Initially written as a 150 page thesis, "Learning Place" is a project that looks at the ways in which education can be more integrally related to community, public space, and nature through architectural and urban design, in order to promote interdisciplinary and place-based learning, to enhance community cohesion and resilience, and to uphold values of social and ecological justice. I am currently working to expand this project into a publishable book, and to make research and resources assembled in the project accessible and useful to a wider audience of educators, architects, students, and communities.
1: The Silos
Alienation from community and from the natural world has become pervasive in modern life, shaping much of today's society, including the spaces we live in. Disconnected from a sense of place and lacking spatial awareness, our perception of the world has become far too rooted in time and a culture of productivity. Because of this our buildings, cities, suburbs, highways, factories, and farms have increasingly been designed not for the wellbeing of people and life on earth, but as tools for the growth and efficiency of our economic system. Architect Herman Hertzberger argues that “The modernization process invariably requires that fine-grained and fine-grained networks become coarser and afford less variation.” This makes public space—and therefore, social life of a community—more sparse and uninhabitable, which “brings detachment and alienation in its wake.” Having abandoned an attention to the world around us, the very spaces we inhabit have become lonely, alienated, and alienating. There are spaces where this alienation and isolation is taken to an extreme, where buildings are explicitly designed to consolidate and isolate individuals and communities from each other and from the natural world, for the sake of efficiency. I call these spaces silos. In this chapter, I investigate the role silos have come to play in our lives, how silos are related to the history of segregation in the United States, and how the school building is a particularly impactful silo in the ways it conditions us to a siloed way of life.
2: The School
In school, students are siloed from each other, in that they are placed in age- and performance-determined bins, and American public schools, even today, remain segregated along racial and socioeconomic lines; that they are siloed from community; and they are siloed from nature, in that most children spend their school days entirely indoors, and have little opportunity to interact with the land and the forms of life that live there. Because this isolation from the “real world” is almost considered the point of school, it is among the most placeless of silos. Schools are built with almost no sense of connection to the world around them, and are often built outside of or on the periphery of a community. As we become accustomed to the siloed environment of the school, we are taught implicitly by the school building that we are meant to be in silos. Moreover, just as the school functions as a silo from the world around it, the class- room functions as a silo within the school, segregating students by age and ability, and physically manifesting the strict categorization of knowledge into “discipline” or “fields.” David Orr regrets the way in which “the contemporary curriculum continues to divide reality into a cacophony of subjects that are seldom integrated into any coherent pattern.” This curriculum teaches the world is a collection of discrete entities rather than complex, interconnected systems. In this chapter, I explore this history of how the siloed architecture of the American public schools developed, and how it is related to the history of industrialization, socioeconomics, segregation, Native American boarding schools, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Looking to the work of John Dewey, Grace Lee Boggs, bell hooks, and other educators, I examine where the root problems of the siloed school in order to identify routes forward.
Above: Four prisons and four schools.
3: The Story
To desilo schools then, we must be sure to design spaces that actively embody and facilitate more a integrated curriculum, a more humane pedagogy, and the needs students, educators, and community members. Moreover, we must focus not only on desiloing schools internally, but also on their integration with their local community and with their natural environment—or more simply, with place. After looking to various historical precedents of alternative models for education (including the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy; John Dewey's Laboratory School in Chicago; the Freedom Schools of 1964 of the American South; and the work of Maria Montessori), I look to educational theorists who proposed more place-based modes of education, which would enable a more holistic curriculum and experiential pedagogy—a fundamentally different paradigm of education. I then look to the work of the historian and philosopher Thomas Berry, who equated paradigm with story, and argued that education should be shaped around a narrative of the history of the universe as discovered through science and interpreted through the humanities, creating a more cohesive narrative of the world than our current, field-based approach to curriculum. Finally I pose the question of what kind of spaces will be needed in order to enable this more integrated and desiloed approach to education to take root.
Above: Freedom Schools.
4: The Sanctuary
In this chapter, I begin with the question of whether desiloing school is possible, and propose that in order to do so, we need to reimagine the school as a sanctuary. Rather than being space that is isolated from place, it is one where attention to place—that is, to community and to the natural and built environment—is intentionally amplified. Whereas a silo teaches us to reside, a sanctuary teaches us to dwell. I look again to the precedent of Reggio Emilia schools, and the ways in which an intentional focus on space and architecture has enabled Reggio schools to become sanctuaries of learning while also being deeply integrated to community and place. I then look to two places of learning in Ahmedabad, India — the Riverside School and the Environmental Sanitation Institute — which take different approaches to pedagogy, space, and their own missions, but which both achieve a sense of sanctuary. I argue that a sanctuary is at risk of being in some sense a silo if it does not maintain a dynamic relationship with the land and community beyond its walls, and pose the question of what the relationship between a sanctuary and a community should look like.
Above: the schools of Reggio Emilia.
5: The City
Just as real learning and growth will struggle to take root without radically reimagining learning spaces, the school as sanctuary will struggle to reach its potential without radically reconsidering how children and learning are integrated into our cities. If to learn is to dwell, to be present to place, one’s community and the natural world, then learning cannot be restrained to a siloed environment. And perhaps even more import-ant: if we wish to desilo our communities, so that are they are no longer alienated from each other by the silos, then children must not be contained to any silo, even if it is a sanctuary. In other words, to fully desilo places of learning, we cannot only focus on their interiors; we must also reimagine how these spaces are woven into the fabric of their surrounding community. We must shape ways both for children and teenagers to go out into the community to explore, to play, to serve, and to learn, and for older community members to be involved in learning spaces, both as lifelong learners and as mentors. Though the work to reimagine schools as sanctuaries for real human presence is important in ensuring that space is held for every child to learn and grow, we should also consider how we can make the city or town itself a sanctuary for community. To do so, we must ensure that children feel, and are, welcome and safe throughout their city or town. In this chapter, I look at ways to decentralize learning spaces throughout a city or town, and to relate spaces of learning more integrally to the natural world, such that we can desilo education. In particular, I examine two existing precedents: the Waldkitas — or "forest kindergartens" — in Berlin, which do not have physical buildings but rather meet in public forests and parks; and Hālau Kū Māna, a public charter in Hawaii, makes similar use of the ecosystem it is embedded in, but grounds students also in Hawaiian culture and traditional knowledge. I then argue that to enable forms of education like these on a broader school will require a reconceptualization of the city and of public space, and look at proposals from architects and urban planners both to decentralize education and to make cities more ecologically sustainable and biophilically designed. Though to do so would be a substantial undertaking, I argue that we should not be afraid to have an ambitious long-term vision while taking smaller steps forward today.