Use studio pedagogy to help students see

Ariel H. Bierbaum, University of California, Berkeley

For those of us in interdisciplinary social sciences, it can be a challenge to engage students deeply in conversations about the complicated interactions among policy, economy, politics, and culture. As a teacher of urban studies, facilitating these conversations has an added complexity – unpacking the ways that these interactions manifest in and structure our physical environments.

 Learning to “read” the physical city and understand how it represents the layered and cumulative effects of policies and politics can be difficult to teach through traditional pedagogies of lecture and seminar discussion. I thus turned to studio pedagogy from planning and design disciplines, which emphasizes visual thinking and experiential learning.

 Studio pedagogy in seminar class has proven to be a powerful tool for my students to hone their visual thinking, spatial understanding, and critical analysis skills. The studio space offers production of visual representations not merely as a final product, but also as an iterative process to analyze, deconstruct, and reimagine our environments and the policies that create them. This pedagogy has worked in seminar classes of 10 to 15 students and in larger sections with upwards of 30 students, and enabled meaningful discussions, supported students’ diverse learning styles, and engaged students with different depths of content knowledge.

 For example, I structured an exercise for students to design exclusionary and inclusionary spaces as a way to conduct spatial analysis and prompt critical discussion about themes from readings. Before class began, I set out nine blank pieces of poster-sized paper and markers. When students arrived, they counted off by nine, creating teams of three. “Shuffling” students in this way ensured that they worked with new peers and mixed my quieter and more verbal students. First, each group determined the scale at which they would design (e.g., building, neighborhood, city, region) and identified a demographic dimension on which to focus (e.g., age, race/ethnicity, gender/sexual orientation, ability). Students divided their paper in half, and spent 10 minutes drawing an exclusionary space and 10 minutes drawing that same space as an inclusionary one. At the end of the 20 minutes, each team hung their posters around the room, and a spokesperson presented out key elements of their designs. After each team presented, I facilitated discussion and challenged all students to articulate the links between the visual representations and themes in readings and lecture.

 The energy in my classroom during these exercises is lively and jovial (even at an undesirable Friday morning time slot). This visual and tactile exercise successfully engages the diversity of my students, and inspires leadership in different ways: many of my more verbal students seemed a bit shy about picking up markers and crayons, while my quieter students often took the lead in drawing. In the follow-up discussion, students were able to articulate concepts from readings that they included in their designs, and also cogently critiqued and updated the scholarly theories. Students report that they enjoy these exercises and the ways they inspired thinking about the readings.