Ian Baran, Department of Urban and Environmental Planning and Policy

Whether the reality of all classes or not, we have our image of the prototypical classroom. Large or small, we visualize it similarly: students sitting, some visually engaged, others taking notes, some nodding off intermittently, jerking awake and hoping they get away with it. The teacher at the front reading from their notes, sometimes asking questions to the same two or three students. This image reinforces the view of the educational professions as “not with it.” Yet, understandably to change this perspective, we need to promote new ways of quality learning in tandem with research in defining best teaching practices.

Education needs to be focused on learning and careers, some degrees are specifically professionally oriented. Therefore, what can be done to enhance classrooms while not placing a burden on the teacher, especially given that not all students are planning on one specific outcome for a class? Group work and active learning invites students into exploring and controlling their path of learning, while teaching “real world” skills.

Group Work and the “Real World”

Within the professional world, academic or not, there are different positions that one will hold as an employee and those positions will come in contact with other workers. This positionality and contact will be negotiated and best solved through experience in working through others’ eyes. In the class this can take place through debating, working through the work that others do, and engaging, listening, and working with multiple people towards one project. It is not about specifically learning the “answers” towards every situation, as much as gaining the skills to deal with all situations that one might come be confronted with. In using debates students become forced to do in-depth research into a topic and learn both sides of the argument in an effort to fully engage with the alternative argument. The idea should not be placed on “winning” a debate, but coming up with a solution among the different sides, finding moments of compromise and consensus.

Urban Planning Playing Out Through Group Work

Urban Planning as a discipline splits itself among those that are academics and those that are practitioners. Planning programs are very much geared towards creating those that will exist in the professional world of planning or planning related fields. Group work becomes an important practice in the field of planning where there are many actors and decision makers involved in deciding, approving, and modifying a plan. The planner needs to be able to work with, discuss, and be involved in a (potential) compromise with others. This is negotiated through technical work, but also through soft skills and an ability to work with others to achieve the best possible outcome. With group work in urban planning classes, students are able to become more comfortable with this approach for their future professions, but also gain experience of the roles and actions that they may feel most comfortable in.


While this post is not suggesting that we completely set aside lecturing, it is emphasizing the necessity to broaden our views on alternative modes of engaging with and teaching students. The research has continued to show that group work and active learning assists in teaching key skills and the “soft skills” that define many occupations. It is important to engage with these different methods of teaching while also further researching our pedagogical methods with a focus not just on grades and engagement, but student goals for after their education.


Cushing, Debra Flanders, et al. (2013) “Pedagogy and Community Engagement in Environmental Design Courses.” Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 167–180.

Higgins, Marilyn; Elizabeth Aitken-Rose & Jennifer Dixon (2009) The Pedagogy of the Planning Studio: A View from Down Under, Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 4:1, 8-30.

Jones, Paul (2019) “The Case for Inclusion of International Planning Studios in Contemporary Urban Planning Pedagogy,” Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 11(15), pages 1-17, August.

Maruna, M., Milovanovic Rodic, D. and Colic, R. (2018), “Remodelling urban planning education for sustainable development: the case of Serbia”, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 19 No. 4, pp. 658-680.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on November 25th, 2019.