Jun 13, 2019

Learning Environments as Studios for Integrated Design Education

By Anne Taylor, Ph.D.

In 1966, I took a walk on a sunny beach in Mexico with 12 children. I saw these young scavengers save shells in their t-shirts and throw others away and realized they were making critical aesthetic judgments. They loved beauty! I was looking for a dissertation topic and these 12 shell collectors inspired me. Here is how.

Prototype Learning Environment for Preschool

After a pilot study with 47 very dull, traditional classrooms in Arizona, 10 ASU architect students and I decided to design and build a prototype environment in the ASU College of Education. This was an experimental study using the developmental needs of 3-5-year-olds (Piaget) as design determinants for the ensuing environment. Programming also used concepts from subject matter disciplines imbedded into the learning environment. These were child scaled non-literal environments based on “soft pastel, soft textured, subdued sound”, “a geometric play area” and a “hard edged mirrored environment and sand and water play.”  There was a space frame table, lowerable into the central open space on a block and tackle pulley system (physics). Though stable in the experimental setting, the architecture students envisioned these modules as a series of portable environments that could be installed anywhere.

Research Results of an Experimental Setting

Except for a few dolls and trucks, all manipulatives were part of an architectonic multi-sensory embodied cognition organizing system. The locus of imagination was in the students’ “mind” with multi-sensory interaction of manipulatives. There was a control group in a traditional early childhood classroom in the College of Home Economics and we measured the same outcomes in both the experimental and control groups. The point of this experimental study was that the architecture students used design, curricular, and developmental needs (rights) of 3-5-year-olds as design determinants for each environment so that the environment became a teaching-learning manifestation of what was to be learned. Students and their instructors could turn “things into thoughts or ideas”.

Results from this study and a replication study with non-English speaking students revealed that the experimental environment showed increases in student language acquisition, accelerated movement from parallel to integrated play, advanced concept development, and creativity as measured by a scored portfolio assessment instrument.

Monte Vista-remodel of Two Old Classrooms
Ensuing research occurred with George Vlastos in two adjoining gutted classrooms at Monte Vista school in Albuquerque. The space outside had lain fallow for 50 years. A new landscape (including a solar greenhouse) and an outdoor deck were built. Students were more independent and teachers spent long hours after school writing individual lesson plans for students in a communication area (writing and literacy); science and math area; mirrored area for perception of self, theatrical makeup and costumes, drawing; sewing and weaving area; library and quiet zone; a weather station; coat storage area; deck to the outside. The green house was a student magnet for plant growth (botany) who nourished life outside of themselves. Nearly 17 years later, I received a call from one former kindergarten student, now in college, who was writing a paper on her unique experience in that early learning environment and how much it affected her life and learning.

Head Start Classroom of the Future
The Taylor-Vlastos Head Start classroom prototype combined “zones” with deployability. The values-driven design of portable environments was based on a fulcrum with a series of columns delivering electricity overhead through arched pipes. (Wireless technology could change the delivery system.) Foldout tables, which were nested, lowered out of trylon columns that could be rotated 359 degrees, transforming into deployable learning zones. A space frame “soft nest” was in the center from which all things emanated and returned. (This was compatible with the Isleta Native American pueblo of “plaza” where the experiment took place.) Students interacted with an induction cooktop, design studio with drop down light tables (a favorite), a media center with computers, headphones, and a DVD player, a mirrored zone for drawing, and creative dramatics. There was a building system and construction zone and one for growing plants. The contemporary and functional feeling of the environment interested children more than literal housekeeping corners in Head Start classrooms.

The Programming Process
The learning environments consulting expanded and involved students. Students in Stockton said, “Why are you designing us a new high school? We already have one with swimming pool, soccer and football field, fine arts center and more.” “Well,” we said, “what is it you want?” “We want a farm and an environmental study center on the San Joaquin Delta!”

The Taylor-Vlastos programming process, a grass-roots approach, a democratization of architecture, involves the philosophy of Ecosophy posited by Arne Næss from Norway. In the past, many educators as clients wrote predetermined programs for architects, with so many “teaching stations” leading to a double loaded corridor and predetermined square footage for traditional spaces. My method of programming spaces, turns Health and Safety (body), Functionality (mind), and Psychological and Aesthetic Satisfaction into Habitability sustainability. Though newer schools seem to be more colorful with wider hallways, newer furniture, the delivery system is basically still teacher centered.
Embodied Cognition Fostered by Design Education
Lately, my colleagues and I from School Zone Institute as well as the American Institute of Architects Albuquerque have been working in schools with volunteer architects that teach Architecture and Design to students K-5. 

There are studies that affirm the influence of kinesthetic exploration on embodied cognition.  Researchers found by adding kinesthetic experiences to visual and auditory impressions the quality of visual communication improved. This kind of embodied cognition is fostered by design education including drawings, models, and site analysis. Design education demands an environment and curriculum that motivates students to move around, use their large and fine motor skills. Design is the nexus for the integrated study of Science, Technology, Engineering Art/Architecture, Math (STEAM). 

The Classroom as a Studio
New models of integrated learning through design need studios connected to an adjacent “maker” lab. Everything in the studio should be on wheels. There is a supply depot in the center of the studio with printers, 3-D printers, paper cutters, pens, pencils, and more.  There is natural lighting from windows, known to increase learning. (Some teachers draw the blinds and use them for bulletin boards all year long.) If windows are placed east-west, students can track the sun on windows from season to season. There is no need for blinds. There are windows that can dim and open to the light automatically. There are drop down tables on one wall. Another wall is writable for solving math problems, drawing inventive concepts. Another wall is for pin up and presentation. Nearby stackable stools turn a presentation wall into a critique gallery. HVAC is exposed in the ceiling. The facilitator’s desk is a small station on wheels with a computer. Light tables are everywhere. There is a courtyard with a sink and a small garden for practicing landscape design by students. This is a child-centered studio where students are given power to do their own learning through design. This teacher, with goals for each child, is the monitor and facilitator of growth in traditional subjects plus Body, Mind, and Creative Spirit. This new studio gives power to children to do their own learning. 

Anne Taylor, Ph.D., Regents Professor Emerita at the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and planning as well as a distinguished professor for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture has had a 50-year career characterized by scholarship, research and   futuristic thinking about innovative learning environments and the formation of a Design Education Program, now international and translated into five languages. Taylor’s focus on integrated design curricula and studios as classrooms has turned architecture into a lens through which today’s children can study and know the built, natural and cultural environment as the order in the universe. 

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