Practice Sessions

A New Model of Intensive Collaborative Learning

In contrast to the terminology of “master” and “apprentice” that establishes clear, hierarchical roles between the student and teacher, this Third Century project’s title “Practice Sessions” is drawn from studies in music performance, where musicians simultaneously learn from and perform together with a virtuoso.

Spearheaded by Ellie Abrons, Adam Fure, and Andrew Holder, all assistant professors of architecture, Practice Sessions will transform the traditional course of study in architecture and allied disciplines through short, immersive workshops where students collaborate with visiting experts to address significant problems in contemporary design. Apart from skill-based training workshops, the design output of a Practice Session becomes a significant contribution to the field. “Architecture, like other fields, has been built on the idea that education is a long preparatory period, after which students will be qualified to participate in the work of the field itself. Practice Sessions is based on the idea that students can be valuable collaborators alongside the best practitioners in the field if the working relationship between student and expert is designed in the right way,” explains Holder.

Although Practice Sessions is centered in the architecture program, its format is designed to be replicable by an array of fields that share similar learning models in studio and laboratory culture.

Project Description

The centerpiece event of each Practice Session is a three-day intensive workshop that, in the spirit of a hackathon or competition charrette, is characterized by an almost total immersion in the material. Students collaborate with the visiting expert to address a design problem relevant to the visitor’s own work in practice; i.e. the session is not a simulation of real work, or a “lite” version of the visiting expert’s “real” agenda. Practice Sessions are a forum for students to participate in the advancement of scholarship and design at the highest levels, addressing issues that find their way back into the academy. “For example, one topic might be abandoned or decommissioned infrastructure and the potential to revitalize neighborhoods and cities through the reinvigoration of those systems,” Abrons adds. “Our university is an apt location for this type of inquiry because it has particular relevance for Rust Belt cities like Detroit.”

“We think it’s important for students to engage these types of issues because it forces them to work within the complex political, economic, and geographic circumstances that are so prevalent and to speculate on architecture’s agency as a public, cultural practice,” explains Fure.

The value of the program is symmetrical: for visiting experts, the Practice Session is a way to address difficult problems using experimental techniques in a collaborative setting. For students, it is an opportunity to work directly with an inspiring figure in the field and to see that work have an immediate impact on scholarship and practice.

Several public events occur at the close of each Practice Session, allowing non-participants to engage: a lecture by the visiting expert to the U-M community as a part of the Taubman College evening lecture series; a design review by a panel of guest jurors; and installations and exhibitions of the work produced in the Taubman College galleries. In addition, a purpose-built Practice Session web portal will contain a comprehensive collection of student work, still images,video, teaching materials, and recorded lectures and each year’s Practice Sessions will be published in a book.

Project Background

Practice Sessions was conceived as both a supplement and counter-model to studio, which is the basis of a conventional architectural education. The studio model has three key traits. First, in terms of duration, studio is typically a focused, long-term learning experience where students are asked to address a single building design problem over the course of an entire term, or in the case of thesis, for an entire academic year. Second, although the long-term design studies are guided and coached by a studio professor, the studio projects are primarily motivated by the students themselves—i.e., the work is personal. Lastly, studio tends to be didactic. Design problems are assigned to promote general learning about building systems and design strategies, but are not necessarily oriented toward larger public concerns or contemporary topics in practice.

In contrast to the long-term, personal, and didactic identity of studio, Practice Sessions is designed to produce three key shifts in pedagogy to the intensively compressed, the public, and the entrepreneurial. With these three goals, the desired outcome is not the wholesale replacement of studio culture. Instead, this project seeks to supplement the most successful aspects of the conventional curriculum (particularly close study and rigorous inquiry), with another model that can produce transformative change.

Expected Transformative Impact

Practice Sessions has the potential to have a transformative impact on higher education at three levels — the individual student; the university; and on higher education in general. There will be 75 U-M students participating in the classes annually, with as many as 500 others participating indirectly through public events and dissemination. At the level of the university, the primary goal is to establish a pedagogical model that is transferable to other units. Faculty from across the University will be invited to sit in on the workshops and be given access to the visiting experts for interviews in small group settings. Practice Sessions is also expected to transform the landscape of higher education through the publication of the pedagogical model and the work produced by students in the Practice Sessions.

Project Plan

Practice Sessions was pre-tested in pilot programs at U-M and other institutions in 2013 and 2014. Its inaugural year was kicked off during the first half of 2015. Academic years 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18 will include three Practice Sessions each, the development and launch of the website, and year-end exhibitions. During this time a number of assessment plans will have ongoing oversight and implementation: website updates, maintenance, and analytics; documentation of classroom renovation, Practice Sessions, and so forth; focus groups; and entrance, exit, and follow-up surveys. Starting in summer 2018 additional assessment plans such as  juried portfolio reviews will begin.

Project Team

Ellie Abrons, Assistant Professor, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
Adam Fure, Assistant Professor, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
Andrew Holder, Assistant Professor, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning