Aalto University ARTS + ENG

Aalto University ARTS + ENG

The Pedagogic Challenge for collaborative work in architecture and engineering design
a research project by Saija Hollmen (Aalto) and Chris Rose (RISD)

Specialised expertise has become the prevailing denominator of Western culture. The progressive deepening of each discipline over time has taken all of them to a level that is out of reach of all-round education and common knowledge. Subsequently, the disciplines tend to segregate, as the expertise grows deeper. The ’big picture’ to which all specialisms somehow connect becomes a significant challenge both within and across disciplines, and as it relates also to the public sphere. Knowledge relationships may become distorted from an individual perspective. Insights emerging from other domains cannot be accessed by the individual other than via intuitive means, additional study, or via commercially mediated information. These factors establish the need for a bridging strategy with multiple threads, visual, technical, mathematical, experiential, experimental, and applied.

The societal and cultural challenges we are facing tend to have greater complexity than can be addressed by single disciplines. A pressing need arises for techniques of appropriate collaboration to augment existing strengths. Engineering is often considered, more often than not by the engineers themselves, as a discipline that includes little creativity, as though creative insight is associated only with certain denominations of work or person. The entrance examinations of the universities underline the presumption of a person being either creative-artistic or scientifically orientated. We claim that this presumed dichotomy is fundamentally false: engineering, as its best, is about finding complex technical solutions to new emerging and unequalled problems and challenges. Both in art and engineering, the essential is to question the prevailing conditions in order to reveal unexpected and new connections between forms of knowledge. Intuition, critical and creative thinking are equally woven into both art and engineering. Creativity is not a given attribute to any particular activity, but rather an intrinsic human ability that can be eroded by types of education.

The biggest decisions of our lives are formed in a manner rooted in intuition and referenced within our senses and our different forms of knowledge. Perceptions of necessity are thus conditioned. When teaching natural sciences, mathematics and physics, interesting things begin to happen when intuition is acknowledged. Many Universities face the challenge of adapting to their rapidly changing relevance within the societal needs of the future. Universities may no longer be the keepers or arbiters of knowledge or data, yet the emerging need for the university to emphasise the mentoring of complex issues across generations now becomes apparent. In this context, rather than being regarded as an irrational component in scientific work, the intuitive dimension needs including within an array of critical thinking skills and practices. Such skills are essential for the intelligent use of language, visualisation, representation, in practices within complex domains, and where grassroots activity is an essential source.

In some engineering schools in the world, the first years of studies are taught through projects that go on to be built by the students. This allows them to get physically involved with the phenomena, and to gain an embodied cognition of various mathematical occurrences. A phenomenon is best learned and understood when the students are physically/tangibly engaged with it. Mathematical representations of that phenomenon become meaningful through previous experiences of tangible engagement. Critical thinking ability is rooted in this connection because it is infinitely adaptable and prismatic. The best learning outcomes even in engineering are achieved through learning by doing, when the students are engaged with the task on both theoretical and practical levels.

The incorporation into effective learning of an acknowledgement of ’multiple intelligences’, (leading to the promotion of ’shared insight’ for both the individual and the group), has to be developed as a part of sustainable multidisciplinary programmes. ’Shared Insight’ is a useful trial definition of creativity in this context.

Knowledge is no longer possessed by an individual, rather than by people in groups. An expert in a team does not have to know everything: Access to socially constructed knowledge is achieved through teamwork. ’I have access to your knowledge, because we collaborate.’ Continued knowledge-building is a social project; this implies that areas of expertise benefit from strategies which both acknowledge their specific processes and strive to network to the ‘bigger picture’. The involvement of students in the very challenges presented by this endeavour, and the efforts made to address such challenges, is essential to the evolution of critical thinking in all domains of work and in the research that supports them.

An open mind allows us to become the poet of our own discipline: The nuances and spectrum of life become a part of how we reflect and see the world. Art needs to be recognized as the reflection of our very being in the world. The teaching of a creative process in any disciplinary learning environment enhances the possibilities of finding new, unpredicted strategies to future problems that our generation cannot foresee. The needs of new situations cannot necessarily be addressed with the instrumentalities of the past.

Saija Hollmen and Chris Rose
16 May 2013
Providence Rhode Island


Knowledge Building Strategy in Collaborative Pedagogy

The individual topics used within the concept diagrams have each arisen during the sequence of conversations which happened in the process of this research. Knowledge building strategies benefit from noticing interactions between the different ways of identifying critical thinking that stem from within each knowledge base.

