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Burden of Future Proof: Facile Learning Environments in a Tech-Savvy Age

Gensler's Chicago office recently hosted the first installment of the Dialogues with Gensler series. Image © Gensler

Dialogues with Gensler is an ongoing series of moderated panel discussions held in our Chicago office that address how design impacts lifelong learning.

When our team started to define the "Dialogues with Gensler" series here in the Chicago office, we listed 50 ideas related to the idea of lifelong learning. We define lifelong learning as learning that takes place throughout the day and at all stages of life, in a different range of spaces with many different tools. To us, it suggests that learning permeates all aspects of everyday life, including the places in which we live, work and play.

With our 50 ideas on the table and this overarching theme, we focused our first event in this series on how the idea of lifelong learning implies a continuum between places of formal education and places of informal learning. We wanted to understand what makes a place compelling to people as a learning environment, and how the roles of technology and space can enhance or detract from the learning experience.

To answer these inquiries we needed to investigate how people learn and where we learn best. We were particularly interested in how younger members of society learn, and how technology can be a catalyst for rethinking education.

Some people still thrive on the use of paper and physical books. However, young people today largely support their learning processes through technology. Learning today also requires a diverse number of spaces with built in flexibility, options and customization. Most of these ideas are based on the premise that collaboration and human contact is necessary for learning.

David Broz and Meghan Webster, two of Gensler’s Education + Culture leaders, co-moderated the panel, which brought together a group of three thought leaders redefining education in their own work along different stages of the learning continuum: Jon Phillips, Managing Director of Worldwide Education Strategy with Dell; Thomas-Steele Maley, Director of Academic Technology at GEMS World Academy Chicago, and Starr Marcello, the Director and COO at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at University of Chicago.

Jon Phillips works closely with institutions, administrators, and educators to demonstrate how technology can empower students to drive their own education and careers beyond their tenure on campus. Jon kicked off his presentation with a video profiling the impact of technology in a K-12 education setting and the subsequent shift of the role of the teacher within the classroom. Technology compels instructors to act as facilitators, transforming their traditional roles as owners of knowledge into guides for learning. Jon also noted that the learning process improves when instruction is personalized, and thus students can be more proactive in understanding the settings and methods through which they learn best. Individual, self-directed, hands-on learning keeps students engaged, and technology enables students to connect real life experiences with the classroom and to continue learning while at home.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there.” Thomas Steele-Maley, credits this quote from Jalal ad-Din Rumi as one source of inspiration and reference for his work. In both his role at GEMS and through his extensive research in experiential learning, Thomas is truly changing the perspective around formal education and learning. He believes that the future of the learning space requires one to “suspend disbelief that learning can be done differently” and that “the culture of schools may be at odds with the culture of learning.” Thomas added that learning must start at the community level to “right” design, making it a mesh of universal, authentic, and local learning. The “city as a landscape for learning” allows students to use technology as a tool to help experience the real world and set their own curricula. Learning is a messy process and requires reliance rooted in real life scenarios.

In her leadership at University of Chicago’s Polsky Center, Starr Marcello bridges academic curricula, extracurricular initiatives, research, and corporate and community outreach to help students develop entrepreneurial career paths. She stressed the need for a push in education and entrepreneurship through experience. According to her, most learning happens in the real world; the classroom is a place to digest and interpret that experience. She sees a need to break down the silos of academia to make learning more accessible and to better support personalization and experiential learning. Technological innovation exists within the tradition and values of the university, and there must be a balance with how the two co-exist and influence each other. This shift has compelled change in some universities, and in some cases a move from precious, museum-type spaces to temporary and messy spaces that reflect a new reality. She concluded with an image of a classical library setting at the University of Chicago; although specific to this institution, this type of space can be found on many campuses. Starr posed the question: how can spaces like this one both transform and adapt to a new generation of learners while still acknowledging the history, legacy and culture of the university?

The discussion that followed the three panelists’ presentations focused on several commonalities threaded through their work:

  • Technology as a Tool
  • Scale-ability of New Learning Methods
  • Community Engagement
  • Innovation Outside of the System of Education

Technology as a Tool

Rather than a driver, technology is a tool that is no different than pencil and paper. Like these basic tools, it is and will continue to be become something that seamlessly integrates with learning. Soon, tech in the classroom will no longer be a phenomenon in and of itself. Technology has to be a service of something. Are we teaching technology instead of teaching? Are we driving people toward projects that aren’t technologically sound? Thomas underscored that personal technology devices are not game-changers themselves; rather, the Internet (the thing we access using these devices) is a game-changer. (Will the computer lab even have a valid role or be a necessity in schools five years from now?) These are questions we must address.

Scale-ability of New Learning Methods

How do we make the visible advancements in learning styles and methods that are currently happening in small pockets or private schools more accessible to students in public education? Jon suggested that we need to incentivize teachers to experiment in the classroom by putting into place systems that support experimentation. Critical to this idea is the development of a support system that allows some of these ideas to fail and doesn’t revert to a reliance on test results as the only basis for learning success.

Community Engagement

Thomas emphasized the need to reorganize communities around education, and Jon added that the student perspective is critical to making this work. Jon highlighted the Youth Innovation Advisors Program at Dell that brings together ’12 Under 22’ (12 students under the age of 22) to serve as advocates and form a platform to provide the tools students need to succeed. This initiative seeks to empower students to make a change and in-turn incite a broader impact and transformation. Too often, student aren’t involved early enough in the process to have an authentic or purposeful role.

Innovation Outside of the System of Education

Lastly, the conversation addressed the infinite number of initiatives, research opportunities, and innovations that have emerged outside of the formal education system. The ability to test ideas outside of the purview of school work and grading systems allows students to freely try their hand at entrepreneurship and to innovate. Starr observed that thinking like an entrepreneur gives amazing cover to try new ideas, to succeed at failing, and to use this experience as fuel for learning and engaging in the process repeatedly. Catalysts like the Arts Incubator in Garfield Park or the Connected Learning Alliance broadens the forum for these experiences to the community, engaging art, culture, and technology to impact change across the city.

Stay tuned for our next event coming up in the series. It will delve deeper into these ideas. We thank our panelists and our active audience members for contributing their thoughts and insight around this big hairy topic. We believe that discussions like this one (along with good coffee) can keep the conversation going, or – if we are really lucky – ignite a new idea that could improve our paths to better design and education. Join the conversation and feel free to your comments below.

Image © Gensler

Brian Watson is a designer with a focus on education and community projects that positively transform the learning and life experience. He believes that good design can change people’s lives and set them up for success. Contact him at brian_watson@gensler.com.
Linda F. Chavez has dedicated these last years working in education and community projects. She is committed to the idea that through good design in education we can develop sustainable and socially responsible communities. Contact her at linda_chavez@gensler.com.

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