An Essay from the Spring LSC Roundtable - University of Washington, May 2016

The central goal of all LSC Roundtables was to arrive at new questions to address in planning learning spaces for the future. Here is a "reporting-out" essay and a proposed question from a working team at one roundtable: John Danneker, Director, Odegaard Undergraduate Library – University of Washington; Donna McGee-Thompson, Head of the Student Learning Commons – Simon Fraser University; Dan Simpson, Principal – ZGF. 

How can the principal of choice be leveraged into planning and designing high-performance settings for learning?

Our discussion didn’t start with this question, but it could have. We started with discussions about students and about their experiences, then we began to think about how students might be empowered as learners if the principal of choice (which is pretty common sense) informed our planning. What does this mean?

The idea of choice is that—if more choices are available to the students and the settings are less prescriptive, an individual student can feel big, rather than small in comparison to the institution. We made a few observations about this phenomena, about ideas of building community, of creating essentially a naturalness of access. Translating that into the language of spaces, it would be to have spaces that are not intimidating. It would be those kinds of environments that can foster the idea that students can make choices about their physical environment, that they have the option for the formation of communities from within, rather than by dictation from without. 

We had a wonderful sidebar conversation about how a "choice" environment evolved on one of our campuses. Everyone thought it was successful and they set out to determine its attributes of success. One of which was that it was shabby.

Another was that it was centralized; it had a collective dimension, enabling a whole range of individual and group activities. We tried to filter that discussion through the concept of choice. We weren’t exactly disciplined in doing this, but felt as though there were some attributes of multi-functionality, adaptive, and non-institutional that were common with some of our beginning thoughts relative to the concept of choice from the students’ perspective.

We began thinking about ways to leverage this concept more intentionally and comprehensively in designing and planning learning spaces. Not quite sure how to do this, but began by translating how attributes of environments could be seen as “choice-rich” or “supportive of choice.” 

We saw that they had to do with the notion of the formation of a common ground, of a place that is “ours” not someone else’s. This related to the idea of ownership and the freedom of choice within that  field of ownership for students. An attribute of a sense of community scale, the idea of empowering not just individual choice but choice within a broader population that could take it to the next level— centrality.

Then we started to think about how prescriptive or definitive physical environments can be in their expression. Not only in terms of how they are programmed but how they are laced together with different design attributes. The idea of simplicity or plainness was potentially related to this idea of choice, as was the idea of messy. (I remember thinking as a kid that the hardware store was the best place in the world and that wasn’t just because it was full of weird stuff to discover but you could do something with that stuff.)

So we thought about learning as being messy, very hands-on. That’s the way writing happens; that’s the way research happens, learning happens. But most often in our planning what we think about too much is the end product…it has to be like this or like that. But our spaces should expose more of the process of learning—which is indeed part of the product! So the idea here is about choice; it is about potential and not so much about product.

Without any scientific process as our team worked we developed the planning principle Let it Happen. Make it Happen. 

Photo 1: University of Kansas School of Business and Innovation Center - Gensler.
Photo 2: University of Wyoming Enzi STEM Facility - Anderson Mason Dale Architects.
Photo 3: John Jay College, CUNY - Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

The potential significance of “choice” as a driver for planning into the future was one of the potential topics that evolved from the beginning conversations at the UW Roundtable, becoming the focus of two of the small working groups. Their charge was to flesh out the implications of new kinds of questions, to make the case how attention to those questions would change how planning happened and how learning happened.

Here are two “reporting-out” posters from the LSC roundtable at the University of Washington, one presented by the authors of the essay on Choice (above) and the other by a team comprised of Kristin Ambrose, Senior Associate – Ayers Saint Gross; Michel George, Associate Vice President for Facilities – Lewis and Clark College; Diane Machatka, Senior Planner, Office of University Architect, Planning & Management – University of Washington.