THE NEXT WAVE: NEW LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS

What is the next wave of innovation in the planning and design of new environments for learning? What will it mean for the overall aesthetic of school design and even the particulars like thermal and acoustic controls? These and other questions about how the design of buildings will need to change to accommodate new ideas in teaching and learning are at the forefront of the current boom in responsible educational facilities planning.

One thing that educators, managers, facilities planners and architects are quickly realizing is the need to think differently. Some refer to it as the need to get“outside of the box,” referring to the large factory-model schools that have defined the learning environment for more than 100 years. Some of the changes underway have as much to do with the process of making the building as the building itself, as educators, managers, planners and designers agree that the emerging product must include a collaborative interchange with principals, teachers and especially students. Even community members are getting into the act, especially since they are more inclined to vote for bond referenda that also reflect their particular needs.

For the most part, new directions in educational facilities are following several defining breakthroughs in educational thought and practice. Foremost among these are new discoveries in brain research. One of the earliest of these new concepts, known as the Triune Brain Theory, was developed by Paul MacLean, the former director of the Laboratory of the Brain and Behavior at the United States National Institute of Mental Health. His findings suggest that the brain is constructed in three separate but integrated parts. The first part is the reptilian system (also called the R-complex), which is closely related to physical survival and protection, usually through automatic responses that are designed to protect us from a bodily harm.

The second part is the limbic system, which houses the primary centers of emotion and is also responsible for converting information into long-term memory. Some neuroscientists believe that this part of the brain boosts memory by attaching“emotion markers” to ideas or events and that these markers can be impacted significantly by fear, pity, anger or outrage.

The third part of the brain is the neocortex (also called the cerebral cortex). Each layer functions differently, but all three layers are connected together as a single unit by an extensive two-way network of nerves. On-going communication between the neocortex and the limbic system links thinking and emotions; each influences the other and both direct all voluntary action. This interplay of memory and emotion, thought and action is the foundation of a person’s individuality.

Like the Triune Brain Theory, other discoveries about the human brain also emphasize the strong connection that learning has with emotion and individuality. Howard Gardner, director of Harvard’s Project Zero, has developed one of the most prominent of these discoveries. Through his research, Dr. Gardner has identified eight different “intelligences” that help to define how individual learners receive and processes information. These intelligences are: verbal/linguistic; mathematical/logical; visual/spatial; kinesthetic; musical; interpersonal; intrapersonal and naturalistic.

Perhaps the most important outcome of Dr. Gardner’s work has been to challenge the previously held practice that focused educational delivery systems almost exclusively on verbal/linguistic and mathematical/logical learning. These new ideas imply that more equitable environments, both pedagogical and physical, would include tools to support a more complete range of learning modalities. Dr. Gardner has postulated, for example, that for some learners, a museum environment might be the most appropriate architectural solution.

But although educational theorists and practitioners have been actively exploring and applying new information about teaching and learning during the past many decades, the physical designs of learning environments that house these new ideas have remained largely unchanged. What started as the great American one-room schoolhouse in the 19th century evolved, largely due to industrial-age thinking, into multiples of one-room schoolhouses lined up on either side of a double-loaded corridor, producing the form mentioned earlier as the “factory-model” school.

But though the newest version of the factory-model school might incorporate movable walls to accommodate new ideas about team teaching or cooperative learning, or a new entryway with a striking architectural design feature, the basic structure has not changed. But if you believe the old adage from Daniel Burnham that “We shape our buildings and then they shape us,” it is easy to see why so many educators are concerned about the billions of dollars being spent every year on architectural dinosaurs that are missing the mark when it comes to the demands of contemporary teaching and learning.

It is for this reason that the time has come for architects and educators to take a serious look at doing things differently. As the Triune Brain Theory suggests, perhaps learning environments should focus more on calming influences, with quieter, more serene spaces to discourage students from what is called “downshifting” to the reptilian “fight or flight” mode of thinking when noise, overcrowding, congestion and chaos are the dominant experiences in a regular school day. And since we now know that significantly large numbers of students learn as much through visual, spatial, musical and other stimuli, why can’t we deliver diverse learning environments that speak to these more poetic qualities of space and time? Rather than thinking of learning environments for the future as extensions of the past, perhaps a more multifaceted and integrated model is needed.

If you were to put a dozen architects in a room and ask them to design a restaurant, their first question would probably be “what kind?” Few, if any, would assume that a Japanese tea room design would work for serving pizza, or that a barbeque joint should be outfitted with fine carpets and chandeliers. So why is it that when it comes to schools, we assume that a few different sizes and shapes should suffice for such a wide variety of learning needs, especially when, as in the case of restaurants, all of the same design tools are at the architect’s disposal. A brief glance at the advertising pages of this and other publications confirms that the products and materials are there to support more attention to the visual, lighting, acoustical and thermal nuances of architectural and interior design to generate much more character and nuance.

