Following her first article on her experiences as an architect/designer working with kids, Moa Dickmark offers her insights into the future of pedagogy and learning environments, an issue that raises various questions around the world. Here, she shares her vision for learning spaces in the future, how to go about developing them, and why she believes that students and teachers should have a say and be a part of the development and implementation process.
What do I believe will be the future for education and education facilities?
Einstein, who said something to the effect of “If you can’t explain the problem simply, you don’t understand it well enough,” would not be happy with my answer.
The question seems so simple, but the answer, as most of you probably have noticed, is oh-so complex.
More and more, we see that newly designed schools around the globe is that the majority of architects rely on the teachers and the school administrators’ feedback regarding their work environment as the basis of their designs. Like most of you, I agree that this is an important part of developing a more multi-faceted school then what we have seen in the past.
And it is without a doubt important, as an architect, to listen to and truly understand the needs of the people who use the school spaces on a day to day basis. It is also vital that the architects read between the lines and interpret what the users can’t put into words themselves. We are fluent in the language of space, but we have to remember that not everyone is. This is also important when it comes to developing an environment that not only works better than the ones they had before, but becomes a way to develop and challenge existing ways of teaching and learning.
One thing I have noticed when studying various projects and architecture studios around the globe is that very few of them consult the students on a serious level. Don’t get me wrong, there are some really good projects where they are doing just this (and i will write about them, i can promise you that), but they are few and far between.
There are many reasons for this: the students (kids, tweens, teens) ideas can seem unserious, far fetched and unrealistic. They can also be hard to comprehend, and hard to implement into the design because of a lack of understanding of why the students are asking for whatever they are asking for. And then there is of course the problems that all kids have with adults: that the adults believe that they know best and know what the kids truly need.
Once more we have to keep in mind that not everyone speaks the language of space, but most people, no matter what age, have an opinion about it, and kids are no different. It can be hard for anyone to understand and pinpoint why they think, work, concentrate or come up with better ideas in one area of a learning space, and not in others.
There are various ways to get around this little hurdle—by guiding them through various small workshops where they explore and question everything from existing spaces at the school and the surrounding areas, as well as where they hang out after school and in their homes.
In the beginning, you (as an architect, designer or teacher seeking more insight to the students minds) will probably find it rather tricky—I know I did. But in this way, both you and the students will get a greater understanding of which areas are best suited for which sort of work, what areas work best for them and why, which areas do not work and why, and how you together can develop the areas that don’t work so that the students start using them.
The Almighty Designer…
During my time studying architecture at university and based on what I’ve heard from fellow architecture students in other countries, our mentors continue to talk about the importance of a good process, and that we are supposed to study our clients and users as thoroughly as we possibly can. Unfortunately, at least for me, it is not a part of the curriculum to learn how to develop our own design and work process, how to collaborate with non-architects, how to set a timetable for a project or how to develop and conduct a workshop.
This often results in students who believe they have the infallible taste when it comes to design, and that this means that their opinions are worth more than those who are actually going to use the building.
Janitors, Students and Teachers Are Also Experts
As an architect, it can be extremely hard to let go of your role (and view of yourself) as the expert when it comes to design, and I’m not saying that you should do so completely. But—and this is a big BUT—it is important to remember that everyone who uses the space is an expert in her/his own right, and that their expertise is not to be taken lightly. The teachers’ expertise, the janitors’ expertise, the 12-year-old students’ expertise, and the librarians’ expertise all must be taken into consideration in order to arrive at the optimal end result when designing or redesigning space.
Unfortunately, many architects see the client/users as a disruptive element, along with budgets that are too tight, annoying regulations and other parameters that messes up their design.
If you instead choose to see it as an opportunity to work together on developing and designing a solution that measures up to as many requirements as possible, the entire process will develop in another, more enjoyable, direction. A common goal of a good collaboration, where everyone involved is on the same level and is respected for their respective expertise, leads to a more interesting and more sustainable project.
It will probably cost a bit extra on the spreadsheets and take a bit longer, but considering the life cycle of a building, one to two months of extra research and development does not really matter, especially not if the results exceeds the ordinary.
Asking for What They Know
When my colleague Heidi Lyng and I first started working closely with schools to develop design processes with students and teachers, we were just starting our final year of our master from Aarhus School of Architecture in Denmark.
For the major part of our first semester, we were out working with students in various elementary schools located in Aarhus, and a school with for tweens with concentration and learning disabilities in Vejle. During this time we developed various co-creative design processes in order to get a hold of the information we needed as to be able to understand the students needs. We also developed different methods with regard to the age of the students, energy levels etc.
One of the many things we learned from our first semester at uni is that when asked the question of what sort of spaces they want and need in a new school, the teachers, students and school leaders answer by asking for what they already know or what they think we as architects want to hear without considering whether the spaces actually work. This is the reason why we use co-creative design processes—to open up for a mutual understanding and dig deeper into what is truly needed and what is just for show.
Another thing we learned (and keep reminding ourselves of) is that “small kids have small pockets.” For us, this means that we always have to keep in mind who we are developing the co-creative design processes for when it comes to both age and size…
The Ultimate Learning Environment
I have thought long and hard about what is needed as to create the ultimate learning environment, and come to the conclusion that it doesn’t exist. The only thing we can do is to create as much of an advantageous basis for space to develop as possible. We can do this by developing a space that works in collaboration with the educators, by hiring teachers who burn for what they do, and to create spaces where students and teachers work together as a team to create a good atmosphere where learning is something that students genuinely want to do.
The school, in terms of both architecture and pedagogy, must take in consideration that people are different and they have different needs to feel good and comfortable, and ultimately fulfil their potential. Only after you have specified the needs and wishes of various individuals can you design a space that even comes close to what can be called “the ultimate learning environment,” and this takes time, close collaboration between the various users and partners and the architects and engineers.
One of the things that I personally find to be important throughout the process is to design a solution that not only supports current pedagogy, but also challenges teachers and students to develop it further, and hopefully meets their future needs proactively. This is difficult, of course, since we can’t possibly know what the future will bring, but what we can do is study and develop spaces that work in the present so we can stop designing and developing spaces that don’t.
So let’s collaborate and co-create more, let’s take one another seriously when doing so, and let’s develop ways of working where we truly understand what the other one is saying, and not just brush opinions under the rug because they aren’t expressed in a language we can understand.