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Built to Learn: How Design Can Enhance Education

Modern education is ripe for disruption. That theme arose early at the Gensler Dialogues roundtable, “How We Learn: Designing Environments That Respond to Human Behavior,” on January 19. With one student dropping out of high school every 26 minutes, current K-12 learning spaces aren’t working for those who depend on them.

“The bottom line is, it’s simply not ok to lose that many people,” says Dr. Lennie Scott-Webber, owner and principal of INSYNC: Education Research and Design, and one of the morning’s panelists. “We need to completely re-imagine what learning can be.”

For too long, she says, education institutions have modeled themselves on factories. Teachers stand in front of row-by-column seating, or at the head of a lecture hall, reinforcing the mindset of teachers as the only source of control and authority in the classroom. It’s a narrow conception of education that ultimately doesn’t serve most students.

“People always talk about creating genius, but let’s be honest,” says Terry Heick, co-panelist and founder/director of TeachThought. “We don’t really think of genius in schools. We think about assimilation. We say to learners, well, this is our ethos, so assimilate yourself to this. That’s all backwards. Of course we want to show kids how to do things, but you have to let them bring their own curiosity and personality to bear on these problems.”

How can spaces better support learning behavior? Here are four key themes that emerged:

Learner-Centered Environments

Both panelists spoke forcefully on the need to pivot to learner-centered models. Learner environments honor the student as a whole person. Their design adapts fluidly to students’ changing needs and encourages experimentation.

“The net result of the learning experience should not be, are we faster at the content? Or, how did we do on that test?” says Heick. “We’re thinking instead, how do I want him to be 20 years for now? We’re thinking about him as a person. Because ultimately, everyone has their own need for information, delivered in a certain way, at the right time for them.”

But how do we scale a close focus on the individual to the level of a classroom? By maximizing every aspect of the physical envelope—from floors to walls to furnishings. In learner spaces, the built environment itself acts as a third teacher. It gives cues and permissions about what kinds of behaviors are encouraged, and which are not. How easy is it for students to form small groups, for example? How quickly can teachers see and help a student with a question? The way a space addresses those issues has repercussions for how effectively teachers and learners can use their time in the classroom.

Deep Engagement

Both Heick and Dr. Lennie agree that the behavior cultivated through learner-centered space is deep engagement with the topic at hand. By giving students more room to move, resources to use and time to engage, they immerse themselves in their education until learning starts to look like play.

“Play and curiosity are such a natural part of our brain stem. They go together,” Dr. Lennie says, citing cognitive research on how the brain learns. “As humans, we naturally want to inquire.”

Heick expanded on this topic by explaining his interest in inquiry as a model for successful learning. He compares the inquiry mindset to being an archaeologist. You brush back the dirt, see what pieces you have and how they fit together. Inquiry, when taken long-term, becomes a mode of asking questions of your environment.

“Humans are potent in their curiosity, their adaptability, their perseverance” Heick says. “We call this curiosity a soft skill, but it’s far more crucial than just our ability to read well, or even our cognitive capacity.”

Learning through Experimentation

To build on engagement and inquiry, learning spaces must incorporate opportunities for experimentation. As in a chemistry lab, where you mix solutions and get results instantly—a new compound, a bad smell or even an explosion—learner spaces create feedback loops for students to try something new and see the results of their efforts, then adjust their approach on the second pass.

A strong model for such space can be found in the architecture studio itself. “I always tell people to return to their design training,” says Dr. Lennie. “In architecture school, you’re constantly being asked the question, ‘What’s important?’ You have to figure that out for yourself, and sometimes, you have to try something that fails. If it’s too much of a safe zone, students will never make those leaps to see those connections.”

Building opportunities for failure into the classroom experience doesn’t always sit well with traditional educators, however. “You get a lot of push-back at community meetings,” says Dr. Lennie. “Neither teachers nor parents are often willing to let their children fail. But there’s a tenacity you build up that way. We have to let our students fail in a safe way.”

Learner-Centered Technology

Perhaps one way to build low-stakes failure and high-octane experimentation into the learning space is through tech tools and video games. Heick talked about his children, who use video games to find new ways of exploring their world. His son, he says, sometimes tries to ‘break the game,’ pouring all of his cognitive effort into finding a way to use the platform that the game’s designers didn’t anticipate. While older generations may not read this as a legible learning experience, Heick observes that these relationships between learners and technology will only grow more pronounced as time goes on.

“People talk about tech in education, but these days, we have only partially-converted classrooms. We have digitized versions of what we had 20 years ago. If you squint, it doesn’t look much different than it used to.” Like it or not, tech tools—from virtual reality to education apps, video games and YouTube—are already seeping into education environments. The trick is figuring out how to hack these tools for our purposes, and teaching students to do the same.

Ultimately, finding new ways to use tools for the learner’s own purposes isn’t new to the learning model. It’s central to the concept of inquiry itself, and a big part of the new culture of education promoted by the panelists. Moments of connection between the learner and the world, wherever they come from, cement lessons by making them relevant to the individual.

“Learning is a super simple transaction between a human and their environment,” says Heick. “No matter what, humans are constantly negotiating meaning from their environment.

“I always tell my kids, the most important thing is to care. Caring helps you unify and order all the things you’ve learned in a way you can use, no matter what the subject. And if you care, you’ll do that naturally, on your own.”

For further reading on the future workforce and the effect on education, click here.

Meghan Webster is a senior associate in Gensler's Chicago office. She has a broad range of experience across the country and overseas in every phase of the architecture and construction process, and she draws on this experience when thinking about new and inventive ways for buildings to broaden the lives of the end-users. Contact her at meghan_webster@gensler.com.
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.