Monday, January 2, 2012

Form Follows Function in Education (Part I): Rearranging the Media Center

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,Of all things physical and metaphysical,Of all things human and all things super-human,Of all true manifestations of the head,Of the heart, of the soul,That the life is recognizable in its expression,That form ever follows function. This is the law.[2]
     - Louis Sullivan, “The Tall Building Artistically Considered” (thx Wikipedia)

The above article was written at a time in architecture when the old rules were no longer providing adequate usefulness in the design of a building. Sullivan, inspired by his mentor Wright, adopted this maxim as universal, but in our everyday life, it is not being applied that way. In 1896, the challenge was to ask what would influence the design of a building if tradition was not the template to use? The answer was to shape the building so that it maximized its purpose:

FORM (the shape and design) follows FUNCTION (the purpose) as opposed to the tradition (what came before).

This has been going through my head A LOT this past year as I consider education on big scales and little ones. It has been combined with a corollary that I have, at least in my mind, always attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright: FORM can influence FUNCTION.

A simple illustration: my daughter finally got the skateboard that she had been asking for and spent an entire afternoon with her sisters wearing pads and learning the basics. One day later, after getting ready (a process when factoring in knee and elbow pads, wrist guards, and a helmet) and riding to the park that served as her practice rink (with baby-sister-in-wagon-in-tow) , she was finished in 10 minutes and asking to go home. What had changed her basic desire to skate, her FUNCTION? The weather (FORM) had dropped to near freezing. The structural design had changed so much that it quelled her desire.
Skateboarding: Day 1

I submit that the same is true in education:

Consideration One: The Media Center:

As we prepare to welcome students back from a long deserved break, they will be returning to a library that is the same in size, shape, and furnishing with a few significant differences. We switched the place that held the study carrels with the place that had tables more designed for quiet group work. We removed some of the seating to increase space between the tables.

Libraries are multi-use spaces. There is a need for quiet study and a need for collaboration which occurs amidst the traffic to find books and resources. The same space in which a librarian presents to a class the topic of effective information filtering techniques is being used by students on a break to find and begin reading HUNGER GAMES before the movie comes out. it is a place that is almost the definition of chaotic. And yet, effective libraries are places of order.

Compound this issue with library space that was designed for a school population of around 500 (the school currently has almost 800 students). Increase the pressure by making it a space that was built before collaborative learning was the norm (no small conference rooms) and has been adapted to hold computers and other technology (further reducing multi-use space and creating new traffic patterns). Tensions among students and the library staff had risen a point where neither group was happy and the gains in increasing library use and function in the school were threatened by the sheer number of patrons.

And so we took a step back. We watched how the library was being used. What sections of the library were most likely to become pockets of distraction. Where were students policing themselves and what was the difference?

Ultimately, the changes we made followed a few basic patterns and rules:

Increased space between tables, place away from "quiet zone"
Put places where students were likely to talk in areas that were already high traffic and less conducive to quiet study. In our case this mean placing the group study tables near the computer carts that constantly have a come-and-go traffic pattern. It also placed the laptops nearest to the tables where they were likely to be used the most.

Study carrels were moved farthest away from the entrance 
Keep the most quiet places (the study carrels away from the entrance of the library (it was fascinating to watch students speak at full-volume at the door to the library and gradually quiet down as they went deeper inside. We spent one day quieting students 20 feet from the entrance and watching the impact it made on the overall tone of the library: impressive).

The original "Collaborative Spaces" created in 2010
Separate areas of talking. Noise begets noise. If a group of four students are placed next to another group of four students, they will naturally increase the volume to talk over the white-noise of the other table. The result is dueling volume increases that destroys the collaboration of both tables and others. Putting a plant,a bookshelf or even enough space can keep each pocket isolated enough to continue whispering.

Will these efforts be successful? We are hopeful. We are working to communicate the reasons behind the changes openly and honestly and solicit feedback from the students, who are the main patrons of the space.

The biggest change of all though is one of mindset. We broke from tradition (those study carrels had been in the same place for over 15 years) and instead asked ourselves how the design of the library could best influence the multiple functions that happen within the space.

Had your own experience of FORM and FUNCTION? 
Feel free to drop a comment, share the page, or tweet me at @jdferries. 
Feedback is always appreciated. 

In the next post, I’m going to try to apply the same concept to some more abstract parts of education: Flipped classrooms and Social Media.