Learning Spaces and 21st Century Skills

Take a look at this fascinating graphic (click on the link, it’s a pdf):

A Fabric of Learning in Spaces 2013
(developed by the architecture firm SRG and  Jeanne Narum of the Learning Spaces Collaboratory)

At the left, you’ll see a list of 21st century skills, including Adaptability, Collaboration, and Innovation.

At the top, you’ll see a list of various types of physical spaces that are found on college campuses.

The content of the graphic shows to what extent each skill is fostered in each type of space. There is so much rich information here, but the first thing to notice is that “Traditional Classrooms” do the least to foster these skills. And “Tiered Classrooms” (like you find in a business school) aren’t much better.

So what do you think the college campus of the future should look like? What will we do with all of those lecture halls? After all, if this graphic is correct, then why wouldn’t we “flip” all classrooms and have all lectures videotaped and delivered over the Internet?

(Also check out my previous posts “The Future of College” and “Will the Internet transform college?”)

Designing Spaces for Creativity

I’ve just spent two stimulating days with a small group of architects, university professors, and creativity researchers, at a beautiful old lakeside estate called Marigold Lodge, in Western Michigan. Our goal: To collect everything we know about how to design spaces that maximize learning and foster creativity. With funding from the Sloan Foundation and from the legendary furniture company Herman Miller (which now owns Marigold Lodge), our task is to write a report that will advise university administrations and architecture firms, to guide how new university buildings are designed.

The good news: Very quickly, we came to a consensus. Our group includes artists, furniture designers, architects, musicians, and psychologists. And even with all of that diversity, we agreed on the underlying features of creative learning spaces:

  • Spaces that are flexible, adaptable, and reconfigurable by the users: students and faculty
  • Shared spaces that foster connections and conversations, both planned and unplanned. This means rethinking hallways, lobbies, and stairways, so that they aren’t just places to pass through, but places where collaboration and learning happens
  • Spaces that inspire
  • Spaces that make it easy to create things–with materials, sketches, whiteboards–wherever you are, without having to go to some other space to be creative

Jeanne Narum, the lead organizer of this meeting, and Principal of the Learning Spaces Collaboratory, showed us a series of case studies of recent university buildings that show us this current consensus (check out the links here).

The bad news: A lot of universities are still creating new buildings that don’t look anything like this. Instead of shared space and room for collaboration, they have long hallways with separate offices for each professor. (My own office is in such a building; check out my 2008 post “The Architecture of Solitude.”)

After three days with this amazing group of experts, I’m optimistic. But on many campuses, designing for creativity and collaboration will require a culture shift, among the faculty and the students. They need to be convinced that these spaces will make their work life more fulfilling, enhance their learning, and increase the quality of their research.

Architects of Group Genius

I’ve recently been in touch with an Italian architecture firm called “Architects of Group Genius”…I was intrigued by their name, because my book’s title is Group Genius.  If you visit their web site, you’ll see that they design spaces to foster maximum collaboration and innovation.  As they say, “Innovation, Change, Learning and Collaboration, and the blurred boundaries between them, underlie all the work we do.”

My contact there is Maurizio Travaglini, and today I received in the mail a customized Moleskine notebook with KRE-AT09 embossed on the front.  The notebook remains mostly empty but has a few quotations printed inside, including this one from my book:

We’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changes the world. But the lone genius is a myth; instead, it’s group genius that generates breakthrough innovation. When we collaborate, creativity unfolds across people; the sparks fly faster, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Keep up the good work, Architectz, and I wish you the best in 2009!

The Architecture of Solitude

The big news this week is that my department has moved to a new building on our campus. If you have read my book GROUP GENIUS, you know that I have quite a bit to say about building architecture and office design (for example, see my post “The building that threw up on itself”). What kinds of offices foster creativity and collaboration? They are offices that support flexible work arrangements and frequent spontaneous reconfigurations, of people, furniture, walls, and cubicles. In innovative organizations, you find a blend of solo work, work in pairs, and collaborative teams. But most of today’s offices are designed to support only one kind of work: solitary work, alone in an office (or a cubicle). In innovative organizations, people are always moving around, bumping unexpectedly into others, and stopping for a few minutes to chat. Offices that support these natural connections have chairs and tables in the hallways or near the stairways, to make such conversations easier.

Space for solitary work
Space for solitary work

But there’s a problem. In a typical organization, everyone wants a private office. A bigger office is even better. And once the architects have finished giving everyone what they want–a nice private office–there’s no room left over for anything else other than halls and stairways to take them from the front door to their office. And that’s exactly what’s happened in my new building. I love my own office, and I’m sure everyone else does, too.

Space for collaboration
Space for collaboration

But there are no spaces to foster collaboration–no nooks in the hallways, no reconfigurable furniture or walls. We have a lounge with the coffee machine and frig, which is nice; and another function room which is very nice (but I wonder if it will be locked and require administrative approval to use?). But these spaces do not support spontaneous conversation and collaboration.

I have often said that university bureaucracies don’t look anything like the most innovative organizations. And when you walk inside most any university office building, you’ll see this right away: when you look down a long corridor and see a row of office doors running down each side. The challenge is: How can we convince everyone–employees, managers, and architects–to change their expectations and see the benefits of a new office design paradigm?

(Note: both photos in this post were taken while I was standing in the same spot, at the head of our new office hallway.)