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Collective design project finds that as we teach we learn from children too

Words:
Nicola Antaki

A study of constructivist pedagogy at a school in Mumbai, shortlisted in the President’s Awards for Research, revealed that while design can help children learn how to learn, being the facilitators of that process returns the favour to adults

The class document their neighbourhood during a Walkabout workshop, 2014.
The class document their neighbourhood during a Walkabout workshop, 2014. Credit: Nicola Antaki with Muktangan Love Grove School

Using participatory practices is an intrinsic part of my work as a designer. Much of my work explores the connections between architecture and spatial democracy. I have worked on socially engaged projects relating to education, housing and the public realm across London and in other parts of the UK since 2004.

My interest in constructivist pedagogy (learning by doing) reaches back to my architectural diploma project at the Royal College of Art, which culminated in the design of a family of schools, exploring how the educational theory of ‘multiple intelligences’ by Howard Gardner could be experienced architecturally. While working at the London-based architectural firm Cottrell and Vermeulen I learnt about designing learning environments and play areas; about consulting users and engaging the public. I noticed a gap between architectural practice and pedagogical research and felt stronger connections could be made between them.

  • The class collectively make a map of their neighbourhood using photographs, drawings and annotations, 2014.
    The class collectively make a map of their neighbourhood using photographs, drawings and annotations, 2014. Credit: Nicola Antaki with Muktangan Love Grove School
  • The class collectively make a map of their neighbourhood using photographs, drawings and annotations, 2014.
    The class collectively make a map of their neighbourhood using photographs, drawings and annotations, 2014. Credit: Nicola Antaki with Muktangan Love Grove School
  • The class collectively make a map of their neighbourhood using photographs, drawings and annotations, 2014.
    The class collectively make a map of their neighbourhood using photographs, drawings and annotations, 2014. Credit: Nicola Antaki with Muktangan Love Grove School
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In 2008, the architecture unit that I co-led at the University of Nottingham developed a design brief to study spatial global and local tensions in Mumbai. During our visit, I became interested in the complex nature of the many informal settlement environments: scarce infrastructure, services and wealth but plentiful resourcefulness, creativity, entrepreneurship and craft. When I moved to live in Mumbai in 2011, I began to explore the types of learning in the city and the social and spatial complexities of the urban environment were rich and intriguing. A wide range of informal interventions by inhabitants demonstrated a dexterity of agency that I felt was at odds with some of the economic, political and social environments within which they could be found, showing that learning in the city emerges in inventive ways. Learning in Mumbai seemed to occur in both formal and informal environments and activities, through city making, agency and negotiation, in and out of the school environment. I became interested in what could be learnt from these informal practices of agency, and whether they could be infused into more formal education.

I was introduced to NGO Muktangan School because of its particular use of the built environment as a teaching resource. I began this research by documenting the ways in which the Muktangan pedagogy used the environment. But I was soon to find many other ways in which the school and the city – education and the environment – interact. My doctoral research went on to explore how architecture – as activity and setting – can be considered an educator. It investigated how children can be involved in (re)designing their environment as a wide-reaching learning activity that encourages multiple intelligences, in a bid to democratise the city and develop practices of responsible citizenship. Using a practice-led collective project technique, I investigated how architectural activities can be used as methods to actively include children in practising their ‘right to the city’, a term famously introduced by Henri Lefebvre in the late 1960s. I asked how architecture and design have been used as learning resources in the past, and how their use could be more meaningful in the future.

The finished map of neighbourhood Mariamma Nagar, 2014……
The finished map of neighbourhood Mariamma Nagar, 2014…… Credit: Nicola Antaki with Muktangan Love Grove School

Over 40 pedagogic experiments were developed between 2012 and 2017, in collaboration with the same class of children at Muktangan Love Grove School in Mumbai, involving them collectively in the design of their environment. Using a constructivist and critical (active questioning) pedagogical methodology, the children (age 9 to 14) took part in multiple workshop series, using activities borrowed from architectural practice, to transform their school and neighbourhood by designing interventions. They worked alongside their families and community, reinforcing cross-generational relationships and community empowerment. Working with local makers enabled distinct outputs that responded to particular localities and underpinned nearby economies.

During the project, the children designed outputs for their neighbourhood that responded to health and environment-related issues. The thesis argued that children’s role as architects is pedagogical: it can involve them in the production of their current environment, facilitate their political identity, and foster their ability to communicate ideas. Design allows children to develop empathy, think critically and learn how to learn. It also found architects and communities can learn from children through facilitation.

The class vote for Mariamma Nagar neighbourhood design themes, 2014.
The class vote for Mariamma Nagar neighbourhood design themes, 2014. Credit: Nicola Antaki with Muktangan Love Grove School

The benefits of this interdisciplinary work are societal and environmental, more specifically relating to architecture, education and informality. The research aims to affect architectural design research methodologies by contributing to the debate around learning and participation. In education, particularly place-based education and global citizenship, the research aims to contemporise constructivist learning, bringing environment, citizenship and craft together as a unified learning experience.

  • A pupil’s design drawing for a gutter cover made from tin box lids made in the neighbourhood, 2016.
    A pupil’s design drawing for a gutter cover made from tin box lids made in the neighbourhood, 2016. Credit: Nicola Antaki with Muktangan Love Grove School.
  • The class demonstrate use of their new gutter cover prototype in the Mariamma Nagar neighbourhood, 2016.
    The class demonstrate use of their new gutter cover prototype in the Mariamma Nagar neighbourhood, 2016. Credit: Nicola Antaki with Muktangan Love Grove School
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This research proposes a pedagogical approach, a Collective Design Pedagogy for schools, involving architecture students as facilitators and local makers as collaborators, to respond to Unesco’s Sustainable Development Goal 4.7, Education for Sustainable Development. The proposed design pedagogy is being developed during a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Sheffield, as a toolkit of pedagogical techniques, intended for use by practitioners and academics, schools, organisations and communities in India and other countries including the UK.


A Learning Architecture: Developing a collective design pedagogy in Mumbai with Muktangan School children and the Mariamma Nagar community, was shortlisted in the Cities and Communities category for the RIBA President’s Awards for Research

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