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Sparking School Design Via Project-Based Learning

If you had to pick a single educational technique, learning style, or pedagogy to drive the future of school design, what would it be?

john sole lectureThis is precisely what we set out to answer when we recently spoke with John Sole, Project-based Service Learning Master Teacher and Founder of Guerilla Educators. Based on an earlier set of published conversations held between he and Jeff Lackney [Part 1: “Getting Real”; Part 2: “Getting Real: The Philadelphia Story”], we asked John to challenge school designers/planners to consider the design inspiration of Project-based Learning (PBL):

“An educational trend impatiently awaiting a creative response from school designers are classroom environments that emphasize active, self-directed project-based, where cooperative problem solving strategies are favored over traditional, lecture-oriented, discipline-focused, teacher-centered instruction (see Lackney, 2005; Taylor, 1993).”

John turned the interview upside down, choosing instead to pose a series of questions to us that would drive a longer series of conversations here at DesignShare. His initial answers below are meant to be ’sparks,’ individual thesis statements to be explored further in time. John (with Guerilla Educators) has agreed to work with DesignShare in 2007 to begin to explore the larger implications of using Project-Based Learning as a methodology for developing truly world-class 21st century learning environments. His videos depict real students doing real projects in and out of real classrooms. The videos will form the foundation of a collective PBL dialogue beginning in January, 2007. In the meantime, many related design patterns that are in symphony with PBL models can be found currently in The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st Century Schools (Nair, Fielding).John Sole, Project-based Service Learning Master Teacher and Founder of Guerilla Educators/Sole Productions.


Question 1: Is Service Learning is the most effective way for all students to achieve mastery of curriculum and state mandated standards?

Students engaged in well designed, real-world Service Learning projects use problem solving and critical thinking strategies, excel academically, achieve mastery of grade appropriate curriculums across a wide variety of subject areas, work cooperatively in small groups, develop good citizenship, negotiation, and consensus building skills, hypothesize, extend what they have learned, use technology, and have a great deal of FUN throughout the entire process.

By definition, an integral aspect of a Service Learning project includes the active involvement of Community Partners. In the course of a Service Learning project, students have invaluable interaction on a regular basis with Community Partners both in and out of the classroom. This real-world connection is a critical adjunct in achieving curricular, citizenship, and project related goals.

The effectiveness and power of Service Learning is predicated on the foundation of student OWNERSHIP in their educational process. When a project’s successful completion becomes personally important to students, this provides a unique opportunity for teaching and learning based on personal responsibility.

Question 2: Is the Service Learning process the most effective way to engender good citizenship skills in all students?

A key element in well designed Service Learning projects is the understanding that project activities will provide a SERVICE to or civic advocacy for a community group, be it within the school, the neighborhood, or the Amazon Rain Forest. Whether students are working with architects on the re-design of their school, with the water authority to help monitor the local waterway, doing intergenerational projects with seniors, or petitioning the local governing council for more greenspace, a primary objective is to engender the development of good citizenship skills.

A key component of Service Learning is the involvement of Community Partners. By interacting with Partnering Professionals on Service Learning projects, students experience successful, real-world modeling of what constitutes good citizenship in action.
Ultimately then, the most important aspect of the Service component in Project Based Service Learning is the effect that service has on the students providing it.

Question 3: Why should school architects design educational facilities that facilitate the Project Based Learning methodology?

World-class Project Based Service Learning can take place under a tree, which may be a good metaphor as to how schools should be designed to accommodate this Project Based learning.

PBL/SL is oftentimes messy, sprawling, chaotic, and loud (a good loud). Schools (trees?) designed for this type of hands-on education will by nature be comfortable, flexible spaces where movement into cooperative groups, e.g. is accommodated; where students can “make a mess” without any resultant adult neurosis; where there are nooks for a student to solve a project related issue in peace; where technology can be at hand as easily and flexibly as the #2 pencil; where the cacophony of students enthusiastically creating their educational processes does not impinge on other students’ right to the same thing; where students learn in an environment filled with natural light, with good acoustics and safe, non-toxic design materials; and where the school itself is a 3 dimensional textbook so students can authentically learn from the very walls of their classroom.

