Learning from the City

Urbanist Article September 1, 2001

Current Structure of Education

Getting America's children ready to participate in the 21st century has become one of the nation's highest priorities, with educational issues in the forefront of national debate. A growing demand for excellence and student achievement is spurring a reevaluation of the way children learn and the nature of what is taught.

At the same time that awareness grows about the critical importance of education, understanding deepens about the importance of the built environment in shaping the quality of our lives. National debate is underway about issues such as growth and sprawl, the rebirth of downtowns, the revitalization of inner city neighborhoods, the need for improved community facilities, including and especially schools, the value of sustainable development, and so on. The need for informed citizens who are ready, willing, and able to constructively participate in shaping the physical community is growing. Educating those citizens is more vital than ever.

But beyond the basic skills of literacy and math, beyond the core of basic knowledge of any given discipline, beyond job training, what do young people need to gain through education? What does our society envision for young people as they make their way through the years of schooling we require of them? What, after all, is their education about?

The state of today's education system dates back to the turn of the previous century. The traditional disciplines were established to provide structures for studying the past and the present. Almost every graduation speech invariable offers the challenge that "the future is yours." But where in school does the future get studied and experienced?

A Different Approach

A follow-up study to Boyer's report by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching called Building Connections: Enriching Learning through the Power of Architecture and Design, concluded:

We became convinced that the core elements of architectural education--learning to design within constraints, collaborative learning, and the refining of knowledge through the reflective act of design--have relevance and power far beyond the training of future architects. The basic canons of design education could be as enriching for students of all ages and interests as they are for aspiring architects, if only better known and more widely appreciated. We concluded that architectural education is really about fostering the learning habits needed for the discovery, integration, application, and sharing of knowledge over a lifetime.

Architecture is remarkably multi-disciplinary. Buildings and structures are created through the dynamic interplay of art and technology. For young people, explorations in architecture can be a wonderful catalyst for learning about subjects that are often taught in the abstract. As "architects," children use their intellectual, visual, and kinesthetic sensibilities in a new and exhilarating way. Because architecture makes connections across and within disciplines, it can be used to help students gain breadth of perspective and depth of understanding. These are invaluable aids in the process of problem solving of all kinds. More importantly, architecture and the design process can help children develop into artists and creators.

Though architecture can, and often is, taught as a separate subject, it is particularly well suited as a touchstone for teaching other disciplines. The art, science, and history of architecture can be used to teach mathematics, social sciences, history, visual arts, physical sciences, government, health, and virtually any subject. Architecture also has a strong potential role in vocational education, ranging from drafting to construction trades.

As Building Connections puts it, The creative process of design as practiced in architecture is by its nature an integrative activity that calls for knowledge from every discipline and both individual and team work to reach the goal. As such, elements of the discipline of architecture offer invaluable opportunities for teachers and students to 'pull it all together.'

Architecture can be used to teach:

  • language arts, by offering opportunities to read, write, speak, and research about architectural topics and design issues in our communities.
  • mathematics, by offering real-life, tangible, three-dimensional applications of the principles of geometry, trigonometry, algebra, and other related subjects.
  • social sciences, by allowing the exploration of how architecture through the ages has reflected, and continues to reflect, cultural values, belief systems, social needs, and economic conditions.
  • history, by examining the role of buildings in shaping human civilization and the establishment of cultures, from the ancient world to modern cities.
  • science, including engineering and physics, through the study of the physical principles of building construction; the relationship between the built and natural environments can help teach environmental sciences, as well.
  • government, by assessing the way palaces, legislatures, and other civic buildings express and accommodate the functions of government in various cultures and political systems.
  • health, by examining how our built environments can affect public health and well-being.

Teachers seeking an imaginative, interdisciplinary approach to education need look no further than architecture, which, as Boyer says, "as an expression of culture and stages of human development in different times and places, coupled with the teaching and learning methods of the design process, is possibly the single most powerful integrative tool available to educators."

