Designing for How We Learn: How We Got Here
Learning today is a round-the-clock activity. Learners have easy access both to information and to the technology and tools to get it. My college-age daughter can get the answer to any question she wants almost quicker than I can think of how to ask it. Even as a Baby Boomer, I am getting pretty quick at that myself. And we can be at home in our pajamas while doing it.
Does the Physical Classroom Still Matter?
Today, nearly every university is offering a plethora of on-line courses, blended and flipped curriculum and distance learning scenarios. While there was initial skepticism related to the quality of some online programs, such as massive online open courses (MOOCs), more sophisticated programs are now emerging. At Georgia Tech, you can get an online undergraduate degree in computer science for $7000.1 “Competency-based” degrees, where students advance based on demonstrated mastery of skills or retention of knowledge instead of time spent with the course materials, are quickly gaining traction – with around 600 institutions (including community colleges and baccalaureate, comprehensive and research colleges and universities) considering implementing programs such as these in the near future.2 This model calls fundamental concepts such as “credit hours” into question.
So what makes it worth it to physically attend a university, or even a class anymore, anyway? Design professionals, as well as university facility professionals, need to wake up to a sobering reality: many of the variables that impact learning have changed dramatically, and learning environments must change too.
It’s not solely that the way we learn has changed over time; on the contrary, the human brain has not really changed in its physical or biochemical makeup from Neanderthal times. However, ninety percent of what neuroscientists have figured out about how people learn has been discovered in the last twenty years. We need to create learning environments that respond both to the myriad of variables influencing how we learn and the new understanding we have about how learning happens.
Foundational Research on the Science of Learning
In 2000, a report called How People Learn was published by the National Academies Press, the result of research into the science of learning and how to translate those findings into effective practice in the classroom.3 While an update to this report is anticipated in 2017, the initial findings transformed the thinking of educators about what they should be doing to teach effectively. There were three basic principles:
- Students do not come into the classroom as a “blank slate.” They have (right or wrong) preconceptions about the world, and their initial understanding affects their mastery of everything after it. The effective teacher must elicit this initial understanding, straighten out misconceptions if they exist, and then build on that understanding.
- Learning a collection of facts is not enough. To develop competence, students must not only have factual knowledge; they must understand these facts within a conceptual framework, and they must organize this knowledge in ways that allow them to retrieve it in other contexts.
- Students need to be taught a “metacognitive” approach to their own learning, so they can become successful monitors of their own learning and thus, hopefully, life-long learners. They need to recognize when they have a grasp of their target knowledge and when more information is required, whether the new information is consistent with what they already know, and what analogies can be drawn that help deepen understanding.
How People Learn advanced a revolutionary insistence that the simple delivery of lectures, full of facts and material to memorize, was not a successful mode of teaching. The book advocated that teachers could “choose more purposefully among techniques to accomplish specific goals.” These techniques included Lecture Based, Skills Based, Inquiry Based, Individual vs. Group and Technology Enhanced.
At that time, these were seen as separate tools that an instructor could pick from, depending on the subject matter and mastery. Now we tend to think that a successful learning environment provides the capability to do any one of the five separately or blend any number of them within the same class period. For that to be possible, the classroom of the future has to look very different than the classroom of the past.
Additional research into how people learn4 has delivered a few points of note:
- Learning is about making connections.
- Learning is developmental; it is about fitting in the new information with what one already has, about adjusting any misconceptions and moving on.
- Learning is an active search for meaning, constructing one’s own knowledge rather than passively receiving it
Moving Beyond Four-Walled Classrooms with Tablet Armchairs
If we accept the above premises, and we look at the methods noted in How People Learn, it becomes clear why four-walled classrooms with tablet armchairs facing the front do not form the most progressive learning environment.
Today, since students have such easy and broad access to “information,” a teacher cannot simply be a supplier of information. Gone are the days when the faculty member did not feel successful unless half the class had dropped the course during the first week. He has to be a guide; he has to teach the student the “metacognitive” model described earlier. In addition to presenting students with the initial concepts, the teacher has to help them understand when they’ve “got it” and when they need to go further, how these new concepts fit in with what they already know, and how new concepts can be applied to new situations. The classroom or laboratory environment has to contribute to the student experience, not hinder it. And that is where we, as designers, come in.
In this article series, I’ll outline how our learning environments can enhance this not so new normal of how students learn by using a simple mantra: See. Hear. Do. Remember. And I’ll look at how we should apply it to environments such as classrooms, auditoriums, and laboratories.
- Carey, K. (2016, September 28). An online education breakthrough? A Master's degree for a mere $7,000. New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/29/upshot/an-online-education-breakthro…
- Public Agenda. (2015). A research brief on the survey on the shared design elements & emerging practices of competency-based education programs.
- National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded edition. National Academies Press.
- Scott-Webber, L. (2004). In sync: Environmental behavior research and the design of learning spaces. Society for College and University Planning.