Learning How To Do Architectural Design

The research field I work in, the learning sciences, has been heavily influenced by studies of learning both inside and outside of schools. Outside of schools, learning environments are structured very differently from traditional classrooms. Many learning scientists have studied what have come to be called apprenticeship learning environments; this is how people learn on the job, for example. Here are the central steps in apprenticeship learning:

  1. The apprentice watches the master execute a skill.
  2. The apprentice attempts to replicate that skill.
  3. The apprentice reflects on her performance, and examines how it is similar and different to what she saw the master do.
  4. The apprentice “internalizes the performance” and “makes it her own” by repeating the cycle.

These four steps were first studied and documented by a lost hero of the learning sciences, MIT Professor Donald Schon, on pages 74 and 75 of his long out-of-print 1985 book The Design Studio. He called these four steps “the ladder of reflection” and he first observed them in an architecture studio class, as a researcher in the definitive and influential 1981 Architecture Education Study (two volumes, and also long out of print).

I’ve been teaching Schon’s book as part of an advanced research seminar this Fall, titled “Learning How to Create,” and the more closely I read his writings, the more I wish that learning scientists would study his analyses of apprenticeship learning. Instead, we’re more likely to cite Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s 1991 book Situated Learning, or Barbara Rogoff’s 1990 book Apprenticeship in Thinking (both of which are very impressive, in extending our understanding of how people learn, but neither of them cite Schon’s writings). Through informal conversations, I know that many of the early founders of the learning sciences were influenced by Dr. Schon’s work. In the cognitive sciences, his research was an early salvo in the now-completed attack on 1970s-era cognitive psychology, with its now-rejected assumption that learning, performance, and expertise are best thought of as internal mental structures and processes, that can be captured and represented in a disembodied computer program. Instead, today we realize that expertise is better conceived of a repertoire of situated social practices.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from Schon’s 1985 book:

Initially, the student does not and cannot understand what designing means. He finds the artistry…to be elusive, obscure, alien and mysterious. Conversely, the studio master realizes that the students do not initially understand the essential things and cannot be told those things at the outset, because the fundamental concepts of designing can be grasped only in the context of the doing….The student does not yet know what he needs to know, yet knows that he needs to look for it. His instructor cannot tell him what he needs to know, even if he has words for it, because the student would not understand him. (pp. 54-56)

Schön imagines what the teacher might say to the student:

I can tell you there is something you need to know, and I can tell you that with my help you can probably learn it. But I cannot tell you what it is in a way that you can now understand. You must be willing, therefore, to undergo certain experiences as I direct you to undergo them so that you can learn what it is you need to know and what I mean by the words I use. Then and only then can you make an informed choice about whether you wish to learn this new competence. If you are unwilling to step into this new experience without knowing ahead of time what it will be like, then I cannot help you. You must trust me. (p. 57)

I agree with Schon that studio practice has many important lessons for educators in other fields, including science, engineering, and math. Schon was influenced by the improvisationality of jazz, and he argued that learning was an essentially improvisational process.

Schon’s research was published almost 30 years ago; today, learning scientists continue down the path that he first mapped out.