Studio School is a rigorous learning environment driven by the method of Studio Based Learning (SBL). Studio School students learn by designing. In Studio School, learners propose solutions to ambiguous questions, critique those propositions through judgment from self and others, and iterate their proposals in ever more effective designs.

Brocato & Monson, 2007




Studio-based learning is a shared learning environment in which ambiguous problems are addressed iteratively through multi-modal analysis, proposition, and critique.

The overall characteristic of SBL is design, where the ambiguous nature of the problems addressed and the discursive human methodologies engaged toward their solution require the resources of design thinking. The pedagogy of SBL developed from historic systems of professional apprenticeship, where masters led students through real-world problems toward competent solutions which fully integrated a discipline's theory and praxis.

Studio-based Learning Characteristic
The first characteristic of SBL is a shared learning environment. This refers to the nature of discursive collaboration between students in their learning, as well as the physical space in which that learning occurs. Essential in the definition of SBL is the term "studio," which means a dedicated, collaborative work space (Schön, 1985) in which novices collaborate with experts. Among the functions of a studio space are student work desks/tables, resource storage, wall space for pin-ups, and group gathering areas. By its nature, the studio is necessarily multi-function and flexible. The studio also extends beyond this designated work space into field specific and field intense study of design. Like apprentices, students who study in an SBL environment travel to see the great works of their discipline. So while the studio in SBL primarily means the space inside an actual design studio, it also manifests itself as the shared learning environment in field studies and real-world environments.

The shared aspect of SBL is particularly important because of what it means for relationships. In SBL, the learning environment is leveled and equalized, allowing members to relate in person-centered, culturally responsive ways. The shared aspect of SBL signifies a trust between members-teacher and student, students and students, families and teachers. Trust in the classroom promotes risk-taking in student work which deepens cognitive functioning, and this attends to the role relationships play in learning environments. This is particularly important as we attempt to understand better how to meet the needs of underserved populations. Often, these learners are underserved because of the nature of their cognitive development during early childhood.

When young children are exposed to chronically stressful situations, the brain development of the lower portions of the brain responsible for the general adaption syndrome- or 'fight or flight' reactions-are strengthened, while the development in the cortex regions of the brain responsible for functions such as abstract and rational thinking are weakened (Begley, 1996). In fact, Perry (1993) found the cortex region of the brain of neglected children to be 20% smaller. Damage in the cortex region of the brain has been associated with memory lapses, anxiety, attention deficits, and an inability to control emotional outbursts-the same characteristics found in many children who fail to achieve academically. Many children who are poor and live in dangerous environments develop behaviors that are counterproductive in educational settings. In its shared, person-centered philosophy, SBL may have particular implications for these learners at risk of academic failure. So then, the "shared" component of SBL's "shared learning environment" is crucial.

Studio-based Learning Characteristic
Ambiguous problems are the second characteristic of SBL. Older than any formalized systems of education, the idea of using problems as an instructional method is based in the power of experience as a source of learning (Kolb, 1984). As problems become more uncertain and ill-defined, the nature of problem engagement becomes much wider and solutions become much more difficult to assess. Ambiguous problems are those where the ends and means of the solution process are either unknown or unknowable, requiring ongoing problem definition throughout the problem-solving activity. Because their solution resists prescription, ambiguous problems require a process of design thinking. Design acknowledges that the potential answers to an ambiguous problem are many, the resources needed for solutions are diverse, and that the method of problem engagement demands a back-and-forth, iterative process of proposition followed by judgment (Rowe, 1987).

Studio-based Learning Characteristic
The characteristic of iteration follows from the process of design thinking required by ambiguous problems. Iteration is the repeated proposition and critique of aspects of the larger problem. It is a serial process diagrammed as "a, b, a, b, a, b, a, b . . .", where "a" represents a proposition and "b" represents reflection and judgment. Through the process of iteration, the work of proposition is better defined as a learned action, since each new proposition is informed critically by the previous one. Donald Schön, in his seminal book on professional thinking The Reflective Practitioner, famously called such activity "reflection-in-action" (1983).

Studio-based Learning Characteristic
Multi-modal is the next characteristic of SBL. Multi-modal refers to the numerous ways in which a problem may be experienced and studied, and to the ways solutions might be proposed, tested, and subsequently communicated through forms of representation. Each form of problem engagement-textual, diagrammatic, verbal, constructive-has its own reductive perspectives and biases. These biases allow particular problem variables to be seen more clearly, while at the same time hiding others. Using multiple modes of representation in problem inquiry helps expose the most variables possible. The application of multi-modality is meant to specifically allow the problem to be seen in its most holistic form. Multi-modality acts to flesh out the activities of analysis, proposition, and critique.

Studio-based Learning Characteristic
The characteristics of analysis and proposition are central activities to SBL. Analysis reduces a problem to constituent parts while proposition synthesizes potential solutions to problem parts into a new and coherent whole. In SBL, activities of analysis and proposition are almost always considered contingent and exploratory rather than complete, because the nature of an ambiguous problem does not suggest a clear solution. Analysis and proposition are interrelated in that they form the "problem space," and reasoning through them allows a progressive "knowledge expansion" of the boundaries of the problem itself (Newell and Simon, 1972). Among the special functions of analysis is its dependency on systems of concepts and categories. In SBL, these processes of classification not only open up the resources of normative disciplinary knowledge, but through their reductive quality they engender the higher cognitive functions of inference and combination of ideas, and work to encourage the use of language and collaborative discussion (Ross and Spalding, 1994). Proposition involves the synthetic assembly of solution elements into a coherent whole through the iterative processes of design thinking. Proposition is often dependent upon learning "transfer," which is the ability to extend existing knowledge into new contexts (NRC, 2000). In SBL, propositions often occur in the learning process as a series of increasingly complex inventions which are then judged through increasingly particular evaluative structures.

Studio-based Learning Characteristic
The last characteristic of SBL, critique is perhaps the most essential and the most illuminating. Critique is reflective judgment through discourse. Any part of the activities of SBL or the products of its work can be considered through critique. The discourse of critique may be internal to the student or involve the participation of many other people, but because it is fundamentally based in strategies of human language it is always able to be documented and analyzed. Because it is inherently reflective, critique can be considered outside of the "physical presence of new learning," and is thus a rebuilding of a student's existing cognitive structures of knowledge. In this, critique represents deep and transformative learning (Moon, 1999).

This synopsis was compiled by Chris Monson, John Poros, Kay Brocato, Debra Prince, and Devon Brenner.©2003-2007

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July 28, 2009