“Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.” – Caine and Caine, 2000
Who challenges us? When thinking about education, the immediate answer that comes to mind is our teachers. College professors share knowledge with us and ask us to develop our skills.
But outside of the classroom it isn’t the figure of a teacher that challenges us. In the social context the drive to change more often comes from our peers. It isn’t the authority figures we compare ourselves to; what matters to us is how well we’re doing compared with others at our level.
So it is in higher education. Most students seek a degree of mastery that will at least keep them up to speed with their peers. In other words, friendship is often a more important vehicle to student success than instruction.
This is where design comes in, because research dating as far back as the 1940s tells us that environment actually drives friendship. Psychologists have found that friendships did not form on the basis of common values, beliefs and attitudes as one might think. Friendships more often form based on simple proximity.
Decades later, Google’s New York campus strives to encourage strong working relationships by design. The campus is full of high-traffic and common areas – many of which offer food to draw workers – that encourage “accidental” interactions.
As it is for workers in the business world, so it is with students. Learning happens when students are not only encouraged to come together collaboratively but in environments that feel safe and socially comfortable.
You accomplish this by incorporating informal learning spaces into the design of higher ed buildings. What does this look like?
- Enough open space in high-traffic areas for seating to facilitate impromptu conversation
- Open three-walled alcoves to facilitate more focused discussion off of high-traffic areas
- Circular or multi-access work/study hubs that serve as common meeting points
- Multi-use private meeting rooms that feel more like lounges to encourage comfortable dialogue
When we recognize that we are social animals motivated to learn and grow by our peers, that we learn best when we are comfortable and worst in anxiety-inducing environments, informal learning spaces are the inevitable result. It’s time for all our American universities to apply the wisdom gleaned from the last century to meet the needs of students in this one.