Learning Outside the Box

Catherine Teegarden discusses a Foundation educational program related to the adAPT NYC micro-unit competition mockup, which was installed at the Center for Architecture for the adAPT NYC press conference in July.

Tim Hayduk

Event: Outside the Classroom: Design for Experiential Learning
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.14.12
Moderator: Hettie Jordan Vilanova, Educator, formerly at Ethical Culture Fieldston School
Panelists: School as Learning Village: R. Anthony Fieldman, AIA, LEED AP, President, RAF|T Architects; Museum as Learning Environment: Marcos Stafne, Director of Education, Brooklyn Children’s Museum; City as Laboratory: Catherine Teegarden, Director of Education, Center for Architecture Foundation, and Eli Smith, Exploration Coordinator, MS 447 Explorations School
Organizer: AIANY in collaboration with the Center for Architecture Foundation

The confines of the traditional classroom, with its four walls and rows of rigid desks, do not exactly excite or inspire most students. “Educational environments often encourage exploration in younger years, but they shift to more traditional modes of learning later,” observed Hettie Jordan Vilanova, who moderated a recent panel on designing opportunities for learning outside the classroom. Programs that nurture the “whole child,” from their emotional to cognitive development and communication skills, provide unique experiences that lay the foundation for life-long learning.

Younger generations can navigate smartphones and computers more proficiently than their parents, yet their schools’ environments have yet to catch up. New models for classrooms place the student at the center of the discussion and seamlessly integrate technology. In Sweden, Vittra schools completely dematerialize the classroom and its walls, allowing students to move around or choose where to lounge with their laptops.

“The school is in the cloud – it’s not only a physical institution anymore,” said R. Anthony Fieldman, AIA, LEED AP, President and founder of RAF|T Architects. While not every classroom can be so fluid, Fieldman anticipates that the incorporation of common spaces will increasingly become standard in school design. An example is Kuwait University’s K-12 Teaching School, a project Fieldman worked on as a design principal at Perkins+Will, that will include 350,000 square feet of intensely programmed rooftop space with outdoor classrooms and gardens to serve as learning laboratories.

Beyond classrooms’ and schools’ walls, New York offers a myriad of opportunities for learning. Founded in 1899, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in Crown Heights holds the distinction as the world’s first children’s museum (there are now more than 300 in the U.S.). Marcos Stafne, director of education at the museum, explained that collections there are no longer mounted traditionally, but designed to engage kids so that learning happens while they are being entertained. “The museum is an idea of what childhood exploration needs to be,” he said.

Catherine Teegarden, director of education at the Center for Architecture Foundation, aims to infuse New York City schools’ curricula with the city’s built environment. The Center hosts monthly workshops as well as Learning By Design:NY residency programs to teach children about architecture and the urban form. At Chinatown’s P.S. 42, 2nd-graders studied bridges, including the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, and built models to learn about their structures before designing their own bridges. Another program that encourages hands-on learning and critical thinking through real-world applications is the MS 447 Explorations School. Eli Smith, the program coordinator, frequently takes students on field trips, such as walking tours of brownfields, visits to the Panorama of the City of New York at the Queens Museum of Art, and urban planning workshops at the Center.

Until classrooms better reflect schools’ ever-evolving curriculums, educational programs can fill the gap and encourage students to explore, building their confidence while developing a stronger sense of community. What better place to learn than the streets of our city?

See examples of 21st-century schools that are pushing the envelope in the exhibition “The Edgeless School: Design for Learning,” on view at the Center for Architecture through 01.19.13.