2010 PKAL LSC National Colloquium

Plenary Session I: Why Attention to Learning Matters

Key questions:

  • Can buildings ask questions?
  • How do we design spaces that suggest to users what they are to do…and to be?

Participant reflections (summarized and edited):

This opening discussion set forth some important over-arching themes that would be threaded through subsequent sessions, particularly that college is a crucial period for readying students to deal with the realities of adult life (not just for careers), that our basic human communication skills evolved in a small-group, agrarian society. The challenge is to think more wisely in the process of planning. The impact of space on learning should be the primary and immediate consideration, intentionally avoiding (postponing) dealing with specifics about physical space until some deeper challenges had been addressed.

There were many other challenges in this opening plenary:

  • The challenge to think of cognition as narrative, cognition as shaping memories, thus the challenge to keep asking what kind of narratives we will be allowing our students to build in the spaces we plan?
  • The challenge to keep asking what kind of narratives we will be allowing our students to construct in the spaces we plan.
  • The challenge to recognize that buildings do in fact pose questions and to understand the questions to be asked of students by the buildings we plan.
  • The challenge to be aware how the spaces we plan support the students as they are learning, as they are becoming—beginning to shape their own narrative.

These challenges all emphasized that planning had to be centered on the learning experience of the students. In asking questions, spaces were to confront students’ misconceptions about the nature of learning, the nature of science. Immediately upon entering, students should be able to sense what is to happen in the spaces, how learning is to happen; this most likely will be quite different than their existing assumptions about how learning happens. Will they sense that people learn best when they are actively engaged in creating their own knowledge? Will they sense that these spaces are designed to nurture boundary-crossers?

There is an enormous pressure to create the best design solution instantly, yet we forget that the environments we now recognize as ‘best’ are not those that were created instantly, but are ones that have been adapted, manipulated and morphed into the fabric and culture of the place. It is critical to plan for easy change, and thus prototyping is an important step in the planning process. Further, it is important to remember that these spaces will serve learners into the future, a future which will be quite different in all respects from the present. The image of an adaptive environment that adjusts to the users’ needs (rather the needs of technologies) was compelling. The insight of the importance of ‘time’ in planning spaces was of value: the ‘time’ students will be using the spaces and the ‘time’ that the spaces will evolve, over a day, week, year and decade.

We must have the patience for this to happen and not create, in our planning, fossils of today. The ideas presented emphasized attention to avoiding making mistakes others have made, particularly the lack of attention to building community in the process of planning. Keep in mind “paternal libertarianism.” How does a building nurture paternalism? How can it guide change without being draconian?

To arrive at innovative spaces, we must begin first with the end clearly in mind—with a mental image of the ideal spaces for learning, teaching and research in the undergraduate setting. Designing such spaces is the second step, which is not taken until the end is clearly in mind.

It is important to remember that planning spaces is part of the larger institutional planning efforts; it is important to understand that the ultimate goal is to create a better learning environment, going beyond thinking about the physical spaces. Be very clear what will constitute success—both in the process of planning as well as in the product that results from the planning.

Note: An important role for the PKAL LSC is to encourage deeper and wider understanding of the research on how spaces can do this. Part of the PKAL LSC agenda should be to convene theorists in learning and spaces for learning on a regular basis. The significant body of evidence-based information that already exists needs to be more accessible to the practitioners in the field (both academics and architects).