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Yesterday's Problem

Conversations on Educational Architecture
Third Conversation: Yesterday’s Problem
Jamieson and Fielding

Part of a series of Letters between Peter Jamieson and Randy Fielding

Introduction | Letter One: Synchronicity | Letter Two: Under the Veranda | Letter Threee: Yesterday’s Problem

Dear Randy,

australia stampOh, to be young and free, and wandering the streets of New York in the late 60s! When we commenced this correspondence I never imagined that you would take me there in recalling your school years.

I am sure many people can recall their own experience as a student locked inside a dreary classroom and looking longingly through a window at anyone lucky enough to be on the outside. Even when I was teaching in a non-descript high school, in a grey-brick building with a long narrow corridor and classrooms either side, I often found myself looking outside and feeling extremely constrained in what l could do with the students. In one of my more rebellious moments on an extremely hot and unpleasant afternoon, when the class was meant to be sitting silently reading a novel, I took the students outside to read in a shaded area under trees. I remember being challenged by colleagues and the principal about my decision and can still hear their claim that no serious learning could take place outside the classroom.

As an educator, I realise that valuable aspects of pedagogy will always be located inside the classrooms and other spaces provided by the educational institution. I am not advocating that we go and learn “on the beach”, as I am sure you are aware. But now that I work on a very beautiful university campus in a wonderful climate (much like northern Florida), I continually advocate for a much more integrated approach to student learning that would merge the benefits of both the internal and external environments to enrich the student learning experience.

Frankly, I think an important reason why institutions like my own have not seriously explored the opportunities to develop learning environments in the natural settings around and between campus buildings is that learning is still largely understood as a teacher-directed process. And teachers are most familiar with the classroom environment (understandably), but also have their role as a teacher (including their disciplinary expertise and their status as an institutional authority) reinforced by that traditional setting. Even today, in most classroom settings an external observer would have little difficulty identifying the teacher from the students due to the adoption of behaviours we traditionally associate with the role of the teacher. Interestingly, this distinction would be much less clear in many workplace learning environments, including apprenticeship training in vocational skills, where there is much greater overlap between instructor/employer and learner/employee.

But it is not all bad news. Just yesterday I was meeting with academic colleagues in one faculty to discuss the prospect of creating a more hospitable and educationally-effective environment in the external areas immediately adjacent to a very traditional and heritage-listed Medical School (with strict control over the changes that can be made to the building itself). The fact that educators are beginning to acknowledge the need to create “learning precincts” combining built and natural environments is a major step forward and hopefully will make the work of yourself and other educational architects more rewarding.

It is curious that three short words—”less is more”—can be so controversial in both our professional fields. I can see why you and other architects reacted so strongly against this push within your own profession. But it is important that architects are aware that this issue assumes a different meaning for educators. This morning I was discussing with an academic the need for educators to create “space” in the student learning experience for the “unexpected” event, behaviour or relationship. We have to learn to invite the “unexpected” moment through our planning and approach as educators, and that’s why it is important for you and other architects to help us create spaces that don’t presume to embody the educational solution in a grand plan, but rather create possibilities.

Only last week a colleague, who is an architect and works as an academic at my university, was discussing a new collaborative learning centre being constructed at our university, you might remember me telling you about it during your visit with us. Anyway, my colleague said he felt the new centre was a response to “yesterday’s problem”. I have been thinking about that comment ever since.

Today, I visited the building site and talked with one of the principal architects. I repeated the comment about “yesterday’s problem” and you can imagine his response. But as l stood amid the building site, with all of the activity and noise, as well as the expertise and skill of all those involved in building this formidable structure, I wondered if the process of planning, designing and building such a large project meant that we would always be responding to “yesterday’s problem”? What do you think?

My best wishes from Oz.



Dear Peter,

minnesotaYou pose an important question—does the process of planning, designing and building mean that we will always be responding to “yesterday’s problem”?

The answer is an emphatic no! We can design buildings that will shelter, inspire, and enhance learning today and for years to come. What does it take to design environments that will adapt to changing needs? One way to answer this question is to relate it to concepts of adaptability described in ecological systems theory.

