How I Teach - Reflecting on 15 years in design education
by Jon Kolko

Chapter Three: Design Studio

Team dynamics

Projects in my studios are nearly always in groups of two or three. A well-structured team learns to work together fluidly. They trust one-another, and so they can focus on their design work instead of focusing on interpersonal problems. But frequently, personalities clash within a group. Students who don’t have experience working in a group struggle. These are some of the things they struggle with.

  • A conflict of communication style. Some people are direct and blunt. They communicate their judgement and observations in a no-nonsense tone of voice, and don’t curate their language to deliver bad news in a good way. This is at odds with other students, who both give and expect feedback to be more supportive. “That isn’t working” and “There are a number of parts of this that are just so good, but when they come together, I don’t think it’s doing the best job it really could be” get to the same point, but do it in very different ways. When these collide, there is tension. Sometimes, this stylistic problem is present in something as simple as inflection and volume. I had a student who had a very loud voice, and some of the other students in his group felt that he was yelling at them. They interpreted this as antagonistic, even though his intent was collaborative.
  • A conflict of perception of roles. Some students want to lead and view themselves as an autocratic leader—someone who determines a direction, makes decisions, and ultimately is in charge. Other students view a team as a collaboration, where no one is in charge and decisions are made through consensus. When there are multiple “leaders” emerging in a group, forward momentum become difficult because each individual feels that they own decision making. This results in debate, conflict, and sometimes, shouting. When there are no “leaders” emerging, the group spins. It’s difficult to find a path forward if no one can commit to a direction, and so this leaderless group considers multiple paths over and over without ever making a decision.
  • A conflict of work ethic. Some students dedicate more time to their course work than others. When the effort gap becomes noticeably large, students begin to feel resentment towards one-another. That resentment splits the group, where students begin to work individually rather than collaboratively. Sometimes, the wedge becomes so strong that students end up with individual designs instead of a group result.
  • A reliance on old skills. Students come to school with a set of existing skills. It’s tempting in a group project to fall back on those skills. For example, if one student is skilled in sketching, and the project requires sketching, they become the de facto “sketcher.” This means that no other student will get to experience and practice that skill, and the “sketcher” won’t have an opportunity to try new methods.

In all of these cases, the solution is frequent and honest conversation. Ignoring the issue makes it grow. Constant intervention through conversation heads off a problem before it becomes too large to manage. These problems are all present in professional work as well—they don’t go away once the student reaches the working world, and in some cases, the problems become magnified by corporate hierarchy. Students learn, through collaborative projects, that constant communication is critical for making team-based decisions and managing a productive group dynamic.

This communication doesn’t happen naturally for students, and I often need to spark the dialogue. During a studio course, instead of simply discussing the quality of the work, I can discuss the quality of team dynamics, and force issues to come to the forefront. This is most effective by being direct with observations. If I see participants working individually instead of collaboratively, I may say something like “I see that each of you are working individually. This means you are missing out on collaborative value, like idea sharing, group brainstorming, and the tacit knowledge a student brings to the group. Why don’t you join the group over here?”

But it’s not enough to simply tell the students what to do. I need to show them. Because in many cases, they don’t actually know how to improve or change. If they are working individually, and I want them to work in a group, I can show them what group work looks like. We can gather around a whiteboard, and I can facilitate a group conversation. If someone is excluding another teammate during the conversation, I can call attention to that. And I can hold a meta-conversation of how we are working together, so students see and experience through example how to shift or change their behavior.

A studio is about purposeful introspection and retrospection. I prompt this reflection. I ask students to think about how they feel about a given situation, and hold a structured dialogue about the student’s feelings and reactions. I ask things like

How did this activity make you feel? Why do you think you felt this way? In comparing how you feel to how another student felt, why do you think you had different reactions to the same experience?

These questions force even further introspection and cause deeper thinking. They act as provocations for students to explore their feelings and their actions. Many students feel as if they are the only one who “doesn’t get it” or “can’t do it”, and to hear that their peers are also struggling helps to reset their own expectations about their own behavior. In this way, introspection and retrospection act as tools of comradery, which in turn help to create a collaborative learning environment.

Continue reading: Structuring Time and Space »