Innovation and Education

Innovation and Education

Children are natural learners. Between birth and five years, and especially to three years, children learn at the fastest rate of their lifetime.1 The recent Symposium on Innovation in Education made a lot of us Baby Boomers feel like we were still in this “optimized phase of learning” – it was fabulous!

I had the good fortune to moderate a panel of highly articulate specialists in the field of education. It was a wonderful assortment of folks with wildly varying backgrounds. Everybody had roots as a teacher, and from those roots had grown to conquer many different areas within education. The main line of inquiry was an exploration of correlations between space and learning outcomes. In other words, how much can we architects expect to make a difference in the learning process?

We started by taking a poll of the audience, asking them to rank five attributes for their impact on learning outcomes. Far and away, “Quality of Teacher” was deemed most important. No surprise. But from an audience made up predominantly of educators, I was curious to see where they ranked “Space” … a close third. Not bad.

Source – David Reid

Donna Deeds, Executive Director of the Northland CAPS program, shared an anecdotal story about the first year of the Blue Valley CAPS program where she recently moved from. She said the program is built around the Immersion Theory of Learning – “learn it or perish”. She went on to explain that if they had had their shiny new building completed during the first year of the program’s operation, the teachers would have moved in and taught the same way they’d always taught in their respective high schools. But they didn’t. They had to wait a year for the building’s completion. As a result of this necessity, teachers taught students in “classrooms” dispersed among their corporate partners offices; Black & Veatch, Garmin, HNTB, Stowers, and the like. “This immersion in authentic, professional environments, in spaces that didn’t enable old habits to pervade, was significant in helping the teachers re-envision the way they approached teaching and learning” said Donna. Mark one point for the importance of the learning environment!


Pryor Learning Commons – Gould Evans


Dr. Stephanie DeClue brought insights to “Governance” of Learning Spaces. She is the Director of the Library at William Jewell’s Pryor Learning Commons. They’ve adopted a very light governance policy, giving the students strong ownership of the space. (Evidence of this can be seen on the Twitter #plcpassouts – the PLC is a popular place for a power nap between classes or a full-blown slumber party!) The building, which has been opened a little more than a year, has “left the poor [student] union a ghost town” according to Stephanie. It’s interesting to contrast this with the Greenlease Library at Rockhurst University where we recently installed some new furniture as part of a pilot furniture program. While some areas have been well-received, it hasn’t been in droves. Why not? Listening to Stephanie, it underscored the importance that governance and culture play on the success of student gathering spaces. Greenlease is operated by a wonderful staff, but the students’ perception of the library carries outdated paradigms about the library being a heads-down study space. Location plays a role as well – Greenlease is on the “outskirts” of the campus quad – not nearly as strong a place to “see and be seen”. We’ve always understood this phenomenon to be important, but again, may have underestimated its significance.

Dr. Jamie Basham, Associate Professor of Special Education at the University of Kansas, has centered his career focus around Universal Design for Learning (UDL). In simple terms, there’s wide variability in the way people learn. Individuals bring a huge variety of skills, needs, and interests to learning. Neuroscience reveals that these differences are as varied and unique as our DNA or fingerprints. So obviously, not one regimented learning structure works for everyone, i.e. a “rows and columns classroom” from the Henry Ford era of school design is bad; yet still popular today. I’m a visual learner; therefore I think the depiction below pretty well sums it up.


Source –


Dr. Jim Hauschildt, President and Dean at St. Luke’s College of Health Sciences, is a firm believer in constructivist models for learning. I specifically told Jim beforehand; if you don’t think space is critical for great learning, feel free to say so. His reply; “You give me a tree, and five students with a curiosity to learn, and I can be really successful in helping them learn what they need to know in a career of nursing.” But this takes time, effort, and insight to translate the often dry, data-heavy text books into contextualized learning experiences. After all, nursing graduates still have to survive the gauntlet of board exams as well as hospitals recruiting graduates with a heavy emphasis on soft skills. It’s the full package. No pressure! Nice to know the “perfect learning space” isn’t an impediment.

(Follow link for more on the Constructivist Model for Learning)

Dr. Mandi Sonnenberg, associate professor of education at Rockhurst University, spoke about two spectrums. On the challenging end, was her role as a coach for faculty that engaged with the new pilot classrooms at Rockhurst University. Mandi is a highly empathetic individual, and this gift provided great insights in how to get faculty to buy into new teaching strategies in classrooms that didn’t allow their old “stand and deliver” methods of teaching. “Faculty are vulnerable when they teach. The last thing they want is to expose themselves as not knowing how to manage their classroom while experimenting with new pedagogical approaches” explained Mandi. Through a process that enabled teachers to volunteer to teach in the model spaces, pre-class orientation, and on-going coaching and support, she helped start a “revolution” on campus – a good one! Out of the pilot program came champions that are spreading the gospel to counterparts across campus – the best way for “reluctant” faculty to learn. And they can’t wait for the new building to be complete so there are more great classrooms to choose from.

At the other end of Mandi’s spectrum is the STEAM Studio where she teaches elementary students in after school and summer enrichment programs. This is the ad-hoc “anti-classroom” located in Gould Evans’ offices in Westport. Check out our STEAM Studio here.“The fact that this space doesn’t look like a classroom unlocks latent creativity and collaborative behaviors that are very uncommon in the conventional classroom.” One more home run for the power of physical space!


  1. Women and Children’s Health Network –