Informal Learning as a Design Practice

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Our interdisciplinary team collaborated with stakeholders from D-ARCH, D-GESS, D-USYS, and ETH-Bibliothek to establish a robust pedagogical and operational framework. Over six months, we meticulously prepared teaching materials, including a comprehensive reader for students.

During the HS 2021 and FS 2022 semesters, third-year bachelor and master students (semesters IV to IX) engaged in intensive weekly sessions across two design studios at D-ARCH. These sessions alternated between group work, field visits, expert consultations, and internal workshops. In the initial phase, students honed their analytical skills by visiting three distinct sites, translating observations into actor network hand drawings, and participating in collective assessments. Subsequently, student groups crafted detailed design proposals, leveraging hand-drawn plans and actively intervening on-site.

Six months before the course, the framework for pedagogical and operational aspects of the studio was defined with stakeholders (D-ARCH, D-GESS, D-USYS and ETH-Bibliothek) by two scientific assistants from two chairs. The teaching material for the students was prepared. At the beginning of the semester, students received a reader with basic information about three site, that would become case studies for spatial transformation. The reader also included readings and design references, as well as a description of the methodological framework (Reflexive Learning, Architectural Behaviorology, Design in Dialogue, Wood, and textile, 1:1 Mock-up, Observation and Evaluation). For the second semester, an additional reader was created describing the first semester’s work for each site, with the associated outlook, to allow the new students to continue working with the knowledge previously acquired.

The project was then implemented in the context of two design studios at D-ARCH (semesters HS 2021 and FS 2022) for third-year bachelor and master students (semesters IV to IX), including some mobility students. In HS 2021, 25 D-ARCH students were able to enroll in the course, while in FS 2022 there were 15 students. During both semesters, students had each week two full days (a) Day 1 10:00-17:30, b) Day 2 08:30-17.30) with an alternance of program containing a) group work / field work / contact with experts / internal workshop / “desk critics” with 2 assistants, and b) “desk critics” with professors / group work / field work.

In a first phase, students learned to analyze each case by going on site, transferring their observations in actor network hand drawings, and presenting their observations in collective assessment and exchange formats implemented on site or in the studio space. In a second phase, the groups generated a design proposal for their sites in the form of hand drawings with project details and intervened on-site with 1:1 mock-ups, meaning real sized prototypes. In a third phase this material was elaborated and developed into final process design and design proposals and organized in a collective exhibition. Students conducted the collective evaluations (at the end of each phase) to allow all stakeholders to participate in the discussions and to test and discuss the impact of the interventions together. Students worked in groups of 3 to 5. Each student also worked individually week by week on a research report collecting their own observations to support the group work and to facilitate the transmission of information with the teaching team and the stakeholders.

Both semesters were conducted in exchange with D-USYS students and faculty, in close collaboration with the Chair of Cognitive Science, with the owner of the A&A property, and with staff from the ETH Library InfoCenter. The studio focused on integrating informal learning environments in three spaces at ETH Zurich: 1) studio and collective spaces at D-ARCH, Langhalle ONA building, 2) public learning environment, ETH Library InfoCenter, HG, 3) group work setting (UPL course 1st semester in classroom G42 – collective open space «Green Floor» in 2nd semester), D-USYS, CHN building. For all these sites, students had to exchange, collaborate, and learn from regular users (staff, fellow students, etc.), in order to sharpen their design ideas.

Architectural Behaviorology: A design theory and methodology introducing a better understanding of architectural form in the relationship with various behaviors of elements, such as nature, human, and buildings, focusing on the repetitive, rhythmical, and shareable aspects of behavior: from individually based, to commonality based. It claims that through such an approach architectural design can establish new relationships with and in society.

Design in Dialogue: Less a new methodology to study and rather a liberating, attitude to share, cherish and develop, Design in Dialogue stems from 6 dimensions: Engaging out of necessity, involving the knowledge of the many, creating a safe ground for learning, daring risky experiments, becoming a senior improviser, developing a culture of cooperation. These 6 approaches help both to situate a project, to plan next steps and to become more aware of the ambitions. In most cases, it is not the final design or product that is the goal, but the way to get there, that allows a collective learning experience, and the uncovering of structures and processes that need to be activated and/or changed to support transformation.

Learning from the site: The observation of the learning environment in its larger context and with its network of actors offered students a wider understanding of behavioral settings and existing culture of learning and teaching at ETH. The method strengthened their understanding of the context for change, on both spatial and institutional level, by collecting historical and theoretical material about pedagogies, educational institutions, their relation to the city, their design and evolution.

Drawing collectively: The Actor-Network hand drawing, as a research tool, allows students to share research and observations and to connect them to the design practice, by drawing and representing the observations, in iterative cycles with empirical analysis and questioning existing and historical learning environments and learning processes. Later contextualizing the design idea, the mock-up in the site and describing the intervention in a collective hand drawing helped at deepening the understanding of the relations between built environment, users, and natural conditions, and serves as a communication tool with stakeholder.

Designing Hands-on: Working on a 1:1 scale helped students to find the adequate design methodologies for each specific site. The punctual presence of Senmonkas (Textile and wood experts) also offered a professional and inspiring support to students in the design and making process. Mock-ups are tools for both individual as well as collective learning. The mock-ups and elements that were built and tested during the studios and workshops are not necessarily seen as final design proposals for the specific spaces they were situated in. They rather act as an invitation to further experiment, invest and explore transformation through physical changes that encourage users to appropriate and transform their environments according to their uses.

Experiencing collectively

Mock-ups 1:1: They create the spatial conditions for dialogue and collective evaluation and can support students to create their own setting, adapt the way they perform, present, and generate feedback. A mock-up can reveal the full social ecologies of a given site and invites new behaviors. It also supports the finding of the adequate design methodologies for a given site. It brings space, people (students, stakeholders, teaching staff) and real-world problems together, and serves as a place for the exchange of information and knowledge. It is a place to test and expand understanding.

Collective evaluation: Contrary to the usual idea of a critique where students describe the current status of their design, it was also part of their task to design their presentations independently in such a way that they could share their sensorial experiences and get the feedback they were looking for. Rather than seeing their 4 project as a final solution, or as something to defend, the idea was to open up possibilities and inviting involved actors to collectively think along and beyond.

Collective Lunch: Each studio day, the group of students decided which group of students would be responsible for preparing a collective lunch. Tasks were also shared with students from the Persyn studio, who also shared workspaces in the Lang Halle. The Lang Halle and its exterior spaces were also the venue for these meals. Looking at learning environments, it is especially lunch that becomes the epitome of the midday break, including physical movements and refreshing thoughts. A collective lunch situation helps to dissolve hierarchies between teachers, students, guests or visitors, to further foster informal exchange outside the formal settings of a design studio, and to make the potential of mutual caring tangible. Shared responsibility, collaboration and self-organization are further skills acquired through this activity.

Ensuring Student Learning Process

Weekly meetings with both assistants and professors ensured particularly frequent and regular, face-to-face communication between the teaching team and students. This enabled a constant evaluation of the learning progress. In addition to this, essential information on the program, schedule, deliverables, and assessments were communicated in the beginning of the semester, written in the reader, and always repeated by e-mail before the deadlines. After each phase where deliverables were evaluated, detailed grading sheets of each chair were transmitted to students. Students were at any time welcome to take contact with assistants or professors to receive further feedback or information.