integration relates to my own experience as a student, during my BA studies in Communication of the Arts of the Body at the Pontifical Catholic University: a programme conciliating the demands of a creative subject – offering majors in Drama, Dance, and Performance Art – with a traditional BA (Hons) in Communication, a theoretical subject. In the course of the four years of study, the manner in which the curriculum is curated creates relations in which there is no hierarchy between theoretical and artistic work, but Art is thought and made through the theoretical framework, and the study of classic theories is artistically performed. In other words, even at BA level, we were capable of living theory, and using concepts from the theories we studied in depth as part of our stage and gallery work.

In a paper from 2014 – written 13 years after the programme I described above was designed – Jenny Rintoul describes three models of Contextual Studies in UK universities: theory as a Diluted, Dominant, or Integrated (2014:346, 349). However, the paper still fails to see outside the idea of an opposition between “theory” and “practice,” stating that those specialisms are distinctive (if not conflicting, as one can read in between the lines) and that the best scenario would present one “supporting” the other. The ideal I pursued with my project, contrary to it, is one that understands there is an intuitive dimension to “theory,” as well as a rigorous and objective dimension to “practice.” Even further, to follow Heidegger, theory must be perceived as the actualisation of praxis (Heidegger, 1962): from that point of view, there is no real separation between one and the other, and that doesn’t mean, as Rintoul argues, that such would mean a lack of distinction or recognisability between the specialisms (Rintoul, 2014): they will always be distinguishable from one another, but the development of a new way of thinking, or a manner of being-in-the-world, to follow Heidegger (1962), can travel from one specialism to the other. Such would mean that the role of Contextual Studies should not be the one of “supporting” the studio work, but that, together, those units should build a path enabling the student to develop their critical thinking – whether they are writing essays or making shirts.

Face the impossibility of revalidating the unit immediately, the smartest solution was to work with the studio projects already in place: the “Shirt Project” in term 2, mainly branding project in which students observe and take inspiration from existing designers and Fashion Houses to make one outfit (a shirt); and the “Historical and Global Project” in term 3, which is more conceptual, looking into History, Subcultures, or Non-Western cultures as inspiration for the production of textiles and one outfit. The first decision, thus, was to break “Introduction to Fashion History and Theory” in two projects as well, aligning each project with what would follow in the studio.

Term 1 became an introductory project – instead of the old year-long format – presenting the Fashion History component through the eyes of brands and key developments in the Fashion Industry; and term 2 became a conceptual project as well, with thematic sessions relating to the list of references from the Design project, including historical periods of fashion (such as the Victorian Era or the Tudor dynasty); subcultures (the Teddy Boys, the Mods); and non-western cultures (such as the Sioux tribe, the Tuaregs, etc.). The list of inspirations was curated to fit a briefing discussing different manifestations of the body in culture, including the Arts, Religion, Gender Theory, Politics, and Orientalism, which constituted the main essay topics/theoretical frameworks, which they should use to critically analyse their choice of reference (e.g. the list).

Although term 1 in 2017-18 was not so different from the 2016-17 content, the core difference relates, again, on the use of Greimas’ (1966) method to select and organise the content. Instead of presenting a curriculum in which one session leads to the next – producing problems of many natures, such as the gaps created when a student misses a session, which may lead to a student abandoning the course altogether because without the missed content nothing makes sense anymore – the new delivery focused on providing sessions enclosed in themselves. To continue the semiotic corpus analogy, each lecture and seminar were designed to be representative, exhaustive, and homogeneous, providing a section of History containing a beginning, middle and end. Considering the Contextual Studies attendance issues at the BA Fashion Design[2], this format made the difference: not only students practicing “selective attendance” would walk away with a complete set of content from one session, but each session stood more or less independently from the rest, meaning even students who were absent to many lectures could absorb sufficient content to write a successful essay at the end.

Semiotics, thus, was key to balancing the many constraints around the programme: the impossibility of revalidating the unit, the pressure to align the themes of Contextual Studies with the themes from the studio units, and the poor attendance. To maximise the breadth of the programme without sacrificing the desired depth, the solution was to select the themes of the programme, as well as the examples and reading, attending to the three criteria of the corpus selection established by Greimas: if in Semiotics they permit a broader and deeper analysis at the same time, in the classroom they allowed a grasp of contents that allowed students to receive a “complete” history of Fashion through objects or cultural practices weekly.