Students who take part in the participatory process of architecture and design build self-discipline and self-esteem. The process of design, which relies on both group activities and individual effort, can foster personal motivation and teamwork. Critical thinking is required in the process of creating architecture as students are forced to address complex social, environmental, physical, and personal needs in the structures (literal or not) that they design. The design process itself involves gathering, analyzing, and understanding a wide array of information and then applying it to a solution, helping to strengthen problem-solving skills. And the study of architecture, by its very nature, taps artistic and spatial intelligence and enhances vital, but often neglected, imaginative skills.

The time is right to create a new kind of educational experience for school children, resulting in a citizenry properly educated to shape a new environment over the coming years. But how do we teach our children to be tomorrow's leaders? How to get children involved in real projects, utilizing the design process?

An Example

Students have a limited opportunity to gain perspective on the professional world involving the creation of projects of major public significance. Seldom are young people allowed to share in the experience of making something that affects the entire community, that places them in context, and lets them see the interrelationships among the varied players and perspectives.

The Architectural Foundation of San Francisco conducts several projects to achieve this goal. The Build Project is an educational enhancement program that meets after school. Students are invited to participate in the development of a major construction project in their community. They work side-by-side with mentors--the architects, designers, engineers, contractors, planners, and owner--on the design and construction of a significant civic project. These mentors assist the students in understanding the complexity of construction, and the wide range of issues connected with urban development. The students gain skills, such as the ability to communicate and understand ideas, collect, analyze, and organize information, identify and solve problems, understand and work within complex systems, use mathematical ideas and techniques, use technology, initiate and complete entire activities, act professionally, interact with others, learn on an ongoing basis, and take responsibility for career and life choices. In addition, the students meet weekly with a master teacher to conduct independent research. As a culminating activity, students prepare and present a report on their findings. This combination of field research and academic study makes the Build Project unique among after-school programs.

The goals of the Build Project are:

  • to provide a career mentoring opportunity for students.
  • to increase awareness about our built environment. Through exposure to the collective decision-making process and by exposing students to varied perspectives of the design and construction team, students become aware of the opportunities and responsibilities available to anyone well educated enough to ask questions.
  • to provide a discussion forum for students to explore the range of issues that influence the process of creating the physical environment.
  • to illuminate the process of creating a project of significant value to the community.

We are building a community of major long-term partnerships of design, business, and education professionals around mutually beneficial activities that assist children in understanding how the physical environment is created and allow them to become the artists and creators they were meant to be.

Why Do This?

In his conclusion to The Basic School , Ernest Boyer sums up what the "community for learning" he envisioned would develop in each student: their own sense of the sacredness of life; the knowledge that we all use symbols to relate to one another and all respond to beauty; that we all are members of groups; that we have a special ability to look around us and place ourselves in space; that work gives dignity to life and that we all consume things; that we're all part of the natural world; and finally, that, through work and service, we give meaning to our lives and that all of us need to live with purpose.

Boyer described a vision for the highest outcome of education. As part of that vision, he created a new structure for thinking about the curriculum that would liberate and inspire teachers and students to make connections constantly and naturally across and within the various disciplines.

Ernest Boyer's was one of the most eloquent voices, but certainly not the only one, calling for less fragmentation of learning. Most educators today, in some way, strive to connect their own discipline to others so that students learn to consolidate the separate pieces of their education and relate it to life.

The creative process of design as practiced in architecture is by its nature an integrative activity that calls for knowledge from every discipline and both individual and teamwork to reach the goal. As such, elements of the discipline of architecture offer invaluable opportunities for teachers and students to, as the Carnegie study says, "pull it all together." Architecture, as an expression of culture and stages of human development in different times and places, coupled with the teaching and learning methods of the design process, is possibly the single most powerful integrative tool for educators.

We strive to reach the challenge of Building Connections , which concludes that:

Most youngsters will be lifetime users of buildings, and beholders and inhabitants of the built environment. The time has come to demystify architecture, to elevate its place in the consciousness of the public and in the daily lives of communities... [Partnerships between the profession and educators] would also help make a knowledge of architecture and design what it always should have been--an essential part of liberal education for all students.Spur logo
About the Authors: Alan Sandler is the executive director of the Architectural Foundation of San Francisco.

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