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Design for Holistic Learning

Over the past few decades, the experience of childhood in Australia and elsewhere has been drastically reshaped by technology. The information age has reset the terms by which children learn, play, relate and communicate, whether it be institutionally or otherwise: more than anything else, the internet remains the greatest influence on modern education. Very soon, for many students in the developed world, a classroom laptop will have been made obsolete by tablets, and further, by as yet unforeseen advances. There is no doubt that such devices beget an updated style of education, a new interactive, simulated, wireless pedagogy. The accepted architectural standards – cubic stacks of classrooms and cavernous lecture theatres – continue to demonstrate their irrelevance and it is thus essential we drastically reevaluate such spaces. Broader scrutiny deserves to be put to the role of the built environment in shaping well-being and development. Indeed, much of the understanding we have about pedagogy has been the purview of educators, legislators and design professionals of the built environment for many years, but has been routinely neglected.  Although the information age has kick-started the shift in educational architecture, a thorough renovation of the principles of design for pedagogy must not only consider the technology that will feature in it, but also draw upon critical insights into childhood, learning and the full development of the human person.

A new approach to pedagogical spaces would not be wholly novel: the last century has seen various institutions experiment in flexibility, comfort, stimulation and diversity of the built form. There are many valuable examples of how to further respond to the needs of the developing mind with architecture. But a fundamental departure must be taken. Educational spaces themselves play a fundamental role in the learning process, however abstract and complex the relationship between built fabric and learning outcomes may be. Loris Malaguzzi theorised that, alongside adults and other children, the physical environment is the ‘third’ teacher, with an animating capability to produce emotional and cognitive growth. Schools are routinely assessed on test results and university admissions, however these alone are insufficient benchmarks. Outside of the family home, these institutions, and the buildings they inhabit, are how society aims to shape happy, productive and contributing members of the community. The stakes could not be higher.

Schooling typically begins about half way through a person’s first decade. The infant mind, however, graduates from its sensory motor stage into the realm of language somewhere around the age of two, leaving parents and carers to pilot this new awareness of the world. Many theorists, such as Maria Montessori, have promoted the integration of children at this stage with those slightly older, easing what is otherwise a sudden transition into formal schooling. Much has been written on the advantages of early social interactions, as well as the benefits of collaborative learning and co-constructing knowledge socially. In this early period of growth, the plastic mind of a child becomes aware of others’ perspectives and begins to learn rapidly by social interaction. The expansive gap in the supply of integrated early education, which day-care, preschool and kindergartens already strain to fill, must be thoroughly addressed by educators and legislators alike. Whilst childcare is a political goldmine, the spaces and facilities which host this critical stage of development should surely be discriminatingly designed and purpose built, with the child’s full development at the core.

Similarly, the cessation of formalised learning for young adults is also an abrupt transition from classroom to workplace. Luminary developmental theorist Lev Vygotsky wrote extensively about the role of tutors in education, particularly with regard to tackling new challenges. With restrained support, initially present to provide examples and demonstration, yet subsequently withheld to promote independence, an optimal domain of learning is achieved. Traditional scholastic spaces do not cater to such guidance, which is both occasional on the one hand and cutting edge, industry-acclimatised on the other. While the difficulty of arranging a vocational mentor relationship must be examined by government and industry, designers of technical and trade training facilities must concentrate on harnessing up to the minute industry standards and knowledge to apply in their work. The demands of pedagogical architecture are expansive as they are deep. Architects must be driven to create places that nourish students as they take their first professional steps.