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January/February 2013

... To build for student success
Activating a connection between learning, environment
by Kerry Leonard

Kerry Leonard is a principal architect with Cannon Design of Chicago and a member architect of the American Institute of Architecture.

Demands are being placed on education to produce graduates who are ready for the 21st century. The responsibility for meeting this demand does not fall to educators alone. Designers bring problem-solving skills and a design process that can help educators think about learning, the learning environment and the connection between the two.

For Cannon Design, the research into this connection began with projects and clients with whom we were collaboratively trying to discover the characteristics of a 21st-century learning environment. These projects led to a book, The Third Teacher, which explores the intersection of learning and the learning environment.

The book became a launch point for a new educational design process and for new educational design challenges. As a globally recognized publication resulting from unprecedented research on the intersection of design and education, it encourages a global conversation that explores the future of learning.

The book houses collections of transformative teaching and learning methods achievable through the planned learning environment — inspired by Loris Malaguzzi’s “third teacher.” The goal of The Third Teacher is to illustrate how school design is intrinsically linked to learning and goes steps further by demonstrating how design directly impacts teaching and learning.

The book’s “79 Ideas” function as a common language between learning communities and designers as a place where educators, students and parents can identify tangible design techniques that support their vision.

Inquiry- and project-based learning, complex problem solving, creativity and innovation reflect to the teachings of John Dewey, perhaps the original 21st century educator. His approach demonstrates that students become most engaged when challenged with real issues in real time, which can produce outcomes that have a tangible impact on the world.

The ability to pose the right questions and simultaneously solve multiple problems is at the root of this learning approach. Students are afforded a rich learning experience linked to the development of core foundation skills to long term, systems-based thinking.

Central to our nation’s continuing ability to act as forward-thinking and global leaders is an educational model that empowers young people to become agile thinkers and diverse creatives across all industries and social systems. Do our schools foster creativity and insatiable curiosity? Do our students ask “what if?”

The challenge for educational leaders is to invest in learning environments that prioritize creativity and innovation, impart the wisdom of ages and simultaneously measure skill development effectively during the process. True 21st-century learning environments embrace an “and/and” approach, rather than choosing one at the expense of the other.

The knowledge amassed through lessons of The Third Teacher creates and reveals new learning environments, grounded in highly collaborative design processes and concepts.

Educational technologies
School communities must work within realistic budget parameters when investing in student and educator technologies. However, many 21st-century educational strategies do not depend on expensive solutions.

What holds true throughout technology advancements is ensuring appropriate connectivity for learners and educators, linking the right tools to the right projects, and fostering a culture of robust professional development with a wide range of technologies. Contemporary educators realize that developing a strategic and beta-test approach to available technology is the most sustainable path to technology adoption.

This flexibility and purposefulness yields the best tools so students can achieve their potential in an ever-shifting technology landscape.   

While much of the original dialog about 21st-century learning focused on “adding computers to schools,” today’s educational leader understands that a true digital native is first and foremost an effective filterer of information and a competent communicator across multiple platforms.

Students may be agile and fearless when it comes to new technology adoption, but they continue to need adult wisdom to understand the social, emotional and intellectual impacts of constant connection; to converse effectively in text-speak; and to acquire the ability to exchange ideas with the larger world.

Furthermore, it is critical that educational leaders shift from desktop-based, keyboard-centric tools to agile, mobile and gesture-based interfaces that allow learners to naturally interact with the world in much more dynamic manners.

A case study
The school library of past generations is gone. Today’s libraries must be more than spaces for books and computers. Spaces need to foster collaboration, comfort and digital tools for research.

Our firm embraced this ideological shift when designing Stevenson High School’s new Information and Learning Center (ILC) for Adlai E. Stevenson HSD 125. The reduced need for a large print library collection resulted in newly accessible spaces. Stacks of books were moved to the periphery, enabling human collaboration at the center of the space.

With laptops and iPads readily available, the ILC boasts “smart technology furniture” which assists students to share information, boost collaboration and help eliminate technological boundaries — breaking away from the traditional mindset that computers belong in computer labs.

The large lounging stairway cohesively links the two floors, and can transform from a casual, wi-fi-accessible learning area to a large-group gathering commons. Our team also planned small rooms equipped with Steelcase Mediascapes desk systems.

These small group rooms go beyond teaching and casual collaboration; they offer students needed support for group project work. The design has transformed the conventional library environment into a transparent, collaborative and media-rich resource center.

Collaborative environments
As more professional environments incorporate project-based teams, it becomes imperative to expose students to work-based collaboration. When working in groups, different skill sets are needed for students to effectively manage and participate in teams, especially when outcomes are measured and impact all involved.

While traditional schools challenge students to work independently, an authentic 21st-century learning environment fosters collaboration, team work and group dynamics in addition to allowing students to develop individual skills.

The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) curriculum is typically the space driver that enables students to learn through group and individual project activities, and encourages more positive attitudes, greater enthusiasm, improved communication, effective interpersonal skills, personal ownership in accomplishments and greater civility towards others as compared to schools following traditional programs.

Students who participate in STEM education environments develop 21st-century learning skills that benefit them far beyond the school environment.

Another case study
The architectural concept driving the Booker T. Washington STEM Academy in Champaign CUSD 4 was the creation of a STEM-centric, project-based learning environment that incorporates thought-provoking learning tools through design.

Text and graphics are placed throughout the building to reinforce the STEM curriculum, and provoke student curiosity and creativity. The academic communities —    Academy’s re-imagined classrooms — consist of three learning studios that open onto a communal gathering area.

This interactive space is equipped with folding glass partitions that can be arranged to create transitional and multifunctional spaces as collaborative, flexible and interactive learning environments. This collaboration area is outfitted with a demonstration counter allowing science and engineering activities to occur in close proximity to the learning studios, realizing the goal of permeating the building with science and engineering project-based learning opportunities.

Discovery to design
The programming process is built on a foundation of listening. Coupled with research and workshop outcomes, patterns and productive tensions evolve and resolve in a statement of the project’s core values and design drivers. This robust process leads to authentic solutions that are deeply rooted in the community’s voice.

The “future of learning” design practice is a direct result of concentrated efforts to provide thought leadership to our clients and to become their trusted advisor, assisting them in creating innovative environments. The planning process consists of interviews with the faculty, administration and students, as well as design team workshops to explore teaching and learning models.

The workshops inform a design that aligns a school’s pedagogy with a 21st-century learning environment. That results in connected and flexible spaces conducive for dynamic teaching and learning — both for today’s students and well into the future.

Our research and project work has led Cannon Design to develop a design practice that uses data-driven decision making, teamed with a solid understanding of the connection between the built environment, teaching and learning, and how the environment can support best practices of teachers and students.

For every project, districts need to work with their architects and designers to use the power of imagination, knowledge and experience to create environments that are an inspiration for learning, a source of community pride and an expression of the district’s educational mission.

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