Question 4: Should the school design process be used as a real-world, project-based teaching and learning strategy?

Project Based Service Learning is the most powerful methodology to effectively teach all students, and architectural design projects based on real-world applications is the gold standard of Project Based Learning. Students are directly involved in a process that has direct relevance to them. Architecture projects connected to students provides rich opportunities in which to achieve competence across a wide array of subject areas. Authentic student participation in the design process is a physical civic legacy, a positive touchstone for the students to refer back to as they become adults, to say, “I did that”!

By committing, then, to the connection of the design process directly to teachers and students via Project Based Learning, architects provide a unique, powerful, and highly marketable value-added component in their relationship with the school.

Question 5: Is student involvement in the design process a desirable strategy for educational facilities designers?

Who better to involve in a school design charrette than students?

Students understand as well or better, how to use the school building for a multitude of purposes, both academically and socially. In our experience, authentic student participation in the charrette gives architects an unvarnished view of the school that can be very helpful in shaping the direction of the school design. Authentic student participation implies a high degree of cooperation and trust between the design team and their most direct clients. This type of relationship also implies a degree of humility of the part of the architect to hear and respect any student suggestions as legitimate.

The rewards for student participation in the design process are worth the effort on the bottom line and in creating good school design that works.

Question 6: Can the school itself be used as a 3 dimensional textbook?

Every aspect of “school”, including the building itself should be ascribed to one purpose, i.e. the academic and social education of the student.

To this end, any school can be utilized to teach across a range of curricular areas. There are abundant opportunities to use the school, the physical facility itself, as a powerful teaching and learning device. A school designed so that the systems of the school are transparent and easily monitored in which students can “see” behind the walls, mine the data and understand how these systems work are especially well suited to these ends.

A critical adjunct to the concept of using the physical facility to teach and learn is the understanding that teachers must be mentored to exploit these opportunities with their students. So many schools have the most cutting edge facilities and tech labs which are underutilized because the educators have not been properly trained and provided with ongoing support to use the resources at hand.

Question 7: Should school architects see the physical facility and the teaching and learning that take place inside as a seamless continuum?

Concurrent with the idea of the physical facility as a 3D textbook is the understanding that the most effective schools are designed from the inside out. Let the nuts and bolts of teaching and learning drive everything else relative to the school design.

The essential priority of creating spaces that work must take precedence over everything else even if this has an effect on the design aesthetics of the architect/designer. Inside out design must oftentimes require school architects to let go of the ego and focus like a laser on the ways the school itself will enhance the learning that takes place inside of it. We have seen too many schools that are “green”, that have big, sunny foyers and lots of windows but which do not serve the specific needs of the school population. This is not at all to say that aesthetics and practicality in school design are mutually exclusive. A school that is attractively designed is the object as long as the design serves the function of supporting world class educational pedagogy.

Question 8: Should school architects design buildings that are fun places to attend?

Addressed in the first sentence in response to the first question and salted throughout this discussion is the concept of “fun”. The understanding that students can and most definitely should have fun as part of their educational experience is so, ahem, fundamental, yet so overlooked. This is where architects and designers could use the advice of their student clients.

In working with an architect on the re-design of a 3rd grade classroom, a student in that class was asked if she liked the new design. Her immediate response was that it was “nice” but that there were no “hiding places” for her or her classmates. Understanding that places for students to hide is decidedly not a concept to be embraced in classroom design, this idea of private, inset nooks where students can read, do research, relax, and yes, have fun is not to be taken lightly.

Students who want to come to a school where the design is conducive to having fun is a school where the issue of absence is obviated. This can only have a salutary effect on the bottom line.

Question 9: Should High Performance, Sustainable school design be used as a teaching and learning tool?

