I want to thank Harold for his surprsing DJ-mash-up of a post I added only today. Amazing turn-around time on his part...and frankly a really inspiring post on his own site. I had been discussing a rough-draft idea of mine that was attempting to link the worlds of blogging and school design together, by a long and very circuitous route through a 15 year old's life in and out of the classroom. Essentially, I was wondering 'aloud' about a 15 year old who has access to a rich blog-voice at home (and the wide-reaching network that comes with it) but must 'give it up' when he/she reaches school each morning, turning into a passive receiver of information for the needs of the traditional educational system. This is part of what Harold wrote:
Both of my boys are in middle school and have their own blogs. One of them writes a lot, including the creation of a fantasy religion, while the other builds animations and shares them online. The eldest is learning Java on his own, via tutorials he finds online. At school they can use Google as an online library (find, access, use) during their limited time available during "computer lab". The physical library does not have any information for a report on the Avian Flu, and there is only one computer available. Access to Blogger is forbidden.
Teachers cannot teach the students how to get involved in the co-creation of knowledge because they don't have a clue. The kids live in a completely different world than school. School is fast becoming irrelevant.
Next year, our eldest son will be 15. What will he think of school then? [I think I know the answer]
Whatever false-start attempt I was making in tying the worlds of blogging and school design together was far outpaced by Harold's more personal connection. Truly.
This, of course, got me to thinking about other things, and eventually to sit down and re-tackle the blog-meets-school-design article. As some of you know, I spent well over 10 years living as a high school teacher, coaching, running 'outward bound' like programs, and loving summers as a camp counselor, but along the way a burning curiosity for architecture began to surface. I suppose in hind sight it grew out of a belief in the Socratic teaching method and a belief that the very environment of the classroom had as much of an impact on my students as any assignment or driving question I could give them. Back in '98, I was blessed to be invited to a Columbia University academic fellowship for 'promising young school leaders.' Many of my colleagues went on to great administrative roles in a range of highly selective private schools across the nation. Me, I remember instead being put on a slightly different path one afternoon after building a new Catcher in the Rye curriculum and talking with Grant Wiggins as he was sharing and writing his first chapter for his now-famous curriculum design book and process called Understanding by Design.
While it wasn't an 'architectural' term to me at the time, when I wrote 'school designer' on a notebook that summer something permanently changed for me as an educator. Something began setting in long ago and today I have the remarkable good fortune of working today with a tremendous team of architects and planners who focus on K-12 and university clients/communities. While I will never 'stamp' a drawing as a licensed architect, I consider myself blessed to have the opportunity to have a professional role within the school planning and design process as an 'adovcate' for both sides of the design process. Truth be told, the literal building shapes and structures and spaces, along the studio experience of sketching, building models, arguing on behalf of your design, were the initial reasons I knocked on an architect's door in the first place.
But beneath the fascination with the way building inspire was a growing sense that the 'conversation' was the most dynamic place of all. By that I mean that I was drawn to 'school design' as a teacher because I was driven to understand how to improve the learning spaces (called classrooms, etc) that were our home. There had to be more than 4 walls and a set of desks. But once I entered a firm as a member of the planning and design team, it became the interaction between firm and client, between architect and educator, between the district and their own community, that began to really express what I believe is truly at stake.
In the same way a 'house' and a 'home' are techncially the same structure but entirely different experiences, I'm finding that a school created out of the dynamic of an on-going collaborative process of conversations and debate and resolution is always the finer built environment, no matter how 'successful' the structural side will be. It's about ownership. It's about pride. It's about representing the larger community. And ultimately about realizing that the power and sacredness and 'home'-like feeling comes once it is embraced by those who will call it theirs.
All of this is becoming more and more tangible for me the more and more I participate in this blogging community and process. I'm reminded of working with Chris Lehman as he rigorously attempted to reframe the Science Leadership Academy spaces within his new school and we shared ideas, looked at floorplans, and discussed layouts of all shapes and sizes all via blogging (where we accidently met) and a few phone calls. I'm also reminded of the fine work he was doing up in Philly this week by bringing together various thought-leaders and educators and technology experts together for a remarkable curriculum summit, much of which is detailed on his "Practical Theory" blog each day. (Just discovered a great podcast of the event, too, which helps me feel a shade less envious for having to turn down the flight to Philly due to current projects here in Texas) It is about conversation. About sparking dialogue. About connections. About forming an unexpected community drawn together by the power of idea-sharing. And such is the same case with school design when done well. So, it's only a matter of time and a quick epiphany or two that one must consider the process of school design and the structure of blogging...and back to the attempt to conceive the original article I go.
So, here's the 2nd phase of thinking and consideration. Can blogging truly transform the way in which school designers go about their work? I think so...but, as always, feedback is the key. Otherwise, no reason to blog in the first place...
