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The Secrets of Design Studio Power Dynamics Revealed

If you’re an architecture student, where you sit in studio could have an impact on your performance and how you’re perceived by your fellow students and your professor. And if you’re a studio instructor, where you stand or sit while interacting with your class can set up a power dynamic that affects the behavior of your students. How conducive are design studio spaces to the learning process? What kind of impact do they have on students with different backgrounds, abilities, and learning dispositions?

These are some of the questions and issues addressed in research on studio spaces by professors Kiwana McClung and Liane Hancock of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL) and Kris Lyon, a recent ULL architecture graduate, presented by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. The team studied the power dynamics of studio space, its environmental quality, how students locate themselves in studio space based on their style of learning, and how much attention they receive, according to where they sit in studio, among other questions.

The findings of the study—“Toward a More Just Design Studio: Analyzing Power Dynamics in Studio Spaces”—are eye-opening, even to someone who’s taught for decades. The researchers were most interested to learn how the open studio pedagogy is perceived through the eyes of students. They started with the premise that design studios are seen as places of openness and discussion, compared to typical classrooms. What they discovered, first, was a dearth of research on the function and effectiveness of design studios as learning spaces, and how the studio can at times help, at times hinder, instruction. This prompted them to search out existing research on power dynamics in conventional classroom spaces and open office plans. 

In the presentation, Lyon points out that, based on her own recent experiences in studio, “students who typically choose the front of the class—the announcement areas—are the ‘good students,’” as perceived by others. “This was taken at face value and unquestioned. But are the students actually better or are they taking advantage of pre-determined desk placement?” It’s a great question, particularly because most first- and second-year students pick their seats without knowing the power dynamics involved. 

A search for established norms about what’s expected in a studio space led the team to a 2020 policy by the Learning and Teaching Culture Policy Project, formulated by the American Institute of Architecture Students (with input from ACSA, AIA, NAAB, and NOMA), which states that architecture programs should promote diversity, equity, and inclusion—“an atmosphere of enjoyment that fosters creativity.” A school should have zero tolerance of bullying and harassment and provide opportunity and safe spaces to have open discussions. But, as the study points out, these policies don’t focus on the design of the studio space itself, or the power dynamics of those spaces when used by students and faculty. 

The team uncovered research by Jade Davis of Columbia University, “Dismantling the Seat of Power to Enable Reflexive Inquiry,” that considers the design of seating arrangements in conventional classrooms. Students know what the power relationships are and where to sit in classrooms to either exploit or neutralize that power. The ULL researchers translate Davis’ research into the context of the design studio and make some interesting observations and conclusions: studio instructors typically don’t have a desk (this a big difference from conventional classrooms with podiums, etc.). The “position of power” for studio instructors is the spot where they make announcements or lead discussions. Students who sit adjacent these positions of power are more visible to instructors and, the researchers conclude, this allows instructors to transfer certain “power” to these students: they might get asked more questions during discussions, engage instructors more (eye contact is a bonus), while instructors might ask them more questions and encourage them to respond verbally or present their work. The researchers conclude that sitting near the power spot is a subtle move; these students may be perceived as more favored by instructors. This proximity has other benefits too: they might be the first students to get crits or receive additional attention and feedback as instructors enter or leave the studio space. 

Power seats can maximize a student’s presence in a classroom, while safe zones are preferred by students who are auditory learners that don’t need to be the center of attention


Then there’s the matter of “power seats” versus “safe zones,” articulated by K–8 teacher Sandy Merz, who notes that power seats can maximize a student’s presence in a classroom, while safe zones are preferred by students who are auditory learners that don’t need to be the center of attention—they’re happy to be in the background, as long as they can see the instructor and the material presented. In an article in Education Week, Merz describes how he assigns classroom seats depending on a student’s learning style. The ULL researchers point out, however, that architecture faculty aren’t trained to identify and respond to different learning styles. And architecture students typically select their own seats, perhaps based on their perceptions of their learning style. 

To get a better handle on how their own architecture students perceive the dynamics of studio space, the ULL researchers formulated a 50-question, Institutional Review Board–approved survey for first-year undergraduate architecture students in studio. The survey received an 87% response rate and elicited the perspectives of students across a diverse field—gender, white, non-white/Latino, LGBTQIA+—and the studio learning environment and its quality for instruction, including students with learning disabilities.

What did the researchers learn? Most students prefer sitting at the edge of a space, near a window or wall. A majority also prefer seats near their peers, or quiet spots that make it easier to focus and work independently. A large share (28%) report that the studio space is not environmentally comfortable. Ten percent of white students report that, to some extent, they cannot hear faculty well; 17% of non-white/Latino students reported the same. (This also poses a challenge to student retention.) Difficulty seeing faculty demonstrations is perceived as an issue for a large percentage of female students, non-white/Latino, and LGBTQIA+ students (ULL instructors have made some changes to address this, such as moving around the studio space more as they talk and do demonstrations). Sounds and people walking through the space are distracting to 38% of the males. One amazing stat is that 58% of students feel that professors interact and talk more to students seated in certain studio locations; the percentage is even higher among LGBTQIA+ students (68%). This certainly supports the idea that where you sit in studio affects the amount of engagement you get from instructors. 

The researchers are hoping to further their investigations by inviting other architecture schools to become part of their data gathering; contact McClung or Hancock at ULL—you’ll find their email addresses on the ULL architecture website. But for right now, studio instructors should take many of these findings to heart and adjust their teaching strategies and techniques to reach and advance all students, no matter where they sit.

Featured image via New York Tech.


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