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Learning Ecologies: Can the City Be Our Classroom?

Johns Hopkins Fast Forward Innovation Hub encourages “tinkering” to accelerate commercialization of ideas. (Alan Karchmer photography.)

Over the past few months, Gensler San Francisco’s EDU 2.0 group, a cohort of emerging designers, strategists and leaders in the Education practice area, hosted a series of three roundtable discussions around the experiential learning trend and what it means for educational institutions and cities.

Project-based approaches to teaching have been disrupting the educational landscape for several years and many institutions have fully embraced experience-based curriculum; however, the built-environment has not kept up. This approach requires environments that encourage both self-guided and group learning, provide maker spaces and allow students to personalize their educational experience. Participants in the roundtable discussions included thought leaders and innovators from elementary education, high school, university and cultural institutions, as well as organizations involved in education for all ages. While our conversations varied due to the diverse participants, our question for all of the discussions was the same:

In a world where resources for learners are pervasive and abundant, where institutions may no longer play the role of primary purveyors of information, and abilities may be represented in ways different from the traditional diploma, what role will the institution of education play?

Commentary from some of our roundtable participants included:

  • “We’re striving to build a university as it should be, not how it may have accidentally evolved over a hundred years.” –Mike Wang, Minerva Schools
  • “I’m going out and using a series of experiences and apprenticeships to create a new form of higher education.” –Dane Johnson, Experience Institute
  • “What could it look like if you designed a school rooted in equity and innovation and its goal was to bring disparate groups together?” –David Clifford, Design School X, Stanford d.School
  • “At CCA we remake our physical environment…and our curriculum constantly in a way that is incredibly agile and it benefits the students.” –Mara Hancock, CCA

Through these conversations we identified the following trends on the horizon that not only apply to educational projects, but also retail, cultural and civic work:

  • Curators of Experience: Learner-Centric Education

    The goal of this kind of education is not to impart information nor to create experts, but to allow the students to learn how to identify questions, themes and problems.

  • Community

    For campus-less institutions and legacy institutions alike, place, identity and community remain important.

  • Irresistible Places

    Our most impactful memories of school often surround these special, irresistible places; a corner of a library or the place where you ate lunch with your friends. These places encourage and enable memorable learning experiences.

  • 826 Valencia is an example of an “irresistible place” that encourages students to find inspiration and share their stories. (Matthew Millman photography.)

  • Technology is a Tool, Not a Solution

    Information delivered online in a vacuum, unrelated to real-world experience, is difficult to internalize and doesn’t feel relevant to the student.

  • In Defense of the University

    When we demand that learning be unencumbered by reaching a specific goal, a learner has the opportunity for free intellectual exploration.

  • Tinkering

    This educational practice includes the importance of play and prototyping within a context of experiential learning.

  • Northwestern University’s Garage encourages “tinkering” in an adaptable and non-precious environment. (Garrett Rowland photography.)

  • Beyond the Report Card

    Badging, sharing a digital portfolio, a deep network of collaborators and one’s ability to tell one’s story are more important to many employers than the conventional GPA.

  • Intergenerational Learning

    Age and experience level are not always the indicator of the role of educator.

  • The University of Kansas School of Business’ incubator brings students together with professors and professionals in a space that encourages “intergenerational learning.” (Garrett Rowland photography.)

  • Scale It Up

    Traditional educational systems can learn from innovative charter schools, cultural institutions and private schools to provide the best opportunities for all students.

The full list of trends explained in more details can be found here.

Learning Ecologies Team: Lindsey Feola, Karen Kuklin, Ashley Marsh, Gray Dougherty, Joe Favaloro, Marie Fernandes, Allie Trachsel, Aaron Howe-Cornelison, David Hurley and Mark Santa-Ana.

Lindsey Feola, AIA, LEED®AP, BD+C, is an architect in Gensler’s San Francisco office with a broad range of project experience including education, health and wellness, and commercial office buildings. Lindsey’s passion for solving clients’ biggest challenges through collaboration and research results in unique design solutions for every project. Contact her at Lindsey_feola@gensler.com.