MDes Talks: Two Schools - Two Approaches

I have wondered a lot about what is different between PolyU and my previous school in France about the way of teaching. I am the same person; minor changes have occurred but for the most, I have the same base of knowledge and skills, yet the way I work is quite different.

In France, I was not exactly lazy, but I was not pushing too hard either, especially at the end of my master’s degree. I had plenty of activities on the side and ensured the school did not take all my energy. When I thought an exam was not interesting or challenging enough for me to study, I was simply cheating (alone or in groups, as a French person my cheating skills are pretty good).

Two Schools - Two Approaches
My school at night transformer for a party

During the undergrad, I was much more invested in my work, and my grades were high. But I was waking up at night dreaming about work. It was my last thought before sleep and the first in the morning. I was involved in associations on the side, but I was drained at each holiday. My health went down and at that point, I took a year off to do an internship and to get some rest. Three years of school had completely emptied my batteries. When I went back, even if I was thinking of slowing down, I still took a double diploma with civil engineering and kept doing student association work on the side. At that time, I was president of a 40-member association organising sports and cultural events on the campus, but was also involved in the politics of the campus, planning and making decisions for the next 20 years.

Because I wanted to keep my body “healthy” I became more chill toward my work. Daydreaming and forcing myself to think about something else before sleeping helped me a lot. Even so, I barely maintained a healthy body, having stress-oriented disorders. When graduation came – with grades as low as 11/20 – I was wondering if another year and a half would be possible in PolyU.

Two Schools - Two Approaches
Working all night during my final year

I took responsibility of the stress created. I thought it was mostly my own attitude that made me feel like that. I thought it was also my personal response to the French context or even to architecture in general. I thought it was normal to be that exhausted after studying and that was why all my friends wanted to go working, to get rid of the school system which demanded so much from us. I never questioned the way we were taught. I was questioning the architecture vision of my teachers, as my school had a strong leading vision. I was thinking other architects may think in a different way and this could not be absolute.

Two Schools - Two Approaches
This project got me so many critics as it was too far from the school spirit

Fast forward, one year is done at PolyU and only a few months are left. I just do not want to leave the school – I am ready to apply to PhD and stay three more years.

I have been involved since the beginning in the rowing club and I am more and more part of the indie music scene of Hong Kong. I have kept a practice of having various side projects. My work at school is full of passion and I am more hardworking than I was in France. If we count the hours spent at school, I spend more time in my studio here, and more happily.

Two Schools - Two ApproachesSchool like home

PolyU tutors believe in designing a bottom-up solution or at least to make this approach coexisting with the top down [1] system in place. Basically, a top-down approach is the way administrations work: rules coming from the big picture to apply to subgroups; while the bottom-up is coming from the perception of the subgroups to create a model. And not only do they believe in it as a theory for design but they also use it as a practical way. Hence, we are taught with approahces influenced under this strong belief.

At the beginning of the programme, this approach was a bit confusing for the students, as we were mostly coming from schools run by the top-down system. Now we are working on the final project, the Capstone, and this approach makes so much sense. The goal is to get students to propose ideas synthesising all we have learnt in the past year be it knowledge or skills. That explains why all the capstones are so different from each other.

Two Schools - Two Approaches
This picture is now part of my school work

In practice, one of the main differences between PolyU and my French school is that here we are treated as designers while before I was treated as a student. In PolyU, my ideas are seen as proper ideas and being treated seriously. They are discussed so as to be further developed and perfected. If it were before, my ideas could have been stopped by the teachers when they thought the concept would not fit the spirit of the school.

All of that makes me think of parents telling me that “you do not work for your professors, you work for yourself” and I always thought it was stupid as ultimately the teachers would grade me.

But in fact, the choice belongs to the ones who teach: do they want to teach a vision or a process. Looking at the way of teaching retrospectively, I worked for the teachers in France and learnt strict set methodologies. In PolyU, I relate to the tutors in a different way. I work for myself, supported by professors.

Personally, I think the top-down system was efficient during undergrad while being counter productive after postgrad. I feel way more comfortable with the PolyU approach.


Photo Credit: Mathilde Gattegno

Posted by Mathilde Gattegno – from Paris and love to see the world. Graduated from architecture with an option in civil engineering. Curious about everything, a huge bookworm, a little bit geek and also enjoy music, sports, going outside to take pictures. Hong Kong is a brand new playground!
MDes Talks is a series of Student Blogs contributed by students in different specialisms under the Master of Design Scheme. It is set out to share students’ first-hand experience in the d-school pedagogy, their projects, takeaways, and student life in general.