(Originally published on PBK Architects, November 2017)

Technology is driving a sea change in how we interact with objects around us. What was fixed is now fluid. What was permanent is now (potentially) adaptable. What was distinct is becoming integrated and increasingly blurred. This has profound implications for wide swathes of our society and teaching and learning are not exempt. Technologies occupy an increasingly wide spectrum of what we have to consider when designing learning environments and it is important to take a holistic view of the project being undertaken.

What exactly does this mean for school design? Do we need to understand how furniture, lighting, and technology integrate into a classroom? Absolutely. However, we also have to consider how that classroom integrates with the rest of the campus. Not only does technology change how learning happens within the classroom, it also expands the range of places where learning can take place. Furthermore, many learning spaces are not what we traditionally think of as “classrooms.” They include spaces like MakerSpaces, One Button Studios, and informal collaboration spaces. Empowered learning does not always take place in discrete modules. It is a broad ranging enterprise that includes a range of activities in a typical day. Spaces and technology need to complement these activities.

There is a lot of neurological research on how learning takes place that supports the idea that a multimodal approach to teaching and learning is the most effective way to teach our children. As the OECD wrote in 2007, “Far from the focus on the brain reinforcing an exclusively cognitive, performance-driven bias, [neuroscience] suggests the need for holistic approaches which recognise the close inter-dependence of physical and intellectual well-being, and the close interplay of the emotional and cognitive, the analytical and the creative arts.” (p. 7)

In the intervening decade the challenge has been how to square this scientific conclusion with the realities of schools as we know them today. Instruction in most schools falls in a very linear one-size-fits-all paradigm instead of the dynamic multimodal approach suggested by the OECD report. As was have discussed previously, technology now offers the possibility of liberation from the physical constraints of this educational model.

However, in order to maximize these technological opportunities our approaches to school design have to pivot. We need to adopt a holistic approach to our thinking about learning environments throughout the building. There are many areas in the traditional school where technological affordances could be leveraged to achieve transformative learning experiences.

One example of rethinking spaces holistically is the ongoing transformation of Career and Technical Education (CTE). Under the old model CTE students were trained in very specific technologies. Accelerating technological changes challenge the efficacy of many CTE programs as schools struggle to keep their curricula relevant. A more holistic approach may solve this problem. This is precisely what has been advocated by the US Department of Education, “Making includes student-driven activities from a multitude of subject areas. While traditional shop classes may focus assignments on skills such as metalworking and carpentry, makerspaces are not subject or skill specific.” In other words, a MakerSpace is by definition a holistic space.

Another area where there are opportunities to think holistically is in the hallways. When we programmed the West Houston Institute the team explicitly started with proviso that there would be no hallways in the traditional sense of the word. We were able to maintain that vision on the first floor, which itself is designed very holistically across a broad range of spaces. Instead of constructing traditional hallways we created a range of informal learning and collaboration areas. These range from comfortable pod seating to interactive stations that allow students to connect into a monitor and work together at a collaborative table. Ubiquitous computing resources exist throughout the space. These spaces interconnect and fuse the various areas of the building together. Overall, the West Houston Institute is very holistically designed with making, collaboration, learning, and creative support all designed to work synergistically with one another.

Developing a holistic campus environment requires that the concept be a central part of the planning, design, and construction process from beginning to end. There are many factors that tend to drive projects to subdivide. First, it is common practice to have discrete parts of the school submit their programmatic needs separately. This is natural and necessary. However, those programmatic needs should be looked at holistically through a joint visioning session and a user-designated representative whose responsibility it is to maintain a vision of the synergies throughout the campus.

The user representative should also be responsible for making sure that the centrifugal forces that characterize the construction process do not undermine the overall vision of the space. Compromises are a necessary part of any building project but they should always be considered against the opportunity costs they impose on the overall design and not just specific programmatic elements. As a further hedge to maintain these principles, a focus on flexibility will help the environment grow in a holistic fashion as the building adapts itself to its community of users post-occupancy.

There are many reasons to approach your next school or campus project holistically. Most significantly, the new generation of learning environments are being driven by technological changes that are making everything more fluid. These changes are making the spaces themselves more fluid as groups flow from one technological environment to another to suit their learning needs.

Technology augments learning in unexpected ways and is subject to rapid change. These two factors dictate that all learning environments need to as flexible as possible and that learning should meet the space, not the other way around. They also argue for a set of interconnected spaces that allow that learning to migrate to where it is most effective at teaching our students the necessary skills for success. It is only through a holistic, flexible approach to teaching and learning that they will be able to thrive in a technologically-driven world where change is the norm and adaptability to new realities are at a premium. Our spaces have to support this.