Live and Learn
In recent decades, knowledge gained from research on brain functions and the introduction of new technologies has begun to alter the way we teach and learn and thus affects the functions of the learning environment. Literature confirms this shift, with topics like generational characteristics, multiple intelligences, different learning styles, emerging pedagogical trends, and the influences of new technologies dominating current debates on the design of learning environments. While each of these topics could warrant multiple dissertations, it is critical that educators, administrators, and designers move beyond theory and begin understanding how each of these impact the students for whom we design.
Often ignored in discussions of the design of learning environments are students, the ultimate end users, who are critical to the meaningful translation of theory into practice. OWP/P recently conducted a study of the major issues highlighted by students in the American Architectural Foundation's Redesign Your School Contest, which was sponsored by Target. The needs and expectations of these students, currently college age, have had a direct impact on OWP/P's understanding of how to design university and college learning environments. Two primary areas of focus came through from the students: how they feel and how they learn. Not surprisingly, many of the issues related to learning directly correspond with those in professional journals and conferences. These primary themes include the integration of technology, social learning, non-traditional pedagogies, and personalizing education.
Integration of Technology: Technology has transformed teaching and learning, as shown by its relationship to nearly every other issue identified by students. Technology is ubiquitous with today's students and no longer can be seen as an "add on" component in the design of learning environments. Technology enables students to take more control over their education: verifying information, rather than simply absorbing it, and exploring tangential topics. Technology itself is becoming smaller, smarter, and better equipped to encourage collaboration through the sharing and displaying of information by students and educators. Beyond ensuring adequate power supply, the true design impact of technology is shifting from designing for computers to designing for the new functions that innovative technologies allow within the learning environment. This holistic view embraces technology, while placing the focus on teaching and learning.
Social Learning: Students desire that the social settings in which they learn provide both opportunities and constraints. Comfortable spaces to socialize, bigger desks and tables for group work, extended school hours of operation, multi-purpose and community use of school facilities, more time with adults, more time understanding career options, and more connections to the real world are part of their ideal learning environments. Reflecting the idea that humans are inherently social beings requiring physical interaction with others, students desire spaces that foster interaction with peers and teachers and promote social learning. A variety of different activities constitute social learning, such as small group discussions, community assemblies, performances and presentations, art and display, cooperative study, relaxation, and eating. While these activities are often considered tangential to the educational experience, social learning is a critical driver for students' development and also encourages responsibility and care for the space.
Non-Traditional Pedagogies: When we consider learning as primarily a passive and independent activity where students spend most of their time listening to teachers talk, taking notes, and doing individual work, it is not hard to rationalize/ understand why many educational buildings look the way they do, with double-loaded corridors of classrooms filled with desks organized in rows facing the front of the room. It is precisely these activities of passive learning, note taking and individual work that students report are not challenging. They do not perceive these activities as related to future goals. The repetitive, passive and routine nature of activities contributes to the feeling that learning is to be endured rather than enjoyed. Similarly, the lack of personality, the tight spaces, the overcrowded hallways and the boring white walls also contributed to the feeling that school was a place to be endured—or worse—imprisoned. Students say that educational buildings ought to encourage collaboration and sharing. Learning environments need to encompass spaces for both concentration and relaxation. When students are challenged to succeed in both group and individual activities, pessimism decreases, self-esteem and perceived skill levels rise, and students report greater enjoyment.
Personalizing Education: The idea of a personal learning style has grown during the past decade to dominate teacher discourse in the United States. Education's great minds—among them John Dewey, Margaret Mead, Maria Montessori, Michael Gurian, and Howard Gardner—argue that there are vast differences in the way human beings learn and develop. Yet most educational institutions demonstrate a one-size-fits-all approach. Providing spaces that accommodate a variety of learning styles was advocated for with great energy, urgency, and sophistication by the students. The students' suggestions covered the spectrum of learning styles, including special needs, one-to-one learning, one-to-many, many-to-many, real world experiences, cooperative learning platforms, project-based learning, and service learning. Students requested variety when it comes to what, where, when, and how they learn, thus the spaces in which they learn must have the flexibility to accommodate such variety.
Conclusion: Educators today have the challenge of preparing today's students to solve problems we cannot yet identify. Teaching and learning can no longer revolve around the regurgitation of facts, but must instill values of creativity and problem solving. As information becomes increasingly accessible to all individuals, the role of the educator, in many cases, shifts to that of a facilitator. This requires a transformation of the traditional learning environment, from a space that is static with clear hierarchy to one which is much more dynamic and flexible. Creating such environments, with attributes often associated with office environments like project work areas, collaboration rooms, and casual encounter spaces all with integrated technology, is incumbent upon institutions and designers if we are to maximize all that the physical environment should be.
Story Bellows, LEED AP, is director of research at OWP/P, an active member of the Urban Land Institute, serves on the Chicago Executive Committee, and is the inaugural fellow at Archeworks, an alternative design school in Chicago. James Jankowski, FAIA, is a project director for the higher education group at OWP/P, a past president of AIA Chicago, the AIA Chicago Foundation, and a past board member of AIA Illinois.
This article was reproduced for educational purposes from the February 2009 Contract Magazine article entitled “Live and Learn” by Story Billows, LEED AP, and Jim Jankowski, FAIA.