Anne Taylor on How Design Education Can Transform Our Schools

Anne Taylor recently received the National AIA Collaborative and Professional Achievement Award for both her decades-long work linking architecture and education and her contributions to the architectural profession. (The other recipients include urbanist Jehn Gehl and Michael Sorkin, planner and critic.) According to the AIA, the collaborative achievement award recognizes “the excellence that results when architects work with those from outside the profession to improve the spaces where people live and work.”

A lifelong educator, Taylor is president of the School Zone Institute, which sponsors the Architecture and Children Design Education Program. She is professor emerita at the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning, as well as a distinguished Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture professor. Recently I talked to her about the award, the power of design thinking, and the beauty of stewardship.

© School Zone Institute

© School Zone Institute

Katherine Enggass: It seems to me that “collaborative” is the key word that describes your approach.

Anne Taylor: It’s true. I’m thankful to all of the people who have contributed to my efforts to empower children through a new way of thinking in our schools: design thinking. I hope that I have motivated others through the design of rich learning environments, architectural programming for schools, teacher and architect training workshops, and interdisciplinary curriculum development. None of these projects would have seen fruition without the hard work of implementation by the designers with whom I’ve collaborated. It seemed like they needed a cheerleader.

 KE: Perhaps the award gives you another platform for dissemination of your ideas. If so, what are the most important messages you want to impart to architects today?

AT: I think it took a person from outside the discipline to see the value of the problem-solving process by which architects are educated. With the help of the AIA and others, we’ve helped invent a new role for architects. It’s an explosion. It’s as if design education has been a carefully guarded secret all these years, and now we’re trying to blast it open, to unlock it as a new pedagogy. Interdisciplinary design training of architects can be appropriately adapted to serve learners PK–12 and beyond.

Despite the recent backlash to it within the rather insular design world, I’m convinced that design thinking gives us a great method for the resolution of challenges. The process has steps very similar to the scientific method: having a felt difficulty or problem to solve; making a hypothesis; gathering and analyzing relevant data; testing a series of trial solutions; making critical aesthetic judgments; and then refining the work as needed. This is an integrated, dynamic, and responsive way of thinking, an effective way to tackle problems. As Andrew Pressman says in his book Design Thinking: A Guide to Creative Problem Solving for Everyonethe skills learned by architects can extend to other realms, from politics to business to education. We can all benefit.

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© School Zone Institute

© School Zone Institute

KE: How does this work in the schools?

AT: We’re taking the architectural design studio model and applying it to the classroom. Not only in terms of process, but we also are trying to transform the static physical learning environment into a design center that supports hands-on, active, creative learning. By this I mean large horizontal work surfaces; task lighting; spaces for model building and storage for works in progress; stackable, flexible, deployable furniture (on wheels); writable presentation walls and light tables everywhere. Another idea for provisioning is a system of manipulatives and tools in the environment that have been inventoried for their developmental benefits to children. Overall, we’re moving from a teacher-centered to a student-centered environment.

KE: One important focus has been on your Architecture and Children Program (A&C). What’s the program, and how has it empowered children to do their own learning?

AT: The A&C program teaches students to use the built, natural, and cultural environment as a tool to study the world and the ideas, laws, and principles that govern it. While teaching about architecture, the program is largely invested in the process of learning through visual thinking, problem-solving, creative thought, teamwork, presentation and communication skills.

The goal of the program is to promote the use of interdisciplinary learning through architecture and design. The A&C Teachers Guide supports a poster curriculum of 14 interdisciplinary design projects tied to core curriculum standards, incorporates a hands-on learning approach, and relies on student presentations and portfolio assessment to evaluate design process and product. We’ve adapted the program to the needs of specific schools, and it has been translated into Spanish, Japanese, and Turkish, and soon Chinese and Korean.

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© School Zone Institute

KE: In your book Linking Architecture and Education, you give many examples of how architectural elements can be translated into learning opportunities. What do architects of spaces for children need to understand?

AT: Concepts and ideas can be embedded in the design details of schools and museums. Many architects I’ve collaborated with have run with this idea of the school itself as a “three-dimensional textbook.” This includes school grounds used as learning landscapes, learning from nature. A jogging path, for example, can also serve as a nature trail. Gardens can teach children about the plant life cycle, botany, and nutrition. Let’s get rid of all those chain-link fences.

In my work with architect Gaylaird Christopher, we’ve been exploring how environmental elements such as windows, doors—even HVAC systems—can be viewed as “manifestations” or cues for learning. Windows, for example, can be used to explore concepts of light and shadow, the solstice, transparency, opacity, color, tracing, and more. One teacher I know used her classroom door to illustrate principles of the door swing in architectural drawing and geometric concepts of an arc, angles, and degrees of measurement.

We also seek community involvement and celebration of local culture in our projects. At Santa Clara Pueblo, community members constructed an horno (Native American oven) and wall mural on the school playground. City walking tours can explore structures and their history, as well as geometric shapes and structural principles in buildings. Some are calling neighborhoods “urban thinkscapes.” Once you begin thinking this way, with a new awareness of your surroundings, with visual literacy—or what I call “the knowing eye”—anything can become a teaching and learning tool. It’s turning things into thoughts or ideas.

KE: What changes would you like to see in how our educational system is delivered?

AT: We’re working now to get staid or even obsolete colleges of education to include courses that integrate design thinking with subject matter disciplines, applied learning, and creative problem-solving. Create design centers for teacher professional development, so that educators experience the type of studio spaces in which we want children to learn. Expand the possibilities for viewing architects as educators and teachers as designers of the mind.

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© School Zone Institute

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KE: You’ve mentioned in the past that your ultimate goal for children is tied to a sense of stewardship. What does this mean, and what philosophies lie behind your work?

AT: By stewardship, I’m talking about knowing more about and taking care of our built, natural, and cultural environment, being caretakers of the earth. You must understand the form and function of your surroundings in order to appreciate and care for the world. Mostly, people don’t register it. I had a teacher in Seattle tell me, “You know, I’ve gone by that building all my life, and I’ve never seen it until now.”

Behind the idea of stewardship are several modes of thinking. I’ve been inspired by the systems thinking of Fritjof Capra and the “Ecosophy” espoused by Arne Naess, to name just two. Ecosophy is a philosophy of ecologically responsive design which acknowledges that we live in a complex world of interdependencies, networks, and systems. As humans, we’re a part of these holistic systems. We have a kinship with everything on the planet. Most of all I’m inspired by respect for children who are telling us to make their learning relevant. In a project with architect Steven Bingler years ago in California, students told us not to build just another high school—they wanted a farm. They told us clearly, “Make our learning real.”

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