A key principle of ecology involves survival of natural systems through diversity. Natural systems that draw on a variety of resources have a far greater chance of survival when conditions change. For example: If you eat both water beetles and Mulberry leaves, and a drought reduces the availability of leaves, you can still survive living primarily on beetles. Similarly, if you provide variety of educational spaces, including lecture spaces, collaborative areas, and indoor/outdoor project areas, the learning environment has a much greater chance of maintaining viability over time.

Limitations of Flexible, Technological Solutions

The first response to a request for adaptability is often movable walls—an approach that can be effective with strong educational leadership and staff development, but is not the most natural fit for many learners and educators. There is a comforting quality about a solid wall that movable partitions lack. Educators often resist using them—saying that they are “too hard to move,” or “I don’t want to mess with it,” or “I’ve already worked out my teaching plan,” or “collaborating with the teacher next door means extra work.” Too often movable walls are never moved, and their presence is a reminder of a failed technology and wasted resources.

There are exceptions to the underused movable wall rule, and one of these is the Reece Community School in Tasmania, where strong leadership and a culture that embraces change makes good used of the movable wall technology (more info).

Overarching Principals of Diversity and Variety

While movable walls are a solution with mixed results, a varied environment, with a diversity of sizes and spatial qualities is an over-arching design principle that makes sense for 21st century schools. Spatial variety provides for a diverse group of learning modalities—including peer-to-peer, lecture, collaborative, project-based, and more; in fact, we have identified 18 key learning modalities that impact educational architecture in The Language of School Design (Nair/Fielding, 2005).

Successful learning environments will provide for all 18 of these modalities. However, if we provide a different space for each modality, the result might be a very large “inflated” facility, with lots of single use spaces.

image002The best kinds of spaces accommodate multiple learning modalities. For example, a central commons with movable tables, chairs, a sink, refrigerator, microwave oven, and a demountable stage may be used as a café, a gathering area for collaborative learning, a presentation forum, and a flexible space for project work; we have planned spaces like this that successfully accommodate up to 15 different learning modalities.

Enclosure Not Required

Spaces that accommodate diverse learning modalities need not be enclosed. While developing guidelines for new vocational education centers in Tsunami-afflicted zones of Sri Lanka, we identified the importance of outdoor spaces in response to a variety of needs, including collaborative space, peer-to-peer learning, entrepreneurial/community connections, informal “watering hole” learning activities, and development of a signature presence in the community (see Figure 1).

Variety in Size and Number

In addition to spaces that accommodate different learning modalities, we also need variety in size and number. There is an essential difference between a 10-person seminar room, 25-person classroom, 100-person lecture hall, 300 and 1,000-student lecture theatre. At the Morriss Center in Bridgehampton, Long Island, we planned for a hierarchy of spaces, beginning with a community “piazza,” at the center, surrounded by three central nodes, including a black box theatre, greenhouse/science center, and library/humanities center. Each of the three centers is supported by a series of smaller spaces, including resource labs, break-out areas with soft seating, and individual student work spaces (see Figure 2).

The Character of Spaces

morris center
The character of space is also important. We need small, cozy spaces, larger light-filled spaces, spaces with fluid connection to the outside, spaces with ample technology and spaces for messy work and more. A partial list of characteristics describing diverse educational spaces includes:

  • Intimate, with a strong sense of enclosure
  • Open and inviting for groups to congregate
  • Lofty, with high ceilings and durable floors, suitable for “messy projects”
  • Visually connected to a busy, public domain (street, corridor, town square)
  • Physically and visually connected to a central commons or watering hole
  • Bright and open, and filled with natural light
  • Shaded and serene
  • Technology equipped to accommodate large group presentations
  • Like Noah’s Ark

The principles of diversity and variety in educational architecture are the same principles that motivated Noah when he built his ark—he provided for a diversity of species. Learning environments that are designed for tomorrow’s problems, are blessed with variety, providing a diverse set of spaces for multiple learning modalities.

Regarding your last letter, I’d like to hear more about the concept of learning precincts—combining built and natural environments.

All the best from Lake Harriet,


Part of a series of Letters between Peter Jamieson and Randy Fielding

Introduction | Letter One: Synchronicity | Letter Two: Under the Veranda | Letter Threee: Yesterday’s Problem

March 8th, 2006

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