The ability to share insights can be significantly improved by using apparently paradoxical or different angles of approach to these areas of knowledge. Examples of where such relationships exist are; between ’surface’ and ’deep’ knowledge, the ’naive’ and the ’expert’, and  the ’intuitive’ and the ’measured’.  The diagram represents one particular attempt in noting critical spaces that accommodate interactions between the analytical, the intuitive and the canonical, for knowledge building within a complex field. In this case the topics in discussion are; science, data, understanding, communication, art, design, knowledge, education.

It is strikingly apparent that common to many technical fields the creation of taxonomies of data, and especially in real time streaming of data, presents certain critical difficulties. A useful perceptual angle upon this problem can be established by comparing this with the more intuitive process of ’composition’, a concept central to the arts, and which is something of the moment, related to individual perception.  Sociologists speak of ’embodied’, ’distributed’ and ’situated’ cognition as different types of knowledge formation that we need to appreciate. ’Situated intuition’ is a way of thinking about how ’composition’ and ’taxonomy’ may act as critique upon each other. The effect of ’big data’ upon matters of professional judgement is an important issue in many fields.

To take the example of working in multidisciplinary groups in either the museum space or the nature lab it is clear that placing group work in these differing environments creates contrasting ambient influences upon discussion which can provoke unexpected and insightful interactions between people. These interactions would arguably not occur around the conference table or in the lecture theatre. The modality of group interactions available to us can be highly formative when it comes to developing insight. It is the movement between these conditions that is central here, not the prioritization of one condition over another.

It is essential to quickly move from the abstract to the specific in order that knowledge building work may have practical uses. ’Place based education’ is a useful structural concept for embracing the journey taken in a learning experience from abstract or general principles towards actions within a specific environment in which the totality of experience is acknowledged. In this way, thinking about ’inhabiting’ a design and development process and its results upon our lived experience is very different from concepts of instrumentality or deployment.

Noticing what occurs at the borderlines between knowledge systems and indeed what happens to knowledge and information as it crosses such borders or thresholds is an important perceptual space in which to develop critical thinking. It is a modern aphorism that to understand something there must be ’transparency’. However, viewed with an understanding of how embodied cognition works and because of all the ways in which the human senses actually function, it is evident that rather than ’transparency’ what is needed is a degree of ’opacity’ which is to say; something one can get to grips with, which has actual relational properties that support living systems and not merely ideological constructs.

The diagram is simply a temporary example of mapping a number of notable features which arise when discussing these complex, challenging fields of knowledge. Such phrases employed here have been used during the past year by individuals who are passionate about their field of knowledge and who have identified critique points which will affect how knowledge in their area needs to change or develop. New versions of this type of map can help outline specific course components in a new structure.

By putting these terms next to each other in temporary assemblies we can see where resonances and discords occur, and engage others in seeing what these conjunctions might mean for our practices. One example of this from the diagram is the choice of two such topics; in this case ’situated intuition’ and ’place as vehicle’, and noticing from the diagram which constellation of terms adjacent to these may help us to move from the abstract to the specific. Engaging students and faculty in discussing what these associations mean will provide a current emergent framework for further work. The language of such a framework thus emerges from participants in the here and now; not from the diagram itself.

In practice this technique, or variations of it, can be very effective in setting out  a particular curriculum, in the design of a specialized seminar event or a conference structure for example. Written and spoken language each have an abstract common denominator (language) but have very different characteristics in terms of the actual experience of the content of that language in writing, reading, speaking, listening and hearing.

A strategy that acknowledges the cognitive dissonance that may occur between written and spoken language around the same topic, can provide intuitive perceptions about the nature of the knowledge space that both of these forms of language point to, yet which is bigger than either can address alone. It is this principle that the diagram begins to explore in the present context of design, engineering and society in the interdisciplinary setting of the Aalto University.

Such diagrams can play a useful role in a collaborative workshop. The diagram is a ‘type’ in that it helps connect abstract concepts with specific critical pointers. Here is a list of individual descriptions of the terms on this diagram.

an inner ring of abstract concepts 

Boundaries and thresholds it is common to want to jump over a threshold or avoid it, and to accept the conceptual terminology that may define disciplinary boundaries. In creative development and knowledge building it is helpful to avoid both of these definitions and to take time to pause at thresholds to notice what is actually happening around these. Content alters as it crosses thresholds. What remains the same and what is different?


Situated intuition provides for conscious and unconscious stimulus from the ambient environment to support processes of analysis and communication in new situations. New forms of pattern recognition are supported in this condition. Intuition is often thought of as something that floats around with no anchor; yet ambient stimulus can more specifically locate intuitive responses to a subject.



