Learning and Learning Space

For the last twenty-five years, one of my primary areas of focus both in practice and in research has been the ways people learn and the design of environments to facilitate that learning. In the sincere hope that students of all ages will be back on campus soon, the design of learning space is a critical concern. Positive or negative, the design of learning space has a definite impact on the act of teaching and the process of learning.

From the time of Aristotle and Socrates and probably well before that, the primary model for teaching has been based on the idea of a scholar or sage imparting wisdom to those around him. Whether teaching took the form of a lecture or a Socratic dialog, the spaces which developed to facilitate learning were organized with a clear front from which the knowledge was disseminated, and an audience arrayed to passively soak up the erudition.

Laurentius de Voltolina’s fourteenth century painting of Henry of Germany delivering a lecture at the University of Bologna (image above) shows a classroom that is almost indistinguishable from many classrooms today, with the teacher seated at a high desk in the front and students seated in forward facing rows. The painting even includes a couple of distracted students having a quiet conversation, and one in the back who is bored and falling asleep.

I guess some things never change.

The dynamics of education changed with the development of the industrial revolution, even if the classrooms themselves did not. When Henry Ford and his contemporaries figured out that they could make things faster if they kept the workers stationary and moved the product past them on an assembly line, they created a demand for factory workers who were trained in a standardized curriculum and could be plugged into the manufacturing process as interchangeably as the widgets they were making. While this did give rise to the public education system in the US and therefore had a huge impact on the number of children who were given the opportunity to go to school, it did not serve the students themselves particularly well.

At almost exactly the same time, psychologists like Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky and BF Skinner began to write about the different ways that people learn, and educators began to recognize that there might be a better alternative to rows of forward-facing students. Maria Montessori is one of the best well-known early examples, creating classrooms that recognize that kids learn best when they engage directly and physically with learning tasks, and that being forced to sit still actually distracts from learning in some individuals.

In 1999, a computer scientist and futurist named David Thornburg wrote that there are three archetypal learning spaces: the campfire, the cave and the watering hole, and I’m going to add one more to that list: the workshop.

The campfire is most analogous to the traditional concept of classroom, a space where people gather to learn from an expert. Around the campfire we tell stories, one person at a time speaking to the group. This might be someone older and more experienced offering wisdom and instruction; it might just as well be a student empowered to share their own perspective or knowledge with their peers.

The cave is a private space where an individual or small group can think and reflect, processing, assimilating and internalizing knowledge. “Thinkspace” can be just as important to the learning process as workspace, and all of us who work in an open office understand the need for a little cave time every now and then.

The watering hole is where peers can share information and discoveries in an informal setting, switching back and forth seamlessly between the roles of teacher and learner. The watering hole is where perspectives are shared and challenged, ideas are incubated and developed, and collective culture is built.

The workshop is a place for hands-on learning, whether led by an instructor as in a lab or studio, or self-directed by the learner. The popularity of makerspaces and maker culture speaks to the effectiveness of active learning by doing. Project-Based Learning is an expanding pedagogy based on the idea that students learn better, and integrate knowledge across disciplines better, when they are given responsibility to direct their own inquiries along with the chance to create and collaborate, think critically and communicate. Project-Based pedagogy works in lower- and middle schools (like GFF’s current project at Fort Worth Academy, for example) and it is the basis for architecture school and most business school curriculum as well.

Considered from the perspective of Career and Technical Education, the workshop brings us full circle, but on a parallel track. Today’s apprentice electrician or plumber is following essentially the same on-the-job training path taken by every renaissance painter or medieval guild member in learning their trade.

Some things really don’t ever change.

Jonathan Rollins is a Principal at GFF Architects