2. Developing critical practice: zones of proximal development, and teaching as “letting learn”

 As previously stated, one of the main aims of the validated unit was the one of “developing critical practice” in the students and, as for the goal I created, that this acquired skill could permeate their design work likewise. Unfortunately, my first year 1 group (before the changes in the programme) didn’t fully develop in that direction, and their results in year 2 witnessed a “resistance” to criticism and a preference for “being taught” instead. It became clear that a change was necessary, which should comprise not only the curriculum but a general revision of attitude – for both students and lecturer.

According to Paulo Freire, the same content can be presented critically, or following a “banking” practice (Freire, 1970): in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire distinguishes education which “banks” knowledge, by assuming the student is completely ignorant and empty, the teacher holding all the cards and being responsible for transmitting knowledge, disciplining, and so forth (Freire, 1970). Critical practice, on the contrary, should be a liberating process, capable of restoring the humanity of both sides – oppressed and oppressor (Freire, 1970). The path for achieving such is pointed by Freire when he claims “Education  must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction…” (Freire, 1970:72) meaning that for true critical practice to take place, the idea of the tutor as a “centralisation” of knowledge must be dissolved. Even further: perhaps, the idea of “knowledge” itself must be, and apologies for presenting the reader with an abused word, deconstructed.

The idea of perceiving the student as a capable being relates closely to the work of Lev Vygotsky, presented in Mind in Society (1978): in this book, the Soviet psychologist exposes the concept of zones of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978). Instead of measuring the stages of development in the child based on what they were capable of achieving alone, Vygotsky started to observe how much the same child could do when collaborating with a group, a more capable child, or a mentor; the conclusion of his study is that learning should not be conditioned to the present stage of development, but should push the student into those zones of proximal development – meaning embryonary skills which can be performed with help and, should the same conditions of learning be maintained, could evolve into a solo achievement in the future (Vygotsky, 1978). In fact, Vygotsky affirms that “…the only ‘good learning’ is that which is in advance of development.” (Vygotsky, 1978:89)

There were few steps taken to ensure that (1) the students in the cohort could fell they were treated as equals to me, and capable beings invested with agency; and (2) that the content was pushing students into zones of proximal development, rather than conforming to their current comfort zone: the first relates to presenting the readings before the lectures. As such, students had the chance of experiencing the reading before anyone tells them what to “see” or what to “learn” from the text. That decision was informed, again, by the works of Freire, to whom, true liberation presupposes confidence on the other side to be capable of thinking, wanting, and knowing (Freire, 1970:60).

The second step happens in the lecture, when the material I prepared covers, among other things, what I consider to be the most broadly relevant points of the reading, for that specific thematic session. Although the structure of “lecture” and “seminar” seems to propose a clear-cut separation of “a time to listen” and a “time to speak,” I try to engage my students to be vocal during the lectures, trying to propose some microanalysis of the resources I bring, relating to the reading, which can be an image or a video fragment, sometimes a quotation, part of a poem or song. Finally, the cycle is closed with the activity in the seminar, in which students experience the text together, through discussing the reading as part of a group responsible for presenting the text and engaging their colleagues in the debate. The similarity between this gradual development from “I” (individual study) to “group” (group discussion) recaps Piaget’s stages of the development of the child, in which he claims that to develop from intuition to a deductive reality is an expansive journey, from ego to collective (Piaget, 1960).

In Psychology of Intelligence, the Swiss psychologist presents a statement which perhaps summarises his theory of Social Constructivism: that the development is a result of interactions (Piaget, 1960:150) which, in his work, is understood as an equilibrium between two tendencies of opposite poles (Piaget, 2002). Inviting Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories to this work requires some imagination, admitting that the “literal” development of the child can be understood as a metaphor of one’s development as a critical thinker and researcher: as much as the development of the child, to develop critical practice reclaims the ability to grow from one’s own ego and static point of view, and learning the possibility of other perspectives and other positions – what Piaget calls the decentralisation of oneself (Piaget, 1960) – as well as coping with the discomfort of zones of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978). Ultimately, as the child progresses through the zones, novelty ceases to be discomfort, becoming a problem inviting searching (Piaget, 2002): again a possible parallel with the path experienced by any researcher. The ultimate goal of this format is to overflow the acquired development to the outside of the seminar room, the new learned (critical) way of being-in-the-world transformed into what unlocks a manner of thinking, which can serve the student in their lives (and that includes, naturally, their studio work).

