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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Master Classroom: Designs Inspired by Creative Minds

A team of architects who specialize in learning spaces want to let Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, and Jamie Oliver show you the future of classroom design.
By Randall Fielding, Jeffery Lackney, Prakash Nair

Laddies Who Lunch:

English chef Jamie Oliver, with one of his own creations -- and a satisfied customer -- has cooked up his own design for a perfect learning environment.

Credit: Corbis

The industrial era had a long run, both gritty and great, but it's over. The problem is, someone forgot to tell the education establishment. In schools across America, the factory model is still alive, and nowhere is it more readily apparent than in the classroom.

In these little factories, every day we can find teachers encouraged (and often compelled) to mass produce learning and marginalize the differences in aptitudes, interests, and abilities. The industrial-age classroom was not all bad in its time; after all, America did all right in its heyday. But this model is no place to prepare students for the fast-changing global society they will inherit.

As school planners and architects, we challenge communities and clients to explain why a regimental row of desks facing a chalkboard needs to remain as a school's primary building block. We ask them to review the eighteen modes of learning (see www.designshare.com) that educators accept as essential for success in today's world, so they can see how a traditional classroom can accommodate only two or three of them.

But if not the old-style classroom, then what? How should the model evolve? In exploring this question with educators around the world, we've come up with at least three distinct "studios." To help us, we called on illustrious thinkers who shaped the ideas of their times: Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, and a modern master named Jamie Oliver. Destroying the traditional learning environment and creating something entirely new was a major challenge for our three maestros, but here's what they came up with.

Laboratory in Three Dimensions:

Leonardo da Vinci's work space would incorporate the hands-on elements of an artist's studio, a science lab, and a model-building shop.

Credit: DESIGNSHARE

The Da Vinci Studio: Action Through Synthesis of Knowledge

In the coming years, no educational paradigm shift will be more forcefully felt than the enrichment of disciplines through cross-pollination. Context and connection are fundamentally changing the way teachers teach and students learn. Not only are we hurtling at breakneck speed into an era in which traditional hard lines between the arts and the sciences are blurring, but we are also doing so with one eye firmly fixed on the way design can help the left brain and the right brain work in harmony.

Leonardo da Vinci has already provided a highly workable model for how this shift might be accomplished. In da Vinci's world, the lines between the disciplines, pervasive in today's schools, were absent; the works he did as a scientist, mathematician, and artist all informed the other efforts. No wonder one can look at his scientific drawings and wonder whether they were meant to be works of art and at his artwork and marvel at its scientific rigor. This kind of free-flowing interchange was accomplished in a workplace that was part artist's studio, part science lab, and part model-building shop.

So, what would a modern-day da Vinci studio look like as a classroom? Imagine a place with lots of daylight and directed artificial light, connection to an outdoor deck through wide or rolling doors (for messy projects), access to water, power supplied from a floor or ceiling grid, a wireless computer network, lots of storage, a floor finish that is hard to damage, high ceilings, places to display finished projects, reasonable acoustic separation, and transparency to the inside and outside with the potential for good views and vistas.

To take full advantage of today's da Vinci studio, teachers would need to collaborate more, offer students the opportunity to work on real projects, and encourage cross-disciplinary thinking in a way rarely seen within the four walls of traditional, unrevised schools.

Relatively Reflective:

Albert Einstein preferred solitude in his work. His studio would be the place to go for inspiration -- whether from sitting quietly with your own thoughts, enjoying a view of the outdoors, or strolling in nature.

Credit: DESIGNSHARE

The Einstein Studio: Creative Reflection and Inspired Collaboration

Albert Einstein's workplace was more study than studio. Preferring solitude and connections to nature, Einstein gave himself lots of time to stay in his own head. Because so much of what he did was cerebral, his inspiration could have come during quiet walks and in places other than his primary workplace (among other activities, he loved sailing on Long Island's Peconic Bay).

His official workplace may simply have let him develop ideas he had generated elsewhere. And so, when we talk about the Einstein studio today, we do so more in a metaphorical sense than as a way to actually duplicate Einstein's workplace in the modern school.

We can imagine that today's Einstein studio might include a place that encourages creative reflection, an inspiring setting not sealed off from the world outside or from those real problems and issues that must always have some place in abstract theorizing. To imagine an Einsteinian classroom, conjure the various ways the main lobby of a five-star hotel is furnished: It welcomes people alone or in small groups, it offers comfortable furnishings, it may nurture aspiration and inspiration with high ceilings, lots of glass, and easy connection to natural elements and water features, and it creates zones of privacy that remain firmly connected to the activity throughout the larger space.

A school isn't a five-star hotel, of course, but planners can still draw on this vision for inspiration despite budgetary constraints. The Einstein studio can also be a movable feast, a portable state of mind to be re-created around a shade tree in the spring or on a class nature walk.

Think also about visually connecting the Einstein and da Vinci studios -- one a venue for inspiration, the other a place for inspired action.

The Jamie Oliver Studio: Nourishing Mind, Body, and Spirit

Having spent some time learning from the masters of the past, whose legacy spans centuries of human history, we now turn to an unlikely hero from today's world: young English chef and entrepreneur Jamie Oliver. Using food preparation, a venerable art form, Oliver gives people a reason to celebrate a common goal -- to eat well and be healthy.

