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Master of Education in Educational Technology, M.Ed.
University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA
 
Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design, Minor in Communications, B.A.
Westfield State University, Westfield, MA
 
Associate of Arts in Visual Arts, A.A.
Holyoke Community College, Holyoke, MA
 
Massachusetts Educator Licensure
   • Instructional Technology All Levels
  • Art/Visual Art 5-12

PHILOSOPHY OF TEACHING
AND LEARNING

"I am extremely impressed by Thomas Sweeney's teaching effectiveness, as witnessed through student evaluations forms, as well as through direct student contact and classroom observation. Thomas is articulate, organized, energetic and uncontestably knowledgeable. In fact, I would rate him in the top 5 percent of the finest instructors I have known in over 20 years." -Dr. Barbara Keim, Professor and Chair, Art Department, Westfield State College

"Hello Professor Sweeney, I just wanted to say thank you for teaching me everything I know because I would never have made as far as i have. I got a graphic design job at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts! I have been working as a graphic artist for the Providence Phoenix so that was fun while it lasted...it took a lot of searching and many job interviews until i finally had someone open the door for me...well thanks again!" -Colleen Boisvert

"Setting an example is not the main means of influencing another; it is the only means." -Albert Einstein

GENERAL TEACHING STATEMENT

I consider teaching to be an act of design; the design of experience. As a teacher, my goal is to produce students who are creative, inspired, intrinsically motivated, passionate, curious, socially and ethically responsible, problem solvers, critical thinkers and effective communicators.

My objective as a teacher is to make a positive difference in the academic and social development of my students. To sustain effective teaching and successful student outcomes I strive to remain open to all possibilities and pedagogy, to be ever changing and flexible so as to accommodate a variety of learning styles. I believe it is important to maintain a structured, organized learning environment that motivates students to work at their full potential while also allowing for self-direction and collaborative work. I try to always lead by example and facilitate active learning by providing a safe and supportive environment for questions and discussion.

I strongly believe that people learn best when they are in charge of their own learning. I don't think that people learn especially well when someone stands up in front of them and only lectures. In order for learning to happen, people need to be engaged and involved in the process. In my classroom, I am a constructivist guide— pushing students to emphasize critical thinking, research and idea refinement, pointing out flaws and areas of interest within works, encouraging leadership, and demanding the creation of the graphic system in which every design will be a part. Each course is built within a project-based environment in which students must learn a set of skills, research their use, experiment and apply them strategically in a real-world project. Every project is concept-driven and builds on the skills learned in each previous project. In this way, students can work on missing skills, fuzzy concepts, and improve technically-lacking skills while being able to emphasize their strengths.

I have high expectations for my students. I expect that they want to learn and that they will invest at least some minimal effort in their learning experience. In a typical classroom, I will structure the learning experience in such a way that every student has an opportunity to learn and to have a successful experience. Ultimately, however, it is up to each student to determine how much they will gain from the class. This is determined in large part by how much they invest in the learning experience; completing the readings, showing up to class prepared and ready to jump in to discussion, contributing fully to small group activities and so on. I also believe that students can potentially learn a great deal from each other and that every student has a certain obligation to enhance the learning experience of their peers by contributing fully and thoughtfully to class discussions. Ultimately, my goal is that each student will leave my classroom a different person than when he or she first arrived.

Empowering students is critical for me—while I can foster a classroom of curiosity and passion, self-guided learning is an essential component of the process and allows students to participate more actively in each project. Rather than the sole source of my students’ education, I see myself as a resource of knowledge and experience. The seeking of independent knowledge is essential to instill in young designers who will be forever aiming to master their technical and creative proficiency in this quickly evolving field. In order to encourage independent scholarship beyond the classroom, I engage students in historical and contemporary design discourse, providing relevant examples and encouraging diverse perspectives. In addition, I allow students to individualize specific components of their projects, a strategy that helps students become more deeply invested in the process.

I affirm that all teaching opportunities should be founded on the idea of individual inquiry by the student. This principle makes education a learner-centered process, not one that is teacher-centered. Students need to feel a sense of ownership in the projects they are undertaking. I work to develop assignments that have parameters the student must work within, but still offer the students freedom in their method of discovering a design solution. My personal interests in responsible design crosses over into the classroom, and I will ask students to find a reason to express themselves through visual communication by challenging my students to visually answer social, emotional, physical, economical, and cultural questions.

DESIGN TEACHING STATEMENT

As a design educator, my goal is to guide students toward finding the methods of putting form and content together. Designers must be able to synthesize concepts with form to create effective approaches to visual communication. My challenge is to assist future designers in their mastery of the problem-solving process, thus preparing the next generation of designers who will not just create, but will think, speak, and write about engaging design that communicates.

My teaching methodology blends traditional design practices with theory and historical reference, placing them in contemporary modules of expression. A comprehensive design project must combine technical aspects with form, function, audience awareness, and aesthetics. Graphic design basics must translate to comprehensive decision-making. Students must be taught and encouraged to confidently build and develop physical solutions to abstract concepts.

I challenge my students to think conceptually. I help them achieve this by having them pursue multiple explorations of concepts, before engaging in the act of creation. I task them with providing thumbnail sketches and oral or written explanations of their proposed ideas. I aim to see their projects go beyond creating brochures, logotypes, and marketing collateral. Instead, in my project assignments, I encourage students to research and explore authentic design problems. I instill in my students the desire not only to create but to think.