My participation in those seminars is minimal, and it reduces dramatically as the term progresses and more knowledge and ability to discuss the reading is developed. I chose to position myself as a mediator who ensures that: (1) the largest possible number of students is engaged and actively participating, and (2) that an acceptable level of respect is maintained, which includes trying to avoid people taking offence on what is said, and that students are not cutting each other while they are speaking. In weeks when the texts present different or contradicting views on the same topic, my job is also the one to pose questions and to encourage students to perceive the contradictions by themselves and to use them to ponder on the complexity of situations, instead of trying to decide who is right and who is wrong.

A word must be said at this point about the importance of physical space in the construction of a critical environment. There is a lot of literal effort surrounding those sessions, which include a “transformation” of the space: after the lecture, the auditorium chairs are retracted back with the aid of the states and equipment hire team, and students help to carry chairs and pop-up tables to reconfigure the room in a square, where all of us sit together, without marked hierarchies between students and tutor. When sitting like that, all participants can look at each other, which is the opposite of the passivity created in the classic classroom situation, in which all look at the front, at one focal point, “the teacher,” and not at each other. If sitting in this traditional configuration erases individuality, providing students with the experience of being anonymous part of a (silent) cohort, the circles grant each and every student with subjectivity: their faces can be seen, their identities can be apprehended, and they are equals. At the start, some (perhaps many) students don’t find that situation comfortable. Which is why the process of “letting learn,” instead of teaching, is so important: when the goal is to form a manner of being-in-the-world, rather than the absorption of information, there is a time of adjustment in which this new form of thinking will be accepted and “settled” – again, we can evoke the ideas of Vygotsky about the importance of pushing the student, instead of conforming to their current condition (Vygotsky, 1978).

To summarise the changes introduced beyond the content and curriculum, the key aspects to constructing a critical practice environment relate to the physical disposition of students in the room, and the different opportunities of experiencing a text, decisions in line with the thinking of Freire (1970), Piaget (1960, 2002), and Vygotsky (1978). By attempting at dissolving the student-teacher contradiction, impertinence is encouraged through the debate of the concepts, juxtaposition of different perspectives and ideas, and the construction of new relations, which end up by “deconstructing” the concepts of institutionalised knowledge, and the traditional roles played in an educational environment. Instead of aiming the assessment, this model aims the construction of a new manner of being-in-the-world, to follow Heidegger views on learning: once such is achieved, success in the assessment will follow suit naturally, because the necessary tools are already in place, the writing becoming a mere “formalisation” of what happened in the seminars (and if all that fails, there are always sign up tutorials before the submission…) After the hand in, the process continues with feedback that, again, focuses primarily on how this form “impertinence”  can be further developed– to follow French Socio-semiotician Eric Landowski, a form of “constructive denial” in which we learn to disrespect what doesn’t deserve respect (Landowski, 2013) – or which points the student can continue pressing so that their critical practice can grow deeper within their research interest.

3. Tracking the results: a quantitative regard of the programme changes

The changes and the theoretical background informing them described, the work will now move into the analysis of the results they produced. Most of the changes can be perceived at levels which do not translate into rigorously collected evidence – such relates to the visible change in students attitude, the confidence with which they speak in the classroom, and so forth. With that in view, we opted for using similar methods to the ones most universities use to measure their own results: in fact, some of the data presented in this section belongs to the normal procedures already practised by UCA. Besides that, we will break this item into the following: overall unit grades; Learning Outcome 2 (knowledge application and quality of analysis) grades; quantity of academic sources used per essay, looking at the essays from three consecutive year groups (2015-16; 2016-17, and 2017-18), which will be crossed with data provided by the Learning and Teaching Librarian; and the comments from the unit evaluations in 2016-17, versus 2017-18.

