by Peter G. Bachmann
The kindergarten classroom is the first place many of us were exposed to a structured learning environment. My first classroom had a reading corner, a corner for messy play with sand or water, and an area for napping. This defined workspace contained nearly everything required for a fully integrated, interdisciplinary education. Many years later, when I showed up for my first day of work as an architect, everything I needed for an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to my work was there: my desk as a place to concentrate, a model shop for creative development, tables strategically located to provide a space for group discussions, and a coffee machine and water cooler where I could practice social skills.
What I found at work was a world remarkably similar to my kindergarten classroom. The interesting thing about this connection was that it ran counter to my experience of physical and instructional differentiation that occurred as I left kindergarten and progressed through primary, secondary, and post-secondary education. It was curious that as I began my career as a professional, I found myself back in a setting that encouraged collaboration, shared experiences, and an integrated approach to accomplishing a variety of tasks.
There is a distinct dis-integration of disciplines by subject matter that begins after leaving kindergarten. By the time we reach post-secondary education, not only do we move into different rooms, but also different buildings on campus. Ironically, operating in silos runs counter to the skills required of each of us to flourish in the modern working world.
Corporate America long ago discovered that the financial bottom line is enhanced by providing a flexible workplace that increases collaboration, communication, and opportunities for interdisciplinary interaction (think Bloomberg). In suggesting that our schools could reflect similar bottom-line thinking — with the corresponding currency being student success in acquiring 21st-century skills — quizzical stares of the past are now giving way to nodding heads and a desire to hear more.
The tide is clearly turning. Primary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions are seeing value in providing spaces that support community building, interaction, collaboration, creative expression, and cross-disciplinary opportunities. There is a continuum of architectural solutions converging around this discussion: For the introvert, we create private areas designed for concentration; for the development of interpersonal skills, we create soft seating areas that support dialogue and group work; for project-based learning, we provide strong, lightweight furniture that will reposition easily; for integration of subjects, we create a learning commons; for immediate access to information, we integrate technology throughout the environment. This approach to making facilities agile allows students and teachers to adapt their environment to meet the needs of the curriculum and the tasks required for that day, that student, or that topic.
School libraries illustrate these principles. By definition, the library is the interdisciplinary hub of a school or institution — a neutral place that is not aligned with a specific department and is in the business of providing access to information and making connections. These learning commons have become rich and decidedly vibrant environments, liberated by the digital age and more social in response to the contemporary bookstore/café culture. It features lower stacks that hold vastly decreased collections, flex rooms, maker spaces, high-top and community tables, repositionable furniture, standup computer kiosks, and movable tables and chairs. As a young child, the town or school held many treasures. Now, we are seeing how the school library can become a place to rediscover the wonder of learning and interpersonal connections.
Whether there is an interdisciplinary curriculum such as STEM/STEAM or a desire to integrate multiple settings within an overall space, these experiences are much like what is expected and required in our modern work environment. Early childhood educators and profit-driven corporations have long understood the value of space that supports integration. Now the door is wide open for space to support the process throughout the rest of the educational continuum.