“Nature lab” We appear not to have adequate language to imbue what we do with an underlying concern for living systems. think of “me in relationship to” nature, “the idea of nature” “working with nature” “implications of nature”; these are nonsensical. We have no choice; we are ‘of’ nature. This kind of language subconsciously distances ourselves from natural systems and can lead to an erroneous programme of instrumentality. The ‘laboratory of nature’ is a good pairing of words to help us solve this cognitive problem . The RISD Nature Lab while having its origins in the enlightenment era ‘cabinet of curiosities’ continues to devise multiple ways of engaging with natural materials, patters, relationships and our own human resonances and differences with which the natural collections confront us.

Place as vehicle Place based education? If we include this undefined question alongside abstract concepts and learning programmes the conjunction leads us to think of behaviours, relationships and the totality of experience; it will help think of ‘who else we need to do this?’



Composition and taxonomy It appears that the presumption or subconscious demand that there be a taxonomy of knowledge is now seen as essentially problematic in science. While linear organizational requirements are an essential part of human cognition, they can only be of use in mutual relationship with the recognition of non linear phenomena. the ebb and flow between linear and non linear provides a foundation for the establishment of a narrative; That is to say a narrative capable of addressing greater degrees of complexity than can any single taxonomy.


an outer ring of applied concepts 

Material interaction This is generally how everything works including the operation of the senses which underlie the metaphors and references that we employ to underpin conceptualization. Abstract concepts can be thought of as being rooted, however remotely, in physical processes; experiential, neurological.



Friction and flow The terms cannot be separated and they apply to understandings of physical systems in addition to processes of learning the development of experience and the sense of achieving things where many influences become wrapped up in a specific effect



Natural diversity A study of natural diversity helps us perceive the existence of a ‘type’ as something conceptually separate from a specific example. Within this subject are tangible mathematical principles such as ‘the attractor’ and how boundary effects are essentially what natural systems continually evolve to manage in real time.



Inhabitation rather than deployment. The post war history of material culture is often characterized by an attitude of ‘deploying’ materials, structures and schemes in order to have certain intended effects . However, we are witnessing multiple unintended consequences of this condition. Networked communication puts us in a better place to appreciate a bigger picture, one which weaves in everything that we can know about the behaviour of living systems including ourselves. The term ‘valuable’ came to mean exotic, difficult to obtain, expensive, etc., yet if we redefined ‘valuable’ to equate in our own minds with activities which promote the vitality of living systems, including ourselves, we think of the entire situation we inhabit as our locus of activity.

Parallel and series Cognitive processes depend on conjunctions of parallel and series processing. This has interesting resonances with observable behaviours in electricity, magnetism, computing, so called ‘left-right’ brain issues and into the heart of language itself. The reason for it being a usefully robust critical tool is that it is a principle to be found in the operation of the senses, and in synthesising ‘experience’ and ‘measurement’.


possible connections

‘Spoken’ and ‘written’ language have contrasting essential characteristics . Spoken language tends toward an expression of individual character, it has a ‘sound’ and is of the moment. Written language embodies issues of authority, correct or approved syntax, and codifications of authority. We call both of these conditions language yet the discrepancies between the two indicate the existence of a broader knowledge domain. This is why we need both ‘written’ and ‘spoken’ working in conduction with each other in a learning context. Doing this brings people together, leading to a third effect which could be called ‘navigation’.

Behaviour As individuals and groups, different types of behaviour are possible within ‘the same’ situation. However it is the interaction between our behaviours and the context which produces experience. Experimenting with contrasting behaviours within the same context promotes understanding; that what may be possible is not the same as what we may expect.


Variation Theory Analogy; one has to know what ‘red’ and ‘green’ are like in order to locate ‘blue’. Blue light alone shone directly into the eye, quickly becomes featureless. We have multiple intelligences; lets use as many of them as possible.



Opacity ‘Transparency’ is called for a lot. Yet useful perception depends upon a degree of opacity between conditions; that which we get to grips with. How do we tangibly appreciate something? what are the various tangible aspects?



Undefined These trial mapping attempts have little importance in themselves; the usefulness is in how people respond to the suggested relationships in a workshop situation. Noticing the responses induced in participants by structures such as this will invite other key ideas or relevant critical issues to be acknowledged and clarified. It is these emergent themes that will be applicable to a specific project application. An ‘undefined’ area helps bring this stage forward. The diagram is a stepping stone to an emergent collaborative agenda for a real context.