Our latest research project for our studio is exploring the future of learning environments and how this may look with an integrated approach between design, technology and pedagogy.
It is empirically evident that the reason for the hierarchical human dominance across the planet has been a result of our intelligence and our fundamental ability to pass on knowledge from one generation to another. Thus education is the premise for our progression as a society, civilisation and species.
Architecture is a facilitator for education and has historically been an allegorical codex of how knowledge is transferred in each society. It is therefore the responsibility of architecture to accommodate for todays changes and also instigate a way for new knowledge of education to be manifested in a physical form.
In education curriculum, we are seeing a trend towards more collaborative and topic focused learning and less focus on individual subjects. There are many changes in teaching and learning technologies and methodologies that are yet to be addressed as a physical and spatial concept. While the world continues to evolve at an accelerating rate, the majority of schools still have classrooms based on the convectional ideal of an enclosed box with one teacher and rows of students – a system that is generations old.
While institutional spatial design is slowly changing, including the integration of open space learning and technology, we believe that educational facilities need to start addressing these changes more holistically and explore what their role may be in the future. The traditional school model may become out of date soon, particularly for older children. A possible scenario for older children is that they may become increasingly mobile, with a mixture of online learning and in-situ learning. The introduction of self-driving vehicles may become a game changer for them, where they may have a mobile classroom space (bus) that takes them to various places for ‘insitu’ learning depending on what they are learning, such as a robotics factory and so on. The mobile classroom becomes their main space for social interaction with classmates and concentrated time with their teacher.
As for younger children, we still see the importance of having a ‘physical’ centre of learning, with the attentive care of teachers, to address areas that are difficult to be developed through technology and at home such as social development, physical development, cultural development and the learning of basic skills. Some students of course will continue to learn better with more traditional methods of teaching and learning, which should still be offered.
The environmental impact is of paramount importance to this whole concept. The future school needs to be an excellent role model to future generations both through its design and the environmental information that is disseminates to the children. The space would largely be solar powered (cells on the roof). As a ‘glasshouse’ type structure with both internal and external spaces, it is a natural light filled space that can manage its internal temperature through natural ventilation and shading. Tracking sensors in the ground plane may allow shade activated in the roof plane, in relation to the sun's position and where there is movement on the ground plane. We see a mixture of inflatable structures and acoustic/thermal curtains as creating the smaller, more traditional teaching spaces as well as assisting with temperature regulation when needed. The model would need to be adapted for different climates and to work with locally sourced materials, eg bamboo structures. In terms of plants, the school would be planted with both local vegetation and also crops. Children would be able to track, digitally, their environmental statistics for their school, their city at large, their country and the world. The children are responsible for helping maintain their environment and there will be coveted local, national and global environmental prizes based on this.
Spatial design for schools should enhance and aid the education process by reflecting developments in both pedagogy and technology. Ultimately we need a new building typology that interacts with the children in a way that current schools are failing to do. As Aristotle stated “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all,” and architecture has a great responsibility in educating the heart through the creation and manipulation of space. Greek Philosopher, Aristotle, born in 384 BC founded a 'Peripatetic school' that involved teaching and learning while walking.
An important element for our proposed model for a future learning environment is to make it more interactive and more physical – emphasising the need for movement to create both a healthy mind and healthy body. This also aims to counteract the fact that children now spend more time outside of school passively playing or learning on technological devices. This ‘physical’ element could possibly be reciprocated virtually for children with restricted mobility.
Play can serve as a powerful matrix of learning in education. Research has proven that children’s pretend play can promote both cognitive development and the development of dimensions of social competence. Current misunderstandings of the pertinence of play, mixed with academic pressures, have lead to schooling systems turning a blind eye to this fundamental part of child development. Therefore it is often disregarded that children may need guidance from adults for play because of the nature of play being a natural childhood activity. Creating space that allows for the freedom that one finds in open fields, such as a park or a forest, is important. Thus as a new pedagogy comes into being, that understands this need for play and open space, architecture must therefore adhere and accommodate for these changes. Spaces should be designed in a way that they are open and flexible, whimsical and interactive. We must no longer lock children in the boxes we call classrooms and only forcefully educate their minds but open their hearts to education through a playscape, a synthetic park, and a mindful maze.
While we see digital learning games as a valid way of learning in its own right, we believe that gaming concepts should be integrated into the future school's teaching and learning methodologies as a physical experience. Not only could this make learning fun and motivational, it could also create a more integrated way of learning and testing through using a mixture of skills and focusing on problem solving. This could work well with a curriculum that is based on a 'topic' learning structure, similar to what is proposed in Finland. Problem solving television game shows such as 'Survivor' and the ‘Krypton factor’ could become part of the mainstream learning process. The games and activities could be varied according to the topic at hand, the desired skills to be learnt and the level. Children could continue to play these learning games and build up their scores and hence competencies in specific areas. Personality and career profiling could also be used at a later stage so that children can increase their competencies in the necessary areas.
Culturally, as a flexible model that can be adapted, both physically and virtually to its locale, it can be a cultural hub that reflects the culture of its inhabitants as well as allowing children to easily visit and interact with other cultures within their school, using new technologies.
As architects, we are seeing a trend for the design brief for public projects to become increasingly similar, regardless of the type of public institution, albeit an art gallery, a museum, a library, a school and so on. It is possible that to some extent, many of these institutions will blend together as one. In Europe, we are already seeing the grouping of public facilities together to create economical and environmental efficiencies and to reflect their increasingly shared aims. Some institutions will become obsolete and others will need to renew their purpose and role in our future society. We see this proposal as a flexible model that can be used to modify existing schools and also to create new ones, whether they be temporary or permanent.
In regards to the idea that our world could become fully digitised and heavily reliant on virtual technologies, we believe that humans will continue to be nostalgic for the past. In the future, they will still, at times, want to write with an actual pen on paper and read an actual paperback book under a tree. Through design exercises at architecture school, where students continually cross backwards and forwards between digital technologies and analogue methodologies, we can still see validity in both approaches, which develop different skills and create different outcomes. We believe that the same will continue to apply to learning in general. We don't believe that we will ever live in a world where people are completely immersed in new technology, in so-called 'futuristic' spaces that are digitised and created fully out of synthetic materials. Humans need face to face interaction with one another of which neuroscientists have studied this need extensively. They need to be in spaces that make them feel good with fresh air, natural light and comfortable temperatures.
One difficulty that we see with trying to implement innovation in the institutional sector is that too often the brief is too rigid and doesn’t allow enough room for experimentation within the built form. The main issue however is that there needs to be a much closer relationship between designers and the educators in charge of the education curriculum so that the two can work in synergy together in leading us to the future.
Architecture could be the leader in this movement. Educational spaces of the future should be designed in a way that seamlessly accommodates technology, play and nature. Constructions should become an altruistic means to educate our children through the formation of spaces that are adapting to the nature of our current and future epochs. We must therefore speculate what these spaces may look like, and understand that these new pedagogical environments are already possible.
Core team: Jo Aitken, Madumal Gunaratna