As a de facto educator, he speaks to members of the young generation about realizing their potential and making good decisions, about personal choice and real alternatives to success found in unfamiliar places far from the beaten path. But in an era that values the notion of lifelong learning, Oliver's message also resonates powerfully with other age groups.

In today's school, the Oliver studio would be a teaching kitchen connected to a cafe. With student participation as the centerpiece of its operations, it would contain a mirrored cooking station visible to the whole "class" and small, round cafe tables with comfortable chairs. Like the Einstein studio (but unlike the da Vinci studio), the Oliver studio could occupy a space with soft edges. That means it doesn't need to be defined by four walls, but might spill over into circulation areas and also onto outdoor patios. As with the other studios, the Oliver studio's design is limited only by the constraints of a particular site, the needs of the community it serves, and the imagination of its designer.

Money is a factor, of course, as it always is, but imagination is a powerful currency not often accounted for in the red and black ink of budgets. As a place for physical, emotional, and spiritual nourishment, the Oliver studio can be located so that it serves both the da Vinci and Einstein studios.

Once you begin to think of how creative thinkers actually work, the classroom as factory becomes a mere enforcer of conformity, and far more satisfying possibilities arise. Unless you have the good luck to be able to start from scratch, the trick is to adapt new design ideas into existing spaces. It's a tricky trick, but one well worth mastering.

Prakash Nair, Randall Fielding, and Jeffery Lackney are futurists and architects with Fielding Nair International, which has developed award-winning schools around the world. Write to them at prakash@designshare.com, fielding@designshare.com, and lackney@designshare.com.

Comments (12)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

John's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The illustrations I have looked at thus far do not seem to show accessible facilities. They are beautiful.

real teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too have spent much time and energy developing plans for dream classrooms. However, once you are given 40 desks to fit into the "box" and all those energetic students for each seat, the ideal of bean bag chairs isn't practical. In addition, NCLB has made art, science, nature, and history irrelevant to today's schools--that is the real tragedy. Everything boils down to a test that focuses on vocabulary and lower level thinking skills. Talk to your president if you want to move away from the factory model of education. Remember, factory workers are easier to control than a populace that can evalulate ideas, detect biases and think outside of the box.

Lisa-Gaye's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Please...I tried to locate the '18 learning modalities' on the Edutopia site, but the only link was this article! Can someone point me in the right direction? :-)

Jeff Lackney's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We are all registered architects and I personally love the smell of an old musty attic and heavy timbre ready in years time to be transformed! You might get a much much better idea of what we are talking about by visiting www/fieldingnair.com where we showcase dozens of school buildings around the world according to these very principles.

Ruben Bernardino's picture

It is sad to see how emotional baggage and unfulfilled dreams can keep the blinders on school architects and other professionals, as some of the comments appear to show here. I strongly believe we as school professionals we have the thrill, privilege and duty of upgrading our schools to keep pace with the evolution of our fast changing world and society, starting with the classroom space. I then need to commend the creativity and innovative spirit of the article authors as well as the publication, and encourage other brave souls to do the same. I find it not just narrow-minded but irresponsible to hang on to obsolete school models that risk the paramount role of education. If it was for those people who resist change and adaptation to our ever evolving reality we would still be living in caves or worse, we would have become extinct like the Eastern Island people. Yes, it is easier to deal with the known. It is hard to leave our cozy comfort zone where we believe to have everything under control and feel safe and unchallenged. It's so much harder to think outside of the box and to deal with the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of our modern reality, but guess what? There is no choice in the matter. Yes, it is the old motto: "Evolve or Die". I personally do not want to end up like the dinosaurs. Don't get me wrong. I am not opposed to valuable ancient concepts or models that have proven the passage of time like storytelling, but we need to shed the models that no longer work. I know novelty and change can be challenging. New models are never perfect but through evaluation, selection, development, refinement and ultimate validation of the emerging models we can accomplish the mission of the providing the stimulus and the environment for our students to develop as individuals and professionals. For those with an open mind I can discuss the devil in the details. Thanks for your time.

Dr Anand Kumar's picture

Specific teaching content based design will be more suitable than the conventional room with design. Reflection of the learning matter in the class is preferable for creating mindset of learning.

Dr Anand Kumar's picture

Content based arrangement of the class will reinforces learning. Pleasant furniture and the activity materials play important role in better learning.

bec's picture

I am setting my students a task of gutting and re-designing their mathematics room /science labs (there are two), as part of a mathematics assessment. I have given them various physical parameters but told them that they should not feel hindered by costs. I have had usggestions from the students about putting in a verandah to create a more conducive environment to learning and the incorporation of computer suites (we are a very low socioecconomic area and dont currently have any), movable tables, dual use areas, AV areas, specific experimental use areas. does anyone have any ideas about examples that other schools/insitutions are using that I can provide to them as examples for them to use as ideas? Photos, drawings or anythng would be useful.many of these kids have not seen a classroom that was not built before the 50's. Please email me on rarms42@eq.edu.au if you have any ideas of what might look good.

Thanks!

Raelene's picture

I think the ideas are great. But I am limited since I don't have access to all the necessary resources. Thanks anyway, my mind is stimulated.

Renee's picture

Allow me to simply add into the mix of necessities: FIRE SAFETY CODES. All of the above are very interesting and inviting ideas- but completely against the building and safety codes of most states. Are there and non-fluffy suggestions? I also beleive that suggesting that we remove walls would get us into the 'crazy' catergory with the maintenace crew.

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