3.1. Grade results

Figure 1. Comparative of final results of the unit EFSH4008 – Introduction to Fashion History and Theory, in the academic years 2016-17 (old programme and shared delivery), and 2017-18 (new programme and full-time delivery).

Considering the improving of grades specifically was part of the Course Action Plan in 2016-17 (the year I started in the post), I have been keeping track of the results in that area without research ambitions, but for PDR, Probation Meeting, and External Examiner visits purposes. Figure 1 shows a comparative of the final grades at the unit “Introduction to Fashion History and Theory” in the academic year 2016-17 – my first year in the post teaching the old programme – and 2017-18 – the first year I taught the redesigned programme. As the charts show, the new programme produced a significant impact at the top and bottom of the marks, promoting an 87% increase in the number of 1sts, and a 50% decline in the number of total fails (including non-submissions and academic misconduct). The delicate 13% decrease in final Pass (D) also shows that, altogether, the quality of essays improved, with a decrease in the number of students “scraping a 40%” on their way to the second year.

Figure 2. Comparative of Learning Outcome 2 – knowledge application and quality of analysis – grade bands in both year groups, before and after the changes in the programme.

A safer indicative pointing towards the improvement of Critical Practice skills can be gauged through measuring only one of three outcomes, precisely the one relating to application and analysis. That particular learning outcome shows that students are studying more, but that their ability to look at sources and resources critically has grown tremendously: the new programme saw a 61% increase in students achieving an A or A+ in that learning outcome, and a 56% decrease in students failing the same learning outcome. That means that more students were having an A for LO2 than students having an overall A which, again, shows development in the use of knowledge and quality of analysis in B and C band as well. An overall improvement in that learning outcome shows a 30% increase in students achieving higher than “scraping a pass” (D), moving into better grades at learning outcome 2 as well.

The improving in the final grades and learning outcome 2 can be related to the change of tone in the unit evaluations from both years. In the 2016-17 survey, the comment appearing most times (11 out of 46 students responding the survey) related to room issues and, in second, the request to rotate seminar times (10 out of 46 students). Other popular comments (at least 10 students) targeted the assessment briefing and the course content – most feedback, nevertheless, of a negative quality. The 2017-18 survey, on the one other hand, contained mainly positive comments, complimenting the content, which they thought was relevant and engaging, as well as the group discussions – definitely a favourite, with similar comments appearing 30 times (out of a total of 58 students responding the survey).

3.2. Library engagement and use of academic sources

Finally, the library use improvement was a surprising outcome, which seems to complete the narrative this article exposed. The data provided refers to a period of three years, but it provides a counterargument to the anecdotal knowledge about how “Fashion students don’t like to read.” During the past three years, however, the data collection provided by our Learning and Teaching Librarian showed, through the crossing of student ID data with the loans made by each student, that the BA (Hons) Fashion Design and BA (Hons) Fashion Design (4 years) at Epsom combined were responsible for 62% of Epsom campus, as well as 11% of all-UCA library loans, positioning them as the biggest library users at both Epsom campus and UCA. The top three books they read, according to this study, were all part of the unit reading or related to the Contextual Studies topics.

Figure 3. Comparative of the number of academic sources used in the essays of three year groups: 2015-16 (before my appointment), 2016-17 (old programme), 2017-18 (new programme).

Since the data provided by the Learning and Teaching Librarian was not broken by year, but referring to a 3-year period, I analysed the number of sources used per student per essay, and including the academic year 2015-16 to complete the 3-year period. That second collection confirmed what I observed intuitively, exposing an increasing trend in the use of academic reading in the essays. Comparing 2015-16 and 2017-18, the programme changes resulted in a 92% decrease in student using less than the required minimum of 3 academic sources in their essays, followed by an equal 92% increase in the number of students using more than 3 academic sources. The average use of sources (total sources used divided by total students) jumped from 3.3 per student in 2015-16 to 4.7 per student in 2017-18. Again, the quantitative change can be gauged qualitatively through the reading of essays, which resorted to fewer to none internet resources (such as Wikipedia, WordPress, and online magazine articles), replacing those with well-researched and reviewed academic literature, as well as subject-specific quality sources, which are then used as a theoretical framework to analyse images, news articles, videos, and so forth. Likewise, the work became visibly more original and individual, more distant from the examples presented in the classroom and moving towards the pursuit of personal research interests, using the course content, instead of reproducing it. 

