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Amsterdam Watershed
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Part 4: Flexibility, Risks of Innovation, Impact of Environment on Learning

“Instead of designing schools we should step back and design community.” Bruce Jilk

Q John B. Lyons: Currently the average age of our K-12 schools is 42 years. We know that the tempo of changes to the learning environment is increasing and that one of the hallmarks of excellent school design is adaptability. Once constructed the design is frozen in time. How can we provide the flexibility necessary without compromising the classroom environment?

Bruce Jilk: Consistent with the question about the maintenance of Dutch schools we need to invest our space, time and money in a way that goes beyond just the immediate goals of any project. The way to do this is to step back and look at the bigger picture. Typically, we build schools so the physical elements will out live the functional. This functional obsolescence can manifest itself in two ways. First, the learning processes can change, and second, the need for a particular site for learning may no longer be necessary (population shift). In the first case architects have used a variety of design strategies, including movable walls, nonbearing partitions, modular mechanical and electrical systems, etc. In the second case the strategy has been to predict future use (housing, offices) and design with that in mind.

I feel both of these approaches will have limited success and do not really look at the bigger picture (they look only an alternative possibility). Instead of designing schools (or offices or housing or retail, etc.) we should step back and design community. This design strategy should include not only these components but also their relationship to each other [11]. This has not been done in modern times (except Louvain-la-Neuve)[12], so there are only historic models (Pompeii) or paper architecture [13], both of which are suspect. There are some ideas about how this infrastructure might be designed in the writings of Habraken[14] and my work in Australia [see footnote 6]. However, until we get serious about designing for community the flexibility/adaptability issue will not go away.

“Flexibility and facilities is an oxymoron.” William DeJong

William DeJong: Flexibility and facilities is an oxymoron and yet it is a question worth exploring further. Bruce is correct when he says the physical elements will outlive the functional. Forty-two years ago would have been the late 1950s. In that era kindergarten was half day, there was no preschool, many mentally and physically challenged children were institutionalized, students went home for lunch, there were no computers, and there was little discussion of team teaching, multiage or other current form of delivering education. The future is likely to be the same.

In the late 1980s we began addressing some of the evolving program delivery issues at the high school level. In 1990, I recall a project in Michigan where we had just finishing a traditional (departmentalized) high school. It was six months prior to completion and the staff was asking if we could make some changes to make this more of an interdisciplinary high school. I told them they were $35 million late with this discussion. In the next couple of days we started planning a new high school in another Michigan school district and one in Ohio. My first question was how do you want to be organized? They both said departmentally. We put together four sets of educational specifications based on the departmental, team teaching, interdisciplinary and school-within-school concepts. We overlaid them on each other and discovered we couldn’t get from the departmental approach to the others but we could get from the teamed approach to all of the others. We used the teamed approach for both buildings. One opened as a traditional departmental high school and the other with a hybrid 9th grade school within a school, teamed 10th and 11th grades and semester-long interdisciplinary studies in the senior year. In this case flexibility meant which approach left you with the most options. The rest is history. This same story repeated itself with other planners and architects where today, ten years later, this is a common approach that is used.

Going back to a previous discussion, I don’t really believe we have come up with ideas on how we plan a school today using classrooms, as we currently know them, to space concepts in which we no longer have “classrooms.” The answer may lie in more demountable buildings or using more office planning concepts.

Q James LaPosta: The question that kept occurring to me throughout the week, however, was “what if we are wrong?” There is an unfortunate history of architectural innovation in schools that failed utterly and I worry that we may be headed down that well-intentioned road again. The idea of learning spread throughout the community is appealing and well reasoned but, not six blocks from my Hartford office is a failed school project, an experiment in community-integrated learning from the 80s that was recently replaced by a more traditional program and building. The costs of failure are so high — generations of children who only go through the system once — that we need certainty that what we do is right. How do we integrate the lessons from the past with the best thinking that the educational community can offer us?

Bruce Jilk: I have already addressed the idea that the Amsterdam Watershed is about developing alternatives, not replacing one approach with another. This is because “what if we are wrong” if we keep things as they are (in the context of a knowledge society) which is also a legitimate question. Integral to the question is the assumption that “one size fits all.” In this context the question applies both ways.

This idea of “all or nothing” is carried into other aspects of the question. Ninety percent of what we learn is learned outside of school. I hope parents do not turn their children totally over to The System. A child’s learning should never be dependent upon a singular approach. An increasing number of parents do not send their children through the system at all.

So how do we learn from the past? Time for our critical thinking skills! There is no formula for this. First we need to separate what is changing from what stays the same. How we can teach is changing [15], [16]), how children learn is not (short of drugs, brain implants and gene modifications). Learning environments should enable learning, not be a barrier to it. Therefore, the real question is, what, in the past, was an environmental barrier to learning and what enabled learning? And to further complicate things, this will vary with the mode of learning at any one time. If that is not enough, what about the individual’s learning style or the appropriate group learning strategies? To learn from the past we would need to carefully document what happened, establish criteria, weigh the criteria, apply it in an objective manner and draw out meaningful patterns to inform our current concerns. A lot of work that no one cares to fund. On the more optimistic side, we should establish an ongoing post-occupancy evaluation (POE) process for all projects as they happen and collect them (like a blood bank). All this justifies a new EFL (Educational Facilities Laboratory) type foundation.

