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The Impact of Time on the
Design of Learning Environments

By Prakash Nair, RA, REFP
President, Urban Educational Facilities for the 21st Century
Director of Educational Planning, Vitetta

Hans F. van Aalst was the co-leader of the Time Workshop.  This report includes significant input from Mr. Van Aalst and all participants of the Time Workshop.

Time is a critical component that shapes educational systems and school buildings. However, it is an element whose impact is rarely considered in the design of schools because time-bound learning is a "time-honored" tradition that remains largely unchallenged despite enormous evidence that it precludes a great number of students from learning effectively.

How Time Shapes Schools and Dictates Their Organization
Subjects are taught in clearly defined 45-55 minute periods.  Children are organized by chronological grouping, each attending school for one academic "year" per grade level, which is in turn broken down into quarters or "marking periods."  There is a long break in the summer, a shorter one in the winter and at least one other break during the spring.

School itself is broken up into five time-bound sessions called pre-kindergarten (below five years), kindergarten, elementary school (1st through 5th grade), middle school (6th through 8th grade) and high school (9th through 12th grade.) While this system represents the American form of education, some equivalent system is present in every country with a formal education system.

The program that determines a school design is largely shaped by these pre-defined time constraints.

The Need for Timeless Schools
We can now point to research that shows how the idea of teaching students the same thing at the same time at the same pace is unworkable.  We also know that learning doesn't start or end with school.  Lifelong Learning is a term that is entering the mass consciousness.  Physical learning places need to reflect current educational wisdom which places far less emphasis on time and more emphasis on developing each student's full potential at his or her own pace.

Toward the Timeless School
With information no longer having the power it once had, the focus of learning has shifted from memorization to critical thinking and analysis, supplemented by hands-on project-based instruction.  Even when it is not possible to learn by doing in a real-world context, computer simulations are often used to mimic real-life experiences.  Collaboration and teamwork and extending learning beyond school and into the outside community are all features of the timeless school.

It is important to remember that the movement towards timeless schools represents a significant paradigm shift away from the time-bound paradigm represented by most of today’s learning facilities.  The following are some of the factors that must be considered by architects and others interested in building schools that will endure well into the 21st century.

Schooling vs. Learning
Though often used interchangeably, schooling and learning are not the same. Since schooling was traditionally seen as an objective process, it is one that was believed could be segmented neatly into pre-determined time increments. The underlying assumption is that, with some exceptions, most students will learn approximately the same things within the same allocated times. In other words, consistent schooling = consistent learning.  This assumption is the absolute foundation of most educational systems and, by extension, school buildings also represent this segmented time approach to learning.

Personal vs. Societal Clock
In designing the time-bound paradigm of education, there is little attention paid to the idea that each human being experiences time differently. In other words, time is not objective, but subjective and experiential.  Different individuals perceive the same objective time-segment as being “longer” or “shorter” depending upon their interest and absorption in any given activity.  We can see from this that learning is a very personal thing.  One reason for this is because each learner “constructs” meaning differently, influenced as he or she is by his or her own unique life experiences.

We know now that any attempt to hold both learning and time constant frustrates the purpose of education – to give each student a chance to succeed. In other words, if you want each student to learn, then you must be willing to give that student the time he or she needs to fully understand the subject being taught. Conversely, if you hold time constant, it is inevitable that some students will not learn.

Personalized Learning
The idea that each student is unique and, therefore, requires individualized attention, has led to the personalized learning movement. Very simply, personalized learning recognizes that education is only meaningful in the context of each learner’s unique interests and abilities.  Instead of focusing on identifying learning problems and correcting them (the basis for test-based assessments), personalized learning attempts to discover and maximize each learner’s inherent potential.

In order for personalized learning to be successful, students need to be exposed to a variety of learning modalities; while some students will excel in modes where cognitive abilities are stressed, others may excel in the areas of social or artistic abilities. If success is defined as the attainment of personal realization and fulfillment, then it is only logical that educational systems should be geared toward delivering personalized learning.

From the perspective of educational facilities, personalized learning will entail many different activity areas not only within the classroom, but also throughout the rest of the school.  Naturally, this approach to learning will also create the need for radically reforming the time-based administration of schooling – be it the period-based organization of the school day or the chronological groupings that characterize the grade breakdowns in elementary, middle and high schools. 

Time as Dependent Variable
The problem with time-bound educational systems is that they see time as an independent variable. All the stated goals of education are therefore defaulted into dependent variable status, subordinate to the tyranny of time. 

The solution to this problem is to relegate time to dependent variable status. In other words, the primary goals of education become the independent variables and time becomes subordinate to achieving those goals.