If we are to take Dr. Gardner and others seriously, then why can’t we come up with environments that have a little something for everyone? How about learning environments with more outdoor spaces for naturalistic learners, galleries and changing exhibits for visual and spatial types. And with all of the fuss about project -based (kinesthetic) learning, how about moving the Career and Technical Education workshops to the center of campus, where CTE and academic teachers can work together to deliver more lively and compelling programs for hands-on learners? And of course, if you really want to go for it, take the school out into the community and build it, as Dr Gardner has suggested, inside a museum, or a convention center — or perhaps a even a sports stadium.

Some would say that these are wacky ideas. Of course they are, but are they any wackier than the first factory-model school? Imagine what it took to take the one room schoolhouse away from the cornfield and construct it miles away, and to invent and fund a new bus transportation system to transport children to school and home every day. But parents wanted the best for their children. They wanted them to be prepared for work in industry — especially in the lucrative world of manufacturing.

Educators have been clamoring for more integrated environments for teaching and learning. For example, through its “Breaking Ranks” initiative, the National Association of Secondary School Principles points to a need for systemic change through its six Priorities for Renewal.

• Curriculum: Offering essential knowledge, integrating it and making connections to real life.

• Instructional Strategies: Engaging students in their own learning.

• School Environment: Creating a climate conducive to teaching and learning.

• Technology: Making way for electronic learning.

• Organization and Time: Restructuring space and time for a more flexible education.

• Assessment and Accountability: Individual, collective and institutional outcomes.

The Web of Support

• Professional Development: Helping school staff members fulfill their potential.

• Diversity: Finding strength in differences.

• Governance: Streamlining the operations of schools and school districts.

• Resources: Providing for sufficiency.

• Ties to Higher Education: Seeking unity in purpose.

• Relationships: Reaching out to form alliances in behalf of students.

Leadership

• Leadership: Attributes that need nourishing.

And so, it is that administrators and teachers seem to agree with the scholars about the need for change that brings more personalization, students taking charge of their own learning, finding strength in differences, reaching out to form alliances — in general more integrative and participatory kinds of things.

But the new way of planning also contends that it is not good enough just to follow the scholars, or even the teachers for that matter. After all, it is important to “ground truth” test all of these ideas through the thoughts and experiences of regular people, such as was done recently in the city of brotherly love. The project, called the Franklin Conference, was created through a unique partnership between the Philadelphia Inquirer, PennPraxis of the School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania and the Center for School Study Councils of Penn's Graduate School of Education. Here, a process of “deliberative democracy” involving more than 200 participants in five citywide forums produced a set of school design principles that will serve as a guideline for more than $1.6 billion in new school construction. Some of the needs that the community thought were important included natural light and air; visual and emotional warmth; spaces in which to move and play; openness to community, to learning and others; green and flowing; welcoming and friendly; like a village. They would like for the buildings to be “durable without sacrificing aesthetics.” They want schools that are adaptable and open to the community; engage the community and foster interaction; a place to belong; and a source of community pride. They want school designs that “value public ideas” and are designed through a process that includes students, teachers, parents, community representatives and business people. They want a planning process that will, as they put it: “build trust through communication.” Does this sound like a factory-model?

And so it is that we find ourselves at some kind of crossroads. Educational theorists are declaring that radical discoveries are changing the teaching and learning landscape. Teachers are asking for bold and systemic changes in educational delivery. Citizens are stretching their thinking in search of environments that provide emotional warmth and environments that are welcoming and friendly, “like a village,” while educational facilities managers and their architects seem to be pulling the old factory-model plans out of the drawer and rebuilding them at an unprecedented pace.

Now is the time for planners and architects to search their consciences as well as their design vocabulary to come up with a renewed commitment and a new architectural language for learning environments that meet these new expectations. This will demand a new aesthetic, one that is more emotional and humanistic, one that has an ample supply of life giving natural light; one that is acoustically appropriate, with quiet reclusive spaces for the intrapersonal learners and active, and vibrant spaces for the more interpersonal types. Temperature controls will vary from totally conditioned to intermediate covered work areas. There will be lots of intentional outdoor landscapes designed especially for learning. Many of these spaces will be heated and cooled with passive environmental and active solar systems. They will no longer be just demonstration projects, but will become the new way of planning and designing schools. The goal is not just to try something new, but to apply what we already know about new environments for learning to support student achievement.

Getting there may require some changes in how we manage the process. Facilities managers and planners will need to rise to the occasion. Rather than managing the crisis of the moment, an extra commitment to innovation and planning will be needed. Rather than pulling the plans out of the drawer, everyone will need to work creatively, like the best in the business. But there is no time to lose. Consider these remarks from Bob Lutz, vice chairman of General Motors: "What we've got at GM now is a general comprehension that you can't run this business by the left, intellectual, analytical side of the brain. You have to have a lot of right side, creative input. We are in the arts and entertainment business, and we're putting a huge emphasis on world-class design."

Like General Motors, the school building business is one of the largest industries in America. But never before has the success of the learning enterprise been more important than it is today. America’s position in the world economy depends on it. In order for our teachers and students to be successful, they need the most powerful tools that we can give them. With billions of dollars in new school construction at their disposal, educational facilities planners and architects can help to make it happen.

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