The Transformative Power of Blogging for School Design Teams
Recently, a colleague shared an article from the “AIArchitect” about the evolving impact of blogging in the design process. Entitled, “Programming Blog Offers Information-sharing Loop in Pre-Design Stage and Beyond” (12/2005), the article highlighted an innovative university client group that reframed the pre-design process by establishing a ‘blog’ in order to provide key information to competing architecture firms.
For the uninitiated, a blog is a ‘web-based log’ that acts much like a web site. The owner of the blog site creates daily or multi-daily ‘posts’ (entries) of information which are seen by the visitor in ‘reverse chronological order’ (i.e. most recent posts are seen first). Not only can the blog offer key facts and links to sources around the Internet, but the writer is suddenly in the position of being author, editorialist, and a conversation starter all in one.
Blogs are about ‘posting’ information that create interactive conversations between posters and visitors. There is no lag-time between writing and publication as is true in most magazines and web sites. What is written is immediately seen. Furthermore, while a successful website just needs content, a successful blog requires active conversation between both sides. Anything that is added to a blog is immediately available for public comment. The underlying goal of any blog, therefore, is to spark conversation.
This idea was driven home by the aforementioned article when the George Mason University’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study set out to design a new research laboratory addition. The challenge grew out of a “typically prescriptive” program created by the university in the past and the short time span available to help competing architecture firms gain insight into the end-users’ key needs and expectations. To that end, the members of the Academyof Neurosciencetook it upon themselves to create an information-sharing blog opened up to their entire academic community.
Not only was the goal to assist the architectural firms achieved, but in the process the clients enhanced the collaborative experience within their own school. The George Mason group used the blog posts and visitor comments to “bridge the gap among parties typically not communicating with one another” as is so often the case within large educational organizations due to departments and schedules. The experience minimized isolation between various professors and researchers by allowing them to have continual real-time updates throughout the design process. While concerns and differences of opinion still surfaced, there was adequate time for people to reflect, share, and come to collective compromises. In addition, when parties did interact, a viable “feedback loop” was formed that not only kept conversations within the university going, but they also provided competing architectural firms critical information for later planning processes.
Furthermore, as more and more end-users of the planned space began talking in “self-sustained feedback loops,” much of the initial work typically left to the architectural team began to take care of itself. Design ideas were offered up, challenged, reformed, and in many cases achieved consensus while the design teams prepared their bid packages. In addition, the blog became a critical database for clients and designers alike over time. The blog kept track of all key ideas and decisions with automatic time-stamps, showed evolutions of design decisions from beginning to end, and greatly increased the ‘buy-in’ factor of the client community. Finally, the blog also provided a rich benchmarking tool so that the university group could actively track key statistics related to user-participation. In essence, the ‘story’ of how the program design evolved was forever saved.
When all was said and done, the eventual design team was provided an active and fully-engaged program that showcased the entire client community’s expectations, concerns, and priorities. In addition, for the client, the use of a blog was an inexpensive tool, easy to use, and essentially self-sustaining once the process was embraced.
For clients and architects, the potential value of a blogging process becomes very striking when one begins to consider the traditional process of developing programs, engaging in schematic design charettes, and even moving through the 30-60-90-punchlist process. As anyone who works actively with school groups and district communities knows, being able to capture the full range of needs and expectations is challenging. Calling meetings of various stake-holders is time-consuming for all sides, expensive, and often incomplete. Even successful design charettes do not take into account the ever-evolving thought process that takes place over days and weeks of reflection. Sometimes it takes time for great ideas to sink in and work themselves out. And since school planning is a politically and socially hot topic for most communities, the traditional process is also firmly rooted in maintaining effective control of the process in a way that will protect the long-term goals of the educational community. This can often lead to a disconnect between intention and reality…and worst, a gap between the design team and educational leaders with the eventual community they are there to serve.
By using blogs, however, both the school district and the design team have a tool that has the promise of radically transforming the very process of pre-design for the better. For the George Mason team, the desire grew out of a need to quickly provide information to competing firms. For a design partnership including a district, an architecture firm, and even the builder, a blog could easily become a powerfully vital tool in moving towards a successful bond campaign, engaging the larger community, and ultimately gaining insight into all stake-holders’ critical needs. Blogs created to capture on-going conversations have the potential of truly transforming the way in which schools and architects reach design concensus.
In a related article (“Architecture and Blogging”, 7/05) also found on the AIA website, John Hill, AIA, stated the following: “…blogging expands the architectural community. It brings various people together in an unspoken, but shared, goal of improving our surroundings through unmediated presentation, criticism, and discussion.”
It seems difficult to challenge the far-reaching impact of such a process to continually serve school clients and their communities. Not only could blogging be a cost-effective tool for capturing much-needed information over time, but it may ultimately be a way to foster true collaboration across entire communities and throughout the design process.