One last point on this question. We know we learn by failure. Some people say we learn best this way. Based on that fact our schools (The System) are not the sole conduit to learning, we should not be fearful of taking risks to improve our learning environments. The greatest risk is to take no risk at all.

William DeJong: “What if we are wrong” is a serious consideration. Again Bruce is correct in that there is a need to develop alternatives. However, risks will be taken and mistakes will be made. One of the perceived mistakes was the open space schools of the late 1960s and 1970s. Part of the problem with open space schools was not training staff on how to effectively use the space. Part of the problem was compounded in the 1970s when these buildings also became windowless structures as a result of the energy crisis. In Washington, D.C., the community and staff are demanding that over 20 open space schools be enclosed or replaced. Most of these schools are well over 200,000 S.F. One is a K-8 building and is 348,000 square feet. This is a costly problem.

“…open space schools were too open and the 1950’s facilities were too enclosed.” William DeJong

In a suburban Indianapolis school district we were developing the educational specifications to guide the renovation of four elementary schools. Two of the schools were 1950s double loaded corridor buildings. Two were open space schools. The staff and parents in the double loaded corridor schools wanted the space opened up. Those in the open space building wanted them enclosed. What they were really saying was that open space schools were too open and the 1950’s facilities were too enclosed. What they needed was a combination of the approaches depending on the types of learning that were to occur.

There is far more risk in just repeating the past than there is in attempting to determine the future. By attempting to determine the future we may get it wrong, but I believe if we just take the past, we already have it wrong.

Q Jose Freire da Silva: According to his [Bruce’s] experience, how important are built environments created by architects? How and in what way are those environments part of the models under consideration?

Bruce Jilk: This is variation on the Nature verses Nurture argument. It is not an either/or condition. Both are fundamentally important. The environment (and most people experience the man/woman made environment) has a significant effect on our behavior. A basic example is the classroom. Take a roughly square, 900 sq. ft. space with a 10 ft. ceiling, place a marker board to define the front, send in one adult and 30 kids (who have never seen each other), and more often than not the adult will assume some form of control. Place the same people in an arcade game setting and the kids will assume control. The environment influences behavior. Our knowledge of this is very limited and needs more research [17].

Q Sarah Woodhead: Your concept for high schools presented in the early ’90s was an exciting break-the-mold approach to educating high school students. In that concept, the form and the function are mutually responsive. However, in most case studies derived from that early concept, there seems to be an overstatement of the degree to which school as “center’” or institution can/should/will cease to exist. The Webster’s definition I like the best for “institution” is “a significant practice, relationship or organization in a society or culture.” Please comment on the role which “school” as a physical place in a community carries meaning within your work.

Bruce Jilk: The physical place of learning in a community should be symbolic of the location (meaning) learning has in that community. If the meaning of learning in a particular society is characterized as something special, unique, controlled, elite, then it should physically reflect this (like the Parthenon). If the meaning of learning is seen as integral to all aspects in a society/organization then learning should have presence everywhere. The question implies that I promote the latter as if I know what’s best. Having worked in a variety of cultures (33 countries and most states), I have learned not to advocate any preconception but to show the possibilities.

This question does bring up an important issue about community design. Although I can imagine a group of people who would be committed to being a totally homogenized society that would prefer to exist in a featureless setting, every culture I’ve worked in has an order to it. This implies that their communities have some form of order as well. Good community design uses the tools of paths, nodes, edges, centers, etc. to deliver on this expectation. Buildings that rise above the background and contribute to the order are called civic art [18], Krier Brothers [see reference 14], Schools (learning centers) as well as City Halls, Churches, Community Centers, Court Houses, Prisons (Columbus, IN) can be a part of the civic art if that is consistent with the beliefs and values of a society. However, it is wrong to assume that this is the proper role for schools (or the other building types) without due process of enquiry. One innovative alternative for schools is the idea that they are dispersed (the Dutch broad school )[19].

Q Sarah Woodhead:
Bruce, at best your ideas reflect a clear and invigorating sense of what learning should be; at worst, there is sometimes more than a hint of idealist tyranny that ignores many of the subtle but important patterns of human behavior. You would do away with the classroom and the school. It certainly is alluring and can work in limited circumstances. Do you ever see a danger in promoting dramatic change? Do you see your role as provocateur? How far should school architects go in adopting your approaches? How skeptical should practitioners be?

Bruce Jilk: First, one assumes I am promoting dramatic change. I do not promote anything except that people think before they act when making decisions about learning environments. To help them, I share some of the possibilities. Second, do I see my self as provocateur? This is for others to decide. I share ideas. Some people respond by giving those ideas thoughtful consideration. Others, apparently, are provoked. Third, should school architects adopt my approaches? School architects ought to be knowledgeable in the numerous possibilities out there. This is also true for school planners and educators. Knowledge is not painful. Finally, how skeptical should practitioners be? Why not ask: how knowledgeable, how inquisitive, how curious, how informed, how excited, or even, should they be skeptical?

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April 3rd, 2006

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