December 29, 2007

"The Third Teacher"

Whenever I have taught or presented, I have wanted to understand my environment and control it, where possible, or at least adjust it to make it more conducive to learning and communication. I'm not talking about whether there's an internet connection or if the video driver in my laptop is compatible with the projector -- though those surely are important in some cases.

I'm referring to the physical attributes of the space we are in, the seats, the walls, the height of the ceiling, windows or no, ingress and egress in relation to the students / listeners and in relation to me, acoustics, ambient temperature, lighting, flooring, odors, and so on.

No, really.

I believe, and have for many years, that the physical environment is huge. I was at a meeting in Tokyo where about 800 church members met in the only space they could find large enough for their numbers. The space was a city auditorium with a capacity of 3,000 or so (my guess). The man who presided over and conducted the meeting repeatedly urged his fellow congregates to not allow the size of the hall to "defeat them." "Makanaide shinasai." "Kono kaikan no okii-sa ni makanaide onegai shimasu." "Makanaide kudasai."

The physical environment was a problem.

Around 1989, I went to UC Santa Barbara's basketball arena to listen to Bishop Desmond Tutu speak. He was passionately opposed to the Reagan administration's international policies toward South Africa. The space was packed. The energy was measured in megawatts. The anticipated impact was high amperage. The Bishop's accented speech echoed harshly against the hard surfaces of polished wood, painted steel, concrete walls, and hard plastic seats. It was simply overwhelmingly difficult to hear Tutu's words.

Great space. Great crowd. Great anticipation. Poor acoustics.

The songs, facts, experiments and methodologies I learned in sixth grade at science camp have remained with me some 35 years removed. Well, sure, counselor Sunshine was beautiful and her counterpart, Moonbeam was way cool, so they had my attention. But I have thought there was more. The five days of night hikes, day expeditions and classroom learning in the outdoors of the Los Padres National Forest above Santa Barbara were a welcomed break from the sixth grade room in the faux-adobe school I attended. The physical environment of science camp brought the curriculum to life.

The physical environment, in a building or outdoors, is "The Third Teacher."

Dr. Petersen and Professor Nickerson hosted a group of 24 honors students, mostly from the east coast, for a couple of weeks in May of this year. Through an alliance with the National Parks, they used Bryce National Park as their classroom. At least one of the students had never been outside of a large city (he was from Brooklyn, I believe). They camped and they learned. I guess it was a week at Bryce Canyon and a week at Southern Utah University. I''m vague on the facts. I am clear, however, on the passion of the professors when they told me about it. And their passion was in part a reflection of the passion and excitement for learning their visiting honor students demonstrated.

"The Third Teacher" is a book project by Bruce Mau Design, OWP/P Architects, and VS International. From their fact sheet:

Working title » The Third Teacher
Subject hook » A child’s ability to learn is influenced by the physical elements of the learning environment.
Author’s authority on subject » VS has been designing and manufacturing furniture for schools for 100 years; OWP/P has been designing and renovating school buildings for 50 years; BMD has been designing books and change for 20 years.

Dr. P and Professor Nickerson ought to contribute to the project. Here's how (again, from the fact sheet):

Want to Contribute?
If you have a spark – a story, a study, a statistic, a project, or an insight about environment and learning – to contribute to our book, or if you would like to support our undertaking in some other way, we would like to hear from you. Please contact one of the book collaborators listed below.

Elizabeth Han
111 West Washington
Suite 2100
Chicago, IL 60602
T: 312.960.8161
ehan at owpp dot com

Christine DeBrot
VS America
7368 Hyde Park Road
Whitehall, MI 49461
T: 231.893.3977
c.debrot at vs-furniture dot com

Bruce Mau Design, Inc.

Elva Rubio
36 S. Wabash Ave
Rm. 1226
Chicago, IL 60603
rubio at brucemaudesign dot com