Students should never finish their work

James Addison, MIT graduate and NuVu program designer, explains how their education model goes against conventional binaries found in traditional education

‘‘We’re done!” announced an energetic 16-year-old student as confident smiles emerged across the two teammates’ faces. This declaration of completion occurred just 42 minutes after the beginning of the project.

As I prepared to give the students feedback on their ideas, I considered their ironic, yet unsurprising, statement of completion. After all, they were in a design studio, an open-ended learning environment where there are no right or wrong answers and where the work is certainly never done.

Although 42 minutes was especially quick, these proclamations of ‘doneness’ are a frequent occurrence for students new to the NuVu education model, and are symptomatic of a traditional education rooted in conventional binaries of right/wrong, good/bad and complete/incomplete.

In many classrooms, once a student has arrived at an answer, it is evaluated as either right or wrong, regardless of the potentially infinite ways they may have arrived at their solution. In the design studio, we question this paradigm: what if, instead, it was the student’s process itself, rather than the answer, that was scrutinised?

What if, instead, it was the student’s process itself, rather than the answer, that was scrutinised?

And suppose that instead of simply validating or rejecting the student’s method, it was critiqued based on the possibilities that the process unveiled, the thoroughness with which each step was explored, the reasoning behind each decision, the ways in which feedback was synthesised and its creativity?

The partnership between Kelvinside Academy and NuVu Studio, an innovation school based in Cambridge, MA, has created a productive tension in educational approaches that requires students to navigate a cultural shift in the way they learn. NuVu’s pedagogy derives from the architectural studio model, which emphasises an iterative design process infused with creativity.

Every studio begins with an open-ended prompt that has a deep connection to solving real-world challenges. In this studio, called ‘Devices for Activism’, where this eager student was being challenged to think beyond the right-response syndrome, students were researching current social issues and creating interactive interventions around the city to encourage civic engagement and empower local communities.

Students respond to NuVu’s studio prompts with ideas, sketches and prototypes that go through a guided cycle of critical reflection and feedback, challenging them to explore multiple directions for their project at every stage. In contrast to the predefined outcomes and fixed benchmarks of traditional learning models, the exploratory and non-linear nature of the design process builds confidence in navigating ambiguous and complex situations.

Educational transition

For students at Kelvinside Academy, a school whose 140-year history is steeped in exam-centric learning, participating in a NuVu studio for the first time can be a disorienting experience. The two students who triumphantly declared their completion before fully engaging in the design process were in the midst of this educational transition.

At the end of every studio, whether it is in-person, virtual or a hybrid model, students present their prototypes to classmates, teachers and visiting guests. Among the many comments and questions they receive from the audience, there is one they have learned to expect at the end of every presentation: ‘If you had more time, what would the next version of your prototype be?’

It is essential to embrace this paradigm shift towards open-ended learning environments that encourage deeply iterative and self-reflective creative thinking – an approach that requires students to question the decision-making process even more than the result. The work is never done.

By embracing the design process, students are compelled to develop the mindset required to thrive in the current unpredictable moment, and to address even larger multifaceted challenges – a mindset that is adaptable, excels in ambiguity and is relentlessly reflective.

The complex societal issues that this generation of students is already confronted with (and will continue to face), such as the global pandemic, climate change, racial and social justice, and economic instability are quickly evolving and without singular solutions.

If we are to prepare the next generation for the uncertainty of both the present and the future, their education must embody the dynamic and open-ended nature of these issues.

NuVuX – developed by NuVu to bring design and creativity to UK schools – has been piloted at Kelvinside Academy and Dollar Academy.

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