Under this scheme, the following are some independent variables freed from time-bound strictures that limited their realization insofar as individual learners were concerned.  This does not mean students are not taught how to manage time, only that time cannot be seen as independent of the expected outcomes. These independent variables are also examples of the educational goals for the 21st century:

§         Developing time management skills
§         Nurturing creativity
§         Encouraging independent thinking
§         Developing emotional intelligence
§         Building self-awareness
§         Nurturing the multiple intelligences
§         Acquiring knowledge
§         Applying Knowledge
§         Creating communities
§         Providing useable skills in various disciplines

Project-based Learning
Under the scheme where time becomes a subordinate variable in the learning process, project-based learning can take the place of subject-based learning. Projects are a good way to manage time because they are organizational units that permit holistic development of the person while serving as the vehicle to impart specific life-skills.  Project-based learning solves the problem of students being forced to absorb information without context.  Such rote learning has been shown to have no longterm benefits.  Hands-on, project–based instruction, on the other hand, engenders a greater level of interest and motivation in students and results in learning whose influence is often lifelong.

Lifelong Learning can be Anytime, Anywhere
Disconnecting education from the strict adherence to time-based elements also requires a rethinking of the place of education.  Since the 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day no longer governs, educational systems must expand the concept of learning not only to include “anytime” but also “anywhere.”  Once schools begin to offer choices in scheduling and course delivery, they will inevitably have to offer choices of location. This is facilitated by the advent of virtual learning over the Internet and the widespread use of email, video-conferencing, and other forms of electronic communication that do not require the student and teacher to be physically present at the same location.

Under the timeless learning paradigm, the central school building, so long the staple of our educational systems, will be relegated to the place for the physical meeting, but not necessarily the place for all learning.

Role of the Mentor/Coach in the Timeless School
In the early learning years, teachers will assist learners to understand that, even with flexible time, there are self-imposed boundaries and structures.  Time management is a skill that must be taught early in life so that it becomes naturally practiced in later years of life.

Teachers in their role as advisors and facilitators seek to write themselves out of the learning equation as they teach students the art of independence and self-responsibility.

The “teacher” is not always a designated instructor, but anyone who is able to transfer knowledge. In classrooms and other learning settings, the teacher may often be a peer or other mentor.

From “Frozen Time” to “Improvisational Theater”
It is easy to understand how a school built in the early part of the 20th century stands today as “frozen time,” representing an educational system no longer relevant in today’s information age.  It is somewhat more difficult to explain why schools built in the 1990s have also become relics so quickly. 

In the business community there is an understanding that every few years the form and content of the workplace will undergo radical reform. Buildings are, therefore, simple “shells” with some core infrastructure elements built in such as elevators, power, and water and toilet facilities. After that, individual occupants can “fit out” the space to their exact specifications as often as they choose to.   In stark contrast, and for reasons that are hard to fathom, hundreds of millions of dollars are expended on “frozen time” schools. For example, in New York City, with some rare exceptions, new schools are still being built with permanent masonry partitions—as if the curricular requirements of the 80’s and 90’s frozen in place by today’s design will remain unchanged well into the 21st century.  As it happens, most of these schools are already obsolete on the day they open.

So what is the answer? The solution opted for by the business community will not work for schools that are less likely to undergo major interior rehabilitations every 15 years or so.  Besides, unlike business establishments whose activities are more easily predictable and therefore easier to design for, school designs need far greater flexibility. In schools, a variety of teaching modalities and audience sizes need to be accommodated within per-occupant square foot standards that are a fraction of what is allowed in the business world.

One way to look at the design of the 21st century school is to see it as designing for “improvisational theater.”  The improv theater will be used in ways the designer of the space could never fully contemplate. On any given day, the improv theater could become a stage for one single individual, a duo, a small group or even a large group such as a chorus.  The idea is that the occupants define the space and the activities within the space define its purpose.  This is a departure from traditional schools whose spaces define its purpose and whose occupants must live by the limits of its pre-determined purpose.

There is one significant manner in which school designs for the 21st century will deviate from the simple black set that defines improvisational theater.  In the black set, the actors are expected to supply all the stimulation.  In a school, however, the set must have elements that the actors can interact with, elements that entertain a variety of interactions.  For example, a sitting area around a fountain with moveable furniture may be treated by its users very differently than a similar area with fixed seating.  Classroom configurations with moveable walls, adaptable furniture, and mobile casework are likely to encourage more learning and teaching styles than those with fixed walls, standard furniture, and built-in casework.  A painted mural is likely to have less educational value than an electronic mural that changes every day—and perhaps allows students to express themselves artistically.

Spaces need to be designed not simply to stimulate action. Some spaces are necessary to stimulate contemplation. In a frenetic world where external stimuli of all sorts bombard humanity from every direction, learning places need to provide some opportunity for reflection and quiet, to refresh spirit and soul. Such spaces need to be designed in a way that learners will naturally be drawn to them.  They should be places where time itself stands still—at least for the moment.