(As noted below, this post has been edited to incorporate further reflections based on my final day at NuVu and including some insights gained from Media Lab professor and NuVu guru Edith Ackermann. I try not to have a single post be, like the work of the design studio, an iterative process, but somehow it seemed appropriate here–consider this v2.0. Apologies to anyone unsettled by the shifts in language and emphasisPG)

I’ve spent the past five days immersed in the world of studio learning at NuVu, which is another way of approaching design thinking. I hesitate to try to explain the fine distinctions that the wizards at NuVu Studio make between their work and design thinking, but I would hazard a guess that NuVu, with its founders’ backgrounds at M.I.T., pushes harder at having students create the amazing product, struggling through the design and prototyping process, with multiple iterations; the build—the actual studio work, a kind of loop between ideate and implement, in IDEO design thinking-speak—becomes the heart of the design process. Ongoing critique—desk crits, pin-ups, presentations—is the engine that drives the loop, inspiring continuous improvement of the model.

Anyhow, it’s been awesome, and inspiring, although my head is still reeling from having to go from a quick tutorial in Arduino to “Okay, folks, now build a robot” on Tuesday and from fast lessons in the operation of a Canon 7D and Final Cut Pro to “Time to make a film” on Wednesday—no down time in there. Yes, my partner and I built a robot (it waved its semaphore arms to spell our names), and, with a different partner, we got a short film done. We survived the crits, and if we had had time for further iterations, we knew what we would have done to make our projects better.

I’m also enrolled in the Edutopia-IDEO-Riverdale Country School online MOOC (massive open online course) in design thinking, which is just getting under way and offers up an alternative but very much complementary—though more superficial—approach to the kinds of things we’ve been thinking about at NuVu (where my heart is). It’s free, and I think registration is still open. The August NAIS Bulletin also contained a plug for this course.

As with so many essentially simple concepts, studio learning, or design thinking, requires a great deal of mindfulness to do well. In my observations and conversations with other practitioners and in my experience this week, I’ve tried to focus on the main considerations for teachers and schools in applying the approach effectively. For now, here’s my list; as befits my effort to be a good studio designer, this is a second iteration.

So, some considerations in studio learning/design thinking:

Considerations in planning:

  • Teacher engagement. What are you as a teacher interested in and engaged by? What sensibility do you bring to the challenge of designing and executing a studio?
  • Generative theme.How do you develop themes and topics that are truly engaging to students?
  • Coverage.What are the opportunity costs of studio/project-based learning in terms of content and skills acquisition? Does the depth and experiential power of a la carte, need-to-know learning offset “missed” material?
  • Project point of entry. Do you begin with a broad topic, or a more narrowly focused outcome-based “brief”?
  • Resources.What are the human, material, technical, and practical (time and space, for example) resources that will be required for the project?
  • The End.When will the project be “over”? How directed toward a specific goal will the project be? How open ended? How many iterations will be enough, taking into account real-world constraints?

Considerations related to students:

  • Stage of learner development. What is the role of “development” in project-based learning? What constraints and opportunities are present in the diversity of students’ developmental “stages” (cognitive, social-emotional, moral)?
  • “Learning style.” What role does student learning style, preference, difficulty, or disability have in project-based learning? What constraints and opportunities are present in the diversity of students’ areas of relative strength and weakness?
  • Student experience and cultural perspectives. What is the role of culture, class, personal experience, and ways of being in project-based learning? What challenges and opportunities are present in the diversity of students’ cultural and personal perspectives?
  • Group formation. To what degree, if any, should the composition of any collaborative groups that are likely to form in the course of the project be subject to  “social engineering”? What factors should be balanced?
  • Transition to a new culture of learning. What bridge or strategy will help students make the often initially unsettling shift to the studio culture of open-ended, feed-back rich, and often self-directed rich learning? How do you help students cross this bridge swiftly and smoothly (and make the transition back again, as is so often necessary)?

Considerations in implementation:

  • Structure.How do you calculate and maintain the balance between structure and looseness in the daily studio work environment?
  • Documenting the learning process. How do you ask students to document their work processes in ways that contain their own seeds of engagement?
  • Fundamental skills and the exigencies of the problem. How do kids learn what they need to know to develop solutions? Is just-in-time or a la carte instruction or self-teaching enough in the broader context of overall their school experience?
  • Mid-course corrections. How and when do you make adjustments to the process and/or expectations and/or constraints as the project moves forward?

Considerations in assessment & evaluation

  • Feedback.How do you learn to give the most effective feedback to students? How do you balance their need to learn and your need to “tell it like it is”? Where do you as a teacher learn or practice these skills?
  • Formative assessment.How do you decide what you want students to be learning in a studio environment?  How do you know if they are learning it as you go?
  • Summative assessment. How do you How do you know if students have learned what you wanted them to learn? How do you, or is it important to, assess other (incidental, accidental, serendipitous) learnings?
  • Student evaluation. How do you evaluatestudent performance in a studio environment?
  • Studio evaluation. How do you evaluate the success of your studio/project?

Other considerations:

  • Good failure. How do you maximize/optimize the lessons of failure? How do you guarantee that an iterative process teaches the lessons inherent in a risk-heavy continuous-improvement environment?
  • Inspiration.What the heck does inspiration look like?
  • Quality of work. When does a process shift from and ethic of “getting ’er done” to an ethic of craftsmanship? At what point do expectations or goals shift from expediency to elegance?

Obviously there is plenty of material to expand on each of these, but the point here is to lay out the things that teachers need to ask themselves as they go about planning a project—or a course, for that matter. There’s nothing here that’s particularly new, and nothing that requires the services of NuVu’s in-house rocket scientist. (Yes, they have one, but he’s off doing something for NASA this week.)

Teaching, like design, like so many things, is all about making choices. What I’ve learned this week, or at least had reiterated for me in no uncertain terms, is that the choices we make in designing good design thinking/studio learning projects are critical—questions that demand a teacher’s most intentional planning. On some days some of these challenges will seem much bigger than others, and this will change from project to project and teacher to teacher. Some of these challenges are extremely context-dependent, others more general; again, this will change from project to project, classroom to classroom, day to day.

It’s context that matters, and goals that matter even more. But while it demands attention, it is not difficult. Five days with the masters at NuVu are great preparation, but for those who cannot be here, some reading, some creativity, and a belief that the process is worth the effort. 

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