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Learning for a new professionalism

Practice is changing, but how closely is architectural education following? In fact, shouldn't academia be supporting practice through research at the leading edge of societal change, to better prepare students for working life, to enable students to develop those skills which will give them the greatest flexibility to cope with changes in their industry or, for that matter, in their own life goals?

The cude project (clients and users in design education), sponsored by the hefce fund for the development of teaching and learning (fdtl), has focused on the goals of bringing a greater understanding of clients, users and cross-disciplinary working into design education. Initiated in 1996 at the former Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies at the University of York, in consortium with the universities of Sheffield and De Montfort at Leicester, the programme has increasingly focused on an education programme that aims to enhance student skills of listening, communication and teamwork, through a collaborative rather than confrontational approach to learning.

A recent two-day conference organised by cude at De Montfort University drew together over 70 full- and part-time educationalists/practitioners and students from the uk, mainland Europe and the us to exchange experiences in innovative studio teaching methods.

The event was designed as a piece of peer-group learning with keynote papers and themed break-out sessions structured around the following themes of central relevance to teaching and learning:

The learning climate

How should educators respond to change in society? How are students acquiring their skills and attitudes in teamworking and communication - are the traditional role models appropriate?

Learning by doing

How can we foster independent, interdependent, lifelong learning? What explicit teaching activity takes place in schools in brief-building, communication and teamworking?

Quality

How do we know that our teaching initiatives are effective? How can the potential of the crit be exploited as a learning vehicle?

The theme of the two days was the changing context of practice, resulting in a new professionalism, and the need to reflect this in the expectations of architectural education and its approach to teaching and learning.

A climate of change

Keynote opening addresses, and the two chairmen - Professor Hans De Jonge, from Delft University of Technology, and Robin Nicholson, fresh from his recent experiences with Sir John Egan's task force for innovation in construction - presented a changing world of architectural endeavour for a large majority of students leaving architectural schools, who work in large, 50+ offices with a business culture, and international outlook. Working for 'professional' clients, often with continuous building programmes, who commission 80 per cent of the overall construction spend, Nicholson presented a picture of a profession working within a multi-disciplinary service industry where, for example, the funding of architects' education accounts for only 5 per cent of the total educational spend towards the construction industry.

Reflecting on David Maister's model of the architectural profession, the vision that architectural education still upholds for its students is the innovative, signature architect in the 'practice-led business', while the reality is that a large sector of practice has already shifted to be service or delivery-focused 'business-led practice'. New professionalism must recognise a significant architect's role within the circle of the delivery team. The client in large projects is looking for the integrator who can help to clarify its needs and draw together an understanding of space, organisational structure, finance and technology to support their business objectives. This breadth requires a sensitivity to both supporting client processes and providing building products. From the client's perspective, architecture's highest value is often in our ability to identify problems, define concepts, frame solutions and create meaningful form. Specification and implementation of the production process is seen as the role of the constructor, or development manager.

The challenges facing education

Studio teaching lies at the heart of architectural education. However, it was observed that this could be both the 'greatest strength and most profound weakness of architectural education as a preparation for practice'. Crucially, as observed by Donald Schon, the studio becomes 'a collective world in its own right'. It encourages 'particular ways of seeing, thinking and doing' that, over time, assert themselves with increasing authority.

It was the cude team's contention that poor communication skills in practice are a result of the educational experience - the inward focusing of the design studio insulating students from the outside world, knowing how to talk only to other architects.

Again, despite conclusive evidence from practice that the more participatory an office the more effective it becomes in terms of both business and design quality, it was noted that architectural education continues to emphasise the importance of the individual student. There was increasing evidence that the attitudes and skills which students are acquiring in communication and brief building are formed as much by the manner in which teaching and learning currently takes place as by the specific formal content.

The learning climate

Often initially prompted by diminishing academic resources, studio teaching is increasingly reliant on part-time contracts to practitioners. Drawing parallels with practice and 'contract' staff, it was felt that the academic system had yet to address fully what this implies for creating an organisational culture to which both full-time and part-time staff can contribute to make best use of these partnerships between academia and practice.

Allied to the environment of the design studio and its work, the traditional ritual of the design review - or 'crit' - came under scrutiny. It was increasingly seen as a 'wasted opportunity' that, rather than being a powerful environment in which to create dialogue, facilitate learning, and explore development, can seem 'merely an end in itself - a stressful and frequently tedious affair for tutor and student'. Communication then became a one-way process, with the product presented often giving little insight into the effort and thought which had led to its creation.

It followed that if it was accepted that the manner in which the academic system facilitates learning can be as important as the subject content, educators needed to understand better the messages that current teaching practices are giving. Four key educational challenges were set down:

to better prepare students for the demands of professional practice

to foster attitudes and communications-skills development

to build on students' own experiences and develop independence and lifelong learning capacity

to make the assessment processes, and particularly the review or crit, a more enriching educational experience.

The example of others

It is often proposed that architectural education is in some way 'uniquely unique'. As an antidote, and to see how experience in other disciplines closely reflect the challenge of architectural education, one keynote speaker talked of his work in computer sciences teaching of software design. As an industry, the key skills which computer graduates need relate to 'capturing the requirements' (cf brief building) and 'testing and debugging' on completion (cf post-occupancy evaluation). However, these areas have traditionally proved the hardest to take into the academic environment. Projects can fail to meet educational objectives if, for example, progress is impeded by conditions outside the students' or supervisor's control. This risk of failure is frequently cited as a reason for not conducting group projects in a student's final year and for restricting the proportion of marks allocated to group project work in any academic year. It certainly necessitates the provision of alternative assessment schemes as part of a contingency plan.

However, the rewards are considerable. Taking responsibility for clients and their projects resulted in students greatly improving their professional attitude. They learned how to negotiate in a realistic context, plan and manage delivery of a high-quality solution and deal with all manner of problems along the way. The students enjoyed the experience - 'It was the best course I attended at university.' The staff supervising the course also gained - 'being involved with many types of real problem-solving; seeing how varied and volatile the business context is; studying how software development teams operate in a realistic setting and exploring the strengths and weaknesses of current design methodologies' had all proved valuable. Finally, the future employers of project students regarded these campus- based projects as 'an excellent alternative to an industrial placement'.

Students had acquired skills in handling clients and customers, in negotiation, in team-working, in planning and managing projects thus setting the foundation for a successful career. The parallels with the architectural process and challenges for architectural education were clear.

Conclusion

Over the two days participants heard 42 presentations - from part-time teachers, full-time academics, heads of school, students and the riba. All focused on the process of architectural education - innovation in studio structure, group-working projects, the design review and client- centred projects. As one presenter put it, education is in a version of the 'architectural hokey-cokey - three years in, one year out, two years in and you shake it all about'. However, this group showed the determination of its participants to bring a new professionalism to the delivery of architectural education through an examination of the process as well as curriculum content. There seemed a corporate relief that participants' concerns were not entirely isolated, even though many expressed that feeling of isolation within their respective schools.

There was optimism that, through future networking, this group had a critical mass which could indeed effect broader change based on a new perspective - a radical rethink of the context we are educating for and the skills required.

John Worthington and Simon Pilling are, respectively, director and co- ordinator of the cude project

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