Do you see what I see? Seeking the synergy between learning and place.

10th Oct 2019 • Enrichment

Over the past 12 months as International Chair of the Association for Learning Environments Phil Idle has had the opportunity to visit some exemplary learning facilities near and far. One of the events he was involved with, facilitated by the University of Melbourne, was in October 2018 where he presented a keynote address at their Transitions18 conference in Phoenix, USA. This event was one of three events, the others being in Copenhagen and Melbourne, that fed into the research project ‘Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change’ (ILETC). The full publication of the research papers presented are now available online, read Phil's piece below.


As a young architecture student, I fell in love with the rich history of the built environment, of architects who dared to dream, who created and articulated space, who challenged societal norms and developed new ways of seeing. Frank Lloyd Wright was one of those special architects who captured my imagination, who made me consider more strongly our place in the world and within the environment. Through his architecture, he developed a fluidity of space and embraced the harmonic expression of the human scale. His celebration of materials, of textures and structure, of his articulation of space with furniture around the edges, produced spaces with a soul. His designs blurred the edges of enclosure, flooding spaces with light and importantly a strong connection to nature. Here was an architect who understood the human condition, the way we hear, move and feel. He was sensitive to acoustics, sightlines, a warmth of spirit and a creativity of the mind.

In a similar way Norwegian architect, Christian Norberg-Schulz, spoke about the ‘genius loci’, the spirit of place (1980). Derived from Roman times and the belief in gods inhabiting certain places, the definition has evolved to mean for us ‘the unique, distinctive and cherished aspects of a place.’ He too argued that how we perceive spaces is grounded in nature, an understanding that drives intuitive responses as humans.

We are –

• ‘A thing among things’ – being of nature.

• ‘We use nature’ – we use, adapt, consume, create from and often abuse.

• The sun and directions of the compass ground us in nature.

• We interact and experience the environment as meaningful – we know our place, even when ignoring our responsibilities.

• We live with light and are attuned by light.

• The rhythms of day and night drive our sense of time within the place.

(Above: Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright - photo Claudia Lorusso)

As human beings, we have evolved with an acute awareness of our affinity with nature, acknowledging that the built environment - that which comes out of the natural environment - affects the way we think, feel, how we act and what we do. The currency of principles of biophilic design resonate with us as we seek to engage more with the natural environment through our experience with the design of the built environment.

During 1990, on my first major travels internationally, I purchased ‘Places of the Soul: Architecture and Environmental Design as a Healing Art’ by Christopher Day (1990), a Welsh architect and sculptor. This was a book which revealed to me the sensory nature of design and different ways of seeing and experiencing, both consciously and subconsciously, the places we create.

Day (1990) listed a number of elements in advocating for the responsibilities of architecture. These included –

• To minimise pollution and ecological damage

• To minimise biological effects to the occupants

• To be sensitive to the surroundings

• To act harmoniously with the surroundings

• To show responsibility to the human individualities who will come into contact with the building

He speaks of “responsibilities not only in the visual aesthetic sphere and through the outer senses but also to the intangible but perceptible ‘spirit of place’” (Day, 1990, p.16).

I asked myself, ‘Do I see what he sees?’

(Above: Garden by the Bay by Grant Associates - photo Yuiizaa)

Understanding how we as humans perceive a space and transform it into a place involves our cognitive processes, a three-way collaboration between mind, body and our environment (Goldhagen 2017). How we understand and interpret a space we walk into depends on the lens through which we view it. The impact of our ‘sensory, social and internally generated data’ (Goldhagen 2017, p.46) that provides a lens through which we see things is a very personal response to our built environment.

Goldhagen’s (2017) reference to embodied metaphors – things that suggest, reinforce and captivate an action sequence from us that is both cognitive and non-cognitive in response–

• Natural landscapes settle a person’s heart rate

• Bright lights stimulate creativity and bright ideas

• Closed spaces offer refuge and safety

• Expansive spaces invite exploration

• Colours can heighten and dampen emotions

• Curving surfaces suggest approach

• Straight edge surfaces suggest retreat – the idea of ‘backs to the wall’

Focusing on all our senses, of our place and interaction with the natural world, which includes people, feeds the soul. We often look at learning environments in photos and they are yelling at people - ‘I am an innovative learning environment!!!’ People think ‘wow there must be great things going on in here, it just looks that way!’ The challenge is to move beyond these superficial representations and engage in deeper learning and understanding the what, why and how of innovative learning environments. We should be seeking out a design depth, one that empowers relationships, that provides meaningful affordances for having dialogue, of resonating with the human spirit of life itself. We are not exclusive of the natural environment in the same way as we must not be isolated from the built environment. We have to move on from thinking that the visual representation of an environment, whether that be from a photograph or video, is accurately expressing the nature of things.

In a similar fashion, leadership of schools and colleges who talk the talk need to show they walk the walk. Rebadging standard classrooms into ‘learning studios’ or similar can result in a very ‘shallow expression of practice’ (Bolstadet al., 2012) that does not necessarily support more future oriented teaching and learning practices.

So is it about the shape and form? Is it about the affordances, the furniture? Is it about the teachers and students? Or do we define the learning environment by the synergy between all three? Can you have one without the other? Can you have any in isolation?

The concept of ‘dynamic learning’ (Leadbeater, 2016) challenges the jargonistic use of words such as ‘collaboration’, ‘individualised’, ‘personalised’, ‘project based’ – all valid terms of transitioning between older dichotomies to current practice, but possibly having served their purpose. Dynamic learning experiences begin to encompass all of these traits wholly or in parts. But as we experience space and respond to the cognitive clues we are confronted with, so we also see the activities and practices involved as learners as being far more dynamic than being classified.

Transitions18 provided this depth of knowledge sharing in the midst of trying to understand more how we see and use innovative learning environments, how we identify effective teaching practices within these spaces, and how we begin to develop deeper learning experiences. ‘Form follows function - that has been misunderstood.

'Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.’ Frank Lloyd Wright

Read the complete publication here.