As a process-oriented person, I am less concerned about final products in entry-level design courses than I am about what is being learned and how well students craft their projects. I encourage students to use and develop a sketchbook or process-book, as a means of recording their design process and/or solutions. As my students gain confidence, knowledge, and skills, I expect them to produce work that clearly demonstrates an understanding of the design principles and their methodology of conceptual thinking. The end product of a student’s design is not necessarily as important as the student’s experience gained in the design process. Therefore, my grading takes into account conceptual, formal, and technical attributes of each project.

In addition, the most important interaction I have with students is to acknowledge the individual student and build in time for one-on-one attention. When students learn how to use various tools for design or art-making, each student learns at a different level and will have specific questions pertaining to their needs or desired solutions. Through one-on-one interaction, informal assessments can also provide students with the opportunity to improve interpersonal communication.

In every stage of design education I feel it is necessary for students to write and conduct research. By reinforcing the research process and encouraging the development of students’ critical writing skills help young designers become equipped to defend his/her own design decisions and creatively respond to the work of their peers. Graphic design is bound to the written word, strong language skills allow for a better understanding of hierarchy, structuring content in an appropriate and meaningful context for the intended audience.

Students should also conduct research outside the classroom so they can participate in discussions and critiques, inspiring new and thought-provoking discourse centered on or around their work. I believe in both leading critiques and letting students lead critiques, with my role being advisor or motivator. The formal assessment that happens in a critique allows for acknowledgment of their work, creating an avenue for them to measure their progress. It also allows for growth in interpersonal communication with their peers. Students must take public responsibility for their work, defend it, and learn to take constructive criticism. Ethical questions may arise from informal or formal discussions, or in response to a specific piece of artwork or design work. These questions are always allowed to be asked, discussed, and reviewed by the group. In these discussions it is important to point out historical and contemporary influences and acknowledge that the learning process is individualistic, as well as an intrinsic part of the overall construct of society.

As humans and designers, we must possess an understanding of our past. If a student is to achieve a solid grasp of design, it is of great importance to look to the past. Designers need to be aware of the political, social, and cultural phenomena, which have influenced the history of art and design. In teaching design, I will often address the conceptualization of graphic design within the development of modern society. My students are confronted by design challenges and will need to think critically to interpret the social, political, economic, technological, religious and cultural factors of the past to know how it will affect their design of today.

Learning is an active process, and therefore, students need to be engaged in the concepts and ideas of design. Class discussion and peer critique are methods I employ to draw students into dialogs that emphasize design fundamentals and conceptual thinking. I utilize a mixture of short in-class exercises and longer in-depth projects to provide variety in the learning experience. I look to provide real client opportunities to replicate the learning experiences that have been most beneficial to me in my career as a student and a designer. My teaching methodology blends traditional design practices with theory and historical reference, placing them in contemporary modules of expression. A comprehensive design project must combine technical aspects with form, function, audience awareness, and aesthetics. Graphic design basics must translate to comprehensive decision-making. Students must be taught and encouraged to confidently build and develop physical solutions to abstract concepts.

Each project follows this process: introduction, inspiration/brainstorming, research, ideation, refinement, and ultimately, the articulation and defense of the outcome (critique). From day one, I make my expectations clear, providing clarity and supporting professional examples as needed. Students investigate innovative and self-invented brainstorming strategies, as well as conceptual and design thinking techniques at the beginning of a project, followed by intensive research. I encourage sketching, chance methodologies, and handcrafted techniques to prevent software from limiting ideas and outcomes. After an iterative process and continuous peer feedback, students state their intentions and make a pitch for the project’s final critique—a stride toward professional preparedness.

One of my primary concerns beyond the curriculum is instilling creative confidence in my students and teaching them to be their own advocates. By providing criticism and extending praise, I create a safe environment where students view failure as an inevitable outcome of a process that pushes boundaries—a practice that encourages risk taking in order to realize inventive solutions. Critiques are a place for honesty, and I enforce thoughtfulness and tact. Because decision-making is essential to the design process, I encourage students to carefully consider feedback and conventional rules of design, but ultimately to come to conclusions based on self-trust.  

I believe that a designer’s best tool, aside from confidence, is a learning community—a network of individuals to interact with and trust. Through collaborative projects, peer feedback, and idea exchange, my classroom becomes a community. To me, it’s essential to recognize the diversity of needs that comes with each new set of students. By listening to aspirations and concerns, I more effectively shape my curriculum by providing immersive experiences for all types of learners. After assessing initial skill sets through short in-class activities, the lessons progressively build on each other. Gauging progress from start to finish, I assess growth on an individual basis. To make these assessments, I closely evaluate student portfolios, the ability to articulate conceptual and logical thought processes, participation in discussions, and willingness to take risks.  

CLOSING STATEMENT

I embrace technology and consider myself a life-long learner. I am constantly looking for opportunities to improve my knowledge of design, technology, and teaching pedagogy. As much as I love to learn, I love the act of teaching even more. In every class, I discover that I am learning simultaneously with my students developing new ideas for challenging experiences and instilling a desire to learn in my students. I want my students to invest in the learning process, as much as I am invested in the process of teaching.

I believe that a passionate educator leads to positive energy in the classroom. An active participant in the design field, I remain relevant and credible to my students, and am able to lead discussions about the contemporary landscape of art and design. Ultimately, my goal is to introduce students to the vastness of the design field’s influence, expose them to inventive methods and approaches, and to prepare them to confidently approach professional design challenges and opportunities in the future.

I will continue to improve my teaching by learning more about pedagogy and how to effectively apply it to my classroom and the design of learning materials. My focus is on continually improving my courses in order to support learning outcomes and student performance. I also create my assignments to be flexible enough that all skill levels can be challenged as well as given them options so they can use their strengths to maximize their success on the assignment.