Conclusion: looking at the future of Fashion Contextual Studies

Even though the results were impressive in its first attempt, the programme still requires more adjustments, especially the contents of term 1 and, naturally, the mission of carrying on the changes into Second and Third year Contextual Studies unit continues. In this process, the close collaboration with the Design team is imperative, in the sense of tuning the interplay between theory content and studio work not only to engage students through showing them the “benefits” of theory to their practical work, but also by creating a programme that functions organically between all units and specialisms, positioning itself as a whole, rather than disconnected parts.

To achieve such, however, it is not enough to “align” Contextual Studies and Design: perhaps the contradiction between theory and practice also needs to be solved, to follow Freire’s (1970) ideal. The path is presented in Heidegger clearly, when he points out that theory should be understood as an actualisation of praxis (Heidegger, 1962) – meaning that “theory” as a specialism within Creative Education is perhaps terribly misnamed, in the sense that it is, as much as design work, a practical and creative activity, which is not at all disconnected from what is called “practice.” Similarly, a paper written by researcher and dancer Kim Vincs presents an experiment in the field of Dance and Research, in which Dance is not understood as a product and Theory as something investigating that product, but in which Dance itself becomes a means of investigating (Vincs, 2007). The ultimate ideal for this programme, thus, relates to a union of those two visions: firstly, to dissolute the idea of theory and practice as separate, conflicting entities, through the understanding of theory as praxis and a creative form of work; and secondly, through a shift from “Fashion as an object of study,” to the understanding of Fashion as a field in which knowledge can be produced, with Fashion and Research functioning together. In place of “supporting” studio work, Contextual Studies and Design become different steps in an investigation path – distinctive spaces in which a manner of being-in-the-world can inform different actualisations of research.

Perhaps the investigation presented in this paper cannot be named “creative education” per se, but the case presented is creative, in the sense that it resorts to the imagination to generate something. Our pledge was not for a more sincere alignment of Contextual Studies with the Design units, but mainly for an opening to critical theory and interdisciplinary Fashion education, by allowing more space for other fields of study which are ancillary to a relevant study of Fashion. This programme and its many successes owe a considerable debt to French Semiotics and Phenomenology which, much more than traditional Pedagogy, provided the conditions for the success this investigation attempted at showing. I hope to have argued the case for the creative use of classic theories, especially those from traditional Philosophy, in shaping innovative pedagogy in Creative HE today.

[1] The word here used in the “civilian,” and not in the semiotic sense.

[2] It is normal to see students “giving up” contextual studies to focus on their studio work, which requires many extra hours of work that must be balanced with limited opening hours/access to facilities.

Marilia Jardim roundMarilia Jardim is a Semiotician and Cultural Researcher, certified lecturer at Faculdade Getúlio Vargas (Brazil), MPhil in Communication and Semiotics at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (Brazil) and member of the Socio-semiotics Research Centre (Brazil/France/Italy). Lecturer of Contextual and Critical Studies at the BA (Hons) Fashion Design at the University for the Creative Arts, Epsom, her independent research intersects French Semiotics and Cultural Studies about Identity and Communication, focusing on the problem of Dress and Intersubjectivity in the contemporary metropolis.


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury.

Greimas, A.J. (1966). Semantique Structurale. Recherche de Méthode [Structural Semantics. Method Research]. Paris: PUF.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Landowski, E. “Plaidoyer pour l’impertinence” [“A Pledge for Impertinence”] in: Actes Sémiotiques n. 116, 2013. Limoges: Presses Universitaires de Limoges, available at: http://epublications.unilim.fr/revues/as/1450

Piaget, J. (1960). The Psychology of Intelligence. Paterson: Littlefield, Adams & co.

Piaget, J. (2002). The Construction of Reality in the Child. London: Routledge.

Rintoul, J. (2014). “Theory and (in) practice: The problem of integration in art and design education” in: International Journal of Art and Design Education, 33 (3). Pp. 345-345.

Vincs, K. “Rhizome/MyZone: A case study in studio-based dance research” in: Barret, E.; Bolt, B. (2007). Practice as Research. Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry. New York: I.B. Tauris.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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