(Originally Published on pbk.com October 2017)
I was reading an interesting blog entry recently. In it Ryan O’Connor argued that one of the dictums of modern architecture, “form follows function,” should be replaced by “structure follows strategy.” Read full article here. In other words, he was saying that in a digital world function is no longer a guide to form. He was making an argument about user interface design and the virtual world but in the last decade we have seen the virtual world encroach upon the physical world in ways that will profoundly impact how we work, live, and learn. Furthermore, arguably architecture is an exercise, on a vast scale, of user interface design. Technology is creating a world that is vastly more customizable and subject to change in very short timeframes than ever before in human experience. This presents significant opportunities and challenges for both education and the architecture that supports it.
A telephone existed for one reason. It was there for sending voice signals from Point A to Point B. “Form follows function” certainly applied to these kinds of analog technologies. The shape of a Walkman was driven by the cassette tape in it. The shape of the cassette in turn was driven by the nature of the magnetic tape that formed its core.
The digital age explodes all of these constraints and, over the last decade, has increasingly encroached on tangible, physical technologies from telephones to cars to buildings themselves. The implications of this will be profound. When everything is reducible to zeros and ones the shape of anything can suddenly be changed. The ripples of this new reality extend far beyond computers or even the iPods that replaced the cassette and CD Walkmans. Those were just the first step.
These shifts have implications for both architecture and education. Consider how much of education has been driven by the necessity of seeing the chalkboard (or whiteboard or display) at the front of the room and the limits that this technology imposed on a teacher trying to convey information. In turn, the necessity of moving large groups of students through the school day is driven in part by the constraints of putting them into distinct learning spaces driven in large part by an immobile blackboard. As a consequence, learning, hard enough in an unconstrained environment, is now required to happen according to schedule. The logistical need to segregate also feeds specialization in the academic environment. From 10-11 am you are in History, not English.
Taking this to a more abstract level, consider how much learning is driven by the medium of the book. The linear narrative of the textbook drives classes. Tests come as a seemingly natural consequence of that linear narrative.
In this way the textbook drives the structure of learning in a school and that, in turn, can drive the very structure of the building itself. We have specialized boxes that we call classrooms. They are a direct product of the technologies of the blackboard and the book in much the same way as a cassette Walkman was the product of the cassette tape.
Despite the literature emphasizing the importance of communities of learning, classrooms often serve to divide communities as much as create them, especially in the older grades where specialization becomes pronounced. However, the logic of the schedule, the textbook, and test-centric instruction continue to drive the design of schools.
The fundamental assumptions we make as we consider what learning spaces should be are all subject to disruption in a digital age. There is less and less logic to having a physical textbook and the information it contains can easily be acquired through digital means that are much cheaper and more adaptable to the needs of the teacher and learner [here is another article on the changing role of textbooks]. While the blackboard/whiteboard are still very useful tools they can easily be supplemented and/or replaced by other means of transmitting information to the learner. The digital age effectively decouples information exchange from the physical space, allowing us to optimize those spaces with the human element as the primary consideration. This can happen either within the context of a particular space (digital displays, interactive touch, augmented reality) or by leveraging the cloud to put those environments onto mobile devices.
These technologies allow us to create buildings that can functionally disconnect what we traditionally understand as a classroom from the learning experience. Learning spaces can become more communal and less driven by specialization. In essence the school can become a bazaar of interconnecting ideas rather than egg carton of disconnected concepts.
The world of work is being driven by increased demand for diverse skillsets. The need for highly specialized workers is declining and those with broad ranging skillsets are in high demand. Working backward from this fact, does it still make sense to teach in a segregated, highly-specialized environment represented by the classroom [click here for more on this subject]? Instead, we need to mold the tools around the needs of the teacher and the learner, not the reverse. Strategies of teaching and learning should drive the technology and space design that supports it. The rationale for constraining education based on technological limitations makes less and less sense every day.
We also have to be mindful that strategies of teaching and learning are still very much in flux. Schools are driven by the concerns of today even as they struggle with the implications of building for tomorrow.
Therefore, the other key takeaway from these technological shifts is that we need to build for flexibility wherever possible. Teaching and learning are likely to change considerably over the lifetime of the spaces we are now creating. We need to recognize the limitations driven by technology that we impose on our structures and constantly re-evaluate whether or not they are still relevant. Furthermore, we need to recognize that these constraints are likely to be eliminated at an exponential rate going forward. Schools will need to adapt to innovations just like everyone else and the extent to which we can create spaces that can be easily adapted over time will determine the long-term vitality of the structure.
Adaptable Technology is giving people a vast range of choices and this can become overwhelming, especially to those with many other decisions to make in their day-to-day existence. The strategy behind mastering these new realities is to focus on the intent of the activity and to do so critically. While the technological means may be constantly shifting, the ends typically don’t change much. We want learners to emerge from schooling with the knowledge, skillsets, and mindsets that will help them succeed in life. Let’s put that up front and build backwards from there. We have the tools to do it.