Deep Learning: A Strategy for Contextual Studies for Creative Practice

In the field of teaching contextual studies to creative student-practitioners, there is oftentimes an ambivalent or ambiguous, sometimes even fractured, relationship between students’ studio work and their contextual studies work. This ambivalence emerges through individual practitioners’ attitudes to the relationship between theory/history and practice. For some students, the context of practice, both theoretical and historical, is critical to their development as a creative practitioner; for other students, contextual studies is not perceived as being in anyways ‘useful’ to the work they produce in studio.

In order to encourage learning in contextual studies, I tend not to teach historically (i.e. through periodisation) but rather thematically. This design of teaching means circling around a contemporary discourse, such as the move towards automation, and then fleshing out its history, say, from eighteenth century onwards. In following this trajectory through a contemporary issue, I aim to encourage students to examine and investigate different theoretical approaches to the contemporary, in order not only to make history relevant to the now but also to demonstrate how historical theories or theoretical histories can be drawn on to develop critical thinking about the now.

Central to my pedagogical practice is the concept of reflexivity, or reflective practice (Schön 1984; Brookfield 1995; Larrivee 2000). It is a mode that is heavily emphasised in students’ studio work, sometimes explicitly but sometimes implicitly. Throughout their studio practice, students are encouraged by their studio teachers to reflect on the creative decisions they are making in producing work and why they are making those decisions.

I draw on this mode in the lecture theatre, seminar room and tutorial space, to ask the same questions around students’ ideas. For example, at the start of any self-guided written work, I ask students to reflect on why they are researching this topic, why it is important, why it is important to them and and why it is important to the field of design. I continue this mode of teaching by always asking students what they think of an idea, or a piece of history, or a method of research, whether that be in a small seminar group or large lecture theatre. In operating dialogically (Arnett 1997), my pedagogical strategy is to develop my students’ critical thinking skills, abilities and knowledges. In pursuing this strategy, and by pushing students to make explicit their own personal investments in their work, I aim to encourage deep learning.


Arnett, Ronald C. Dialogic Education: Conversation about Ideas and Between Persons. Carbondale IL, USA: Sothern Illinois University Press, 1997.

Brookfield, Stephen. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995.

Larrivee, Barbara. “Transforming Teaching Practice: Becoming the Critically Reflective Teacher.” Reflective Practice 1.3 (2000): 293-307.

Schön, Donald A. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York, USA: Basic Books, 1984.


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