Envision a place where each person sees the connections to life and others. Envision a place where people, together, face up to distinctions between what they say and do. Envision a place where members hold a common picture and everyone commits to it. Envision a place where teams see each other as colleagues. Envision a place where we see the networks, relationships and patterns in life. These are some of the characteristics of learning environments in the new millennium.
Let us approach the planning and design of learning environments for the future by thinking about a world where we implement our best ideas of today. This is in the spirit of realizing that we create our future; it is not something that awaits discovery. The challenge lies in understanding how our best ideas come together as a whole and in a manner that will serve our communities. Rather than contemplating the impact such things as changes in technology, classroom design, new building materials or alternative project-delivery systems we will have, start with the "big picture." Once this framework is in place, these particular issues will fall into alignment.
For understanding what form our learning environments will take to best serve society, start with identifying the major issues communities face. At an Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) Program for Educational Building held in Crete in 1995, common to all participating countries were the following three issues:
-Financial constraints were requiring institutions to reconsider their fundamental role.
-Technology was changing the methods of delivery.
-All members of society required continuous education.
What is common to all three of these issues is that they go beyond the confines of the traditional educational institution-these are community issues and require a community response.
Taking direction This connection between schools and communities can take several directions. The following three possibilities are the traditional community school, the broader community of learners, and the visionary learning community.
--Community schools. The relationship between schools and communities is not new. For many years we have attempted to bridge these components of society by designing community schools. City planners developed these concepts about 100 years ago. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the idea was used to justify huge facilities. More recently, the pressure has been for these schools to deliver a wide range of community services. These include such things as social, medical, employment and family services. This connection between the community and the educational institution is an attempt to address some very social needs. Therefore, the traditional idea of school is being stretched in its effort to accommodate these functions.
--Community of learners. Another approach to embracing this change has been to move from thinking of community schools as central to their neighborhoods (citadels) to creating a community of learners. This is a community that is a good place to live, work and play, and where everyone is engaged in lifelong learning. The attributes of such a community of learners include learning for everyone, anytime, anyplace and the learning is appropriate.
The attention is on both the audience and the learning process, because learning is distributed (through technology). The more familiar examples include virtual learning organizations, such as the Western Governors University. Some existing communities are moving in this direction. These include Ithaca, N.Y., and Portland, Ore., for example. This idea also is consistent with the ideas of New Urbanism, but to date the educational practice in these communities has been very traditional.
--Learning community. An often stated (but little understood) goal in school design today is to create a "learning community." This is a community that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future; the community itself is a learner; and it is a community that responds to needs much faster than others. The attributes include:
-Developing personal mastery.
-Questioning mental models.
-Building shared vision.
-Encouraging team learning.
-Thinking in systems.
In other words, this is a community where the members know they are in this together, they really care, they do what they say, and they know they will be better off as a result. These are in addition to the attributes listed above for a community of learners. The key distinction is that a learning community is itself a learner.
Designing learning communities is a significant challenge because there are no models to follow. There are some key points to guide us. First, there needs to be powerful purpose stories (a shared, compelling vision). Learning communities are about relationships and connections between and among people and systems. Stories are metaphors that describe these relationships. What is being shared is the similarity of difference or the connections that underlie the stories. Second, there are clear, tangible, visible, shared learning outcomes for the community. Third, everyone is a learner-learning is lifelong and continuous. The physical environment for a learning community has some very clear characteristics. These include:
-The understanding that learning will happen in many places, not just a place called school.
-We need to dissolve borders among learning settings.
-These various settings need a coherent network.
-The settings need to adapt quickly.
-The design shall provide a sense of identity.
-The setting will enhance social connectivity in the community.
-The environment responds to differences in learners.
-Informal learning shall be enhanced.
-Provisions shall be made for both general and specialized studies.
Learn by example Although there are no models to guide us in the design of a true learning community, there are some projects we can learn from. First, our educational institutions need to embrace the ideas of New Urbanism. The work of Christopher Alexander at the University of Oregon, Eugene, generated some principles to guide us. The University learning village of Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium is a model at the tertiary level. The new town, Poundbury, in England demonstrates many of these ideas but falls short in engaging the educational institutions. Finally, there are several new towns in Australia that are being designed as "smart cities." An outgrowth of the MFP (Multi-Function-Polis) idea, these communities are implementing the attributes listed above.
The Australian smart cities are responding to the issues that came out of the Crete conference; the institutions for learning will be financially sustainable, there will be technology everywhere (including in the homes), and everyone, together, will find these towns as places to live, work, play and learn.
Learning in the new millennium will burst beyond the community schools of today. It will be more than everyone learning any time and any place. Both communities and their members will become learners. As planners and designers, we will move from building community schools to creating school communities.
Our places for learning will evolve from "desk-classroom-school-district" to settings of individual workstations for one person, work groups of 5 to 20 people, domains of 50 to 100, enterprises of 300 to 600, collaboratives of up to 10,000, and the global network that includes everyone.