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a PhD in live projects and architectural education

I’ve out-Schön myself

schon1 schon3 schon2

A week or so ago I wrote about insomnia and Donald Schön. You’ll be pleased to learn that I’m sleeping much better now, having hung two pairs of curtains to the same curtain pole in our bedroom, and that I’ve also now had time to read through three of Schön’s more important books: The Reflective Practitioner (1983), The Design Studio: An Exploration of its Traditions and Potentials (1985) and Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1987). The first and third of these will be familiar to Schön readers the world over, the second perhaps less so. It was a reframe (perhaps read that as ‘rehash’) of his first book with particular reference to architectural education for the Royal Institute of British Architects. You can tell that it was the only one of the three published by an architecture institute by comparing the covers of the three paperbacks above.

Again, as I wrote last weekend, I should state that I’ve been aware of Schön’s contribution to the field of education for some time, but have only recently come to his key texts in their entireties, and have done so following a reading of a politely critical article in the Journal of the Built Environment (JEBE) by Helena Webster entitlted Architectural Education After Schön: Cracks, Blurs, Boundaries and Beyond (pdf link). The first two months of PhD studies have been occupied with a flurry of reading, catching up on some black holes in my reading lists and cross referencing bibliographies to see where else I might end up. While Schön’s books are more than twenty years old, I am beginning to appreciate how they might be seen as sacred cows in their field (to mix metaphors rather pleasingly, as if a sacred cow can chew the cud).

But that is not to say that they are taken without criticism. Webster’s article in JEBE offers a constructive critique that suggests we re-read Schön while remembering his theoretical flaws…

…it could be argued that Schön’s singular focus on design studio learning results in an overly narrow description of architectural learning. Firstly, Schön fails to recognise that there are other cognitive, affective and corporeal dimensions to learning that take place both within the design studio and in other settings (the lecture theatre, the refectory, parties, etc.). Secondly, Schön fails to recognise that students experience architectural education as the sum of its explicit and hidden dimensions and it is this total experience that effects the development of students from novices to professional architects. If architectural education is more complex, both as a structure and as a discipline, than Schön suggests then there is a need to look elsewhere for an explanatory framework. (Webster, 2008, p.66)

Webster is not the only theoretician to question Schön’s viewpoint.

Schön’s approach is so often quoted because it supports the status quo, and since that support comes from an distinguished outsider it gives it a special credence – but in fact a close reading of his description, and in particular the language he deploys, shows just how flawed his analysis is. In his description of a ‘typical’ studio project, he outlines how a studio master (Quist) first sets a problem and then guides the student (Petra) through a series of actions and ways of thinking in order to arrive at a solution. Schön interprets the process as one developing “artistry” and “reflective ways of doing”, but what is really apparent is the power structure of the relationship. Quist’s performance is described as “virtuoso”, but at every stage he exerts his authority over the mystified student, cutting into her explanations, tracing over her drawings and eventually getting her to draw his preferred solution. Whilst Schön interprets this as drawing out the reflective capacity of the student, it is the tutor’s knowledge and his solution that is deemed appropriate; her struggle is patronisingly dismissed (“stutteringly” trying to solve a problem beyond her understanding). It is a classic display of domination, right down to its gendered structure and eventual denouement in the jury. (Till, 2005, p. 167)

The case study Till refers to, a ‘desk crit’ between an architecture tutor and student (renamed Quist and Petra respectively) is called upon by Schön in all three of the books mentioned above. And as Webster points out, it wasn’t even one that he himself had observed, being a transcribed recording of a tutorial made by one of his research students during an MIT study into architectural education during the nineteen seventies. Webster makes a number of critiques about Schön’s methodological approach here, but on a more basic level, I have one question. Why did Schön – such a fervent believer in the pedagogical value of the design studio as means of educating professionals – repeatedly use the same single example to support his argument? How could just one transcribed teacher/student interaction provide such complete evidence for a pedagogical theory?

  • SCHÖN, D., 1983. The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith.
  • SCHÖN, D.A., 1985. The design studio: an exploration of its traditions and potentials. London: RIBA Publications
  • SCHÖN, D., 1987. Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • STEVENS, G., 1998. The favored circle : the social foundations of architectural distinction. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
  • TILL, J., 2005. Lost Judgement. In: E. HARDER, ed, EAAE Prize 2003-2005 Writings in architectural education. 1st edn. Copenhagen: EAAE, pp. 164-181.
  • WEBSTER, H., 2008. Architectural Education after Schön: Cracks, Blurs, Boundaries and Beyond. Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 3(2), pp. 63-74.
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2 Responses

  1. Betty Austin says:

    My doctoral journey is just beginning. I’ve Out Schon Myself is catchy and clever. Incorporating the field of cosmetology education is my aim. There are similarities here, that alert my consciousness. Can we dialogue, further?

    Betty Jo Austin
    EdD Student
    Walden U
    Richard Riley college

  2. Louise says:

    Hi, I have some work that is related to your field of research. I am working on a PhD – rethinking the design studio in architectural education. The context is in Australia and New Zealand. The university that I am at has undertaken Learning-by-Making projects for 15 years and has a number of research articles/ papers on.

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