Impact of Time on the
Design of Learning Environments
By Prakash Nair, RA,
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
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.
Time Shapes Schools and Dictates Their Organization
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.
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.
program that determines a school design is largely shaped by these
pre-defined time constraints.
Need for Timeless Schools
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Developing time management skills
Encouraging independent thinking
Developing emotional intelligence
Nurturing the multiple intelligences
Providing useable skills in various disciplines
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,
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
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
From “Frozen Time” to
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 partitionsas
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
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
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 dayand perhaps allows students to express
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 stillat least for