Sustainability will be the great, defining issue of the 21st century. By involving students in a design process that incorporates “Green”, a number of critical societal issues will be addressed, including:

  • Leadership- By understanding the nature of high performance design via authentic real-world projects, students will be prepared to function and lead successfully as adults in the marketplace and culture of sustainability.
  • Literacy- Mastery of curriculum that is driven, in part, by hands-on projects which includes high performance, sustainable design, “green” architecture, the environment, alternative energy, water related issues and technology is win-win-win. Students are deriving their academic learning from a compelling real-world issue; by doing so, they are being prepared to enter the work world with cutting edge job skills; and “green” projects are fun – win-win-win!
  • School as Textbook- An educational facility that is a transparent model of green design can be used to educate students, staff, and the community about money and Earthsaving sustainable design principles.
  • Advocacy- A school that is designed to meet sustainable principals will provide students with an unparalleled opportunity to educate the larger community about how we use and conserve our finite natural resources.
  • A “green” school therefore, provides a rich environment for students to become academically advanced and models of exemplary, responsible citizenship.

    Question 10: Why should school architects “give back” by coming into classrooms as Community Partners to use the design process to create hands-on projects?

    School architects and designers should participate in Service Learning projects in classrooms for the following reasons of enlightened self- interest:

  • It has been shown that architects who include innovative, value-added components such as direct involvement in connecting design to curriculum, teachers and students via PBL/SL in their RFP’s and presentations stand a very good chance of getting the job. School District administrators and especially Principals, teachers, and neighborhood organizations have great interest in seeing the design process used for teaching and learning.
  • Architects who “give back” in this way derive a great deal of personal satisfaction in the classroom projects. As previously stated, it also makes sense on the bottom line.
  • Getting students involved in school design, in effect begins the development of the next generation of architects. It is also very significant that such projects develop in our young citizens a sense of civic responsibility.
  • If the architect is striving for LEED certification, a “Green” education component is a good strategy to capture an Innovation Credit.
  • Working directly with students and teachers in classrooms gives architects an invaluable perspective related to school design.
  • Question 11: What is the role of teachers in the connection of design to curriculum and students vis PBL/SL?

    If Project Based Service Learning is the bridge between school design and students, then teachers are the gatekeepers of the bridge.

    What this means in formal terms is that without teacher cooperation and investment, it ain’t gonna happen. In many cases, the nature of education today means that what takes place in classrooms is completely scripted. One rationale for this academic regimentation of classtime is that, because there is a good deal of student movement between schools in many School Districts, curriculum needs to be very carefully scripted in terms of time, pacing and methodology.

    To overcome these challenges to the connection between design, curriculum, and students via Service Learning, teachers in the school need to be identified who will see this process as an amazing opportunity to teach more effectively. Teachers will need initial and ongoing support to set up a framework for the project (e.g. the design program will take place once a week for 10 weeks between October and December on Tuesdays between 10:00 and 11:30 and the following activities will take place). They’ll also need assistance to see the powerful connections between project activities and student mastery of their curricular objectives. This is where an organization such as Guerilla Educators can be useful as a mentoring resource for teachers and to keep the relationship coordinated between the architect as Community Partner and the classroom.

    Teachers need to understand that the project schedule should not be considered as an add on to a teacher’s already stressful, busy day but as an integral part of the day that will make learning come alive for the students and be fun, as well.

    Question 12: Does school design that accommodates Service Learning have a positive impact on the bottom line?

    For all the reasons delineated above, architects who design schools that are fun to attend, that comfortably accommodate, hands-on, the oftentimes messy, chaotic pursuit of knowledge by students, and that foster the development of positive citizenship skills will be at the cutting edge of school design in the 21st century. Service Learning is the most effective pedagogy to teach all students across all grade levels and economic and social strata.

    Educational Facilities architects, planners, and designers who advocate for and build schools to accommodate Project Based Service Learning will be richly rewarded for their efforts.

    November 2nd, 2006

    DesignShare publications are submitted by designers, university professors, architects, planning consultants, educators, technologists, futurists, and ecologists. Publications include podcasts, detailed case studies, conference proceedings, interviews, original research, editorials, thesis projects, and practical design guidelines.


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