arch-peace editorials

19 June 2010

Reflections on Schools and Schooling: Bringing Appreciative Inquiry to Ethical Design Practices

Debating the needs and concerns of special populations seems to be a preoccupation with writers, academics, and practitioners who feel and maintain a sense of responsibility in attending to those populations . A number of previous editorials in Architects for Peace addressed issues of concern to special populations or communities in hardship, like the “Victoria Bushfires” by Beatriz Maturana or like the latest editorial “Aging at Home” by Ceridwen Owen, which relates to the special requirements of aging populations and people with dementia, or my earlier editorials on post war urbanization. Building on this, I am writing this editorial to address another segment of society; Children and Teens.

Whether in nurseries, elementary or high school buildings, the educational process involves many activities that include knowledge acquisition and assimilation, testing students’ motivation and academic performance, and faculty and teachers’ productivity. These activities are complex and play a vital role in a child’s development. But, what about the environment that accommodates these activities? While many have said in the past that a good teacher can teach anywhere, a growing body of knowledge strongly suggests a direct relation between the physical environment and the teaching/learning processes and outcomes (1, 2, 3). Taking daylighting as an example, recent research accentuates that it increases the well being of students and teachers and is a major reason for recording high attendance rates. Strikingly, significant correlations between the presence of daylighting and students’ test scores have been found. This would match the visionary statement made by Louis Kahn "Without light there is no architecture."

The way in which we approach the planning, design and our overall perception of learning environments makes powerful statements about how we view education; how educational buildings are designed tells us much about how teaching and learning activities occur. How these activities are accommodated in a responsive educational environment is a critical issue that deserves special attention.

By giving hugs and kisses parents make their children feel safe and welcome as if they are going to their second homes. Literature of the past fifteen years, however, corroborates that school environments in different parts of the world are incapable of providing both students and teachers with feelings of hospitality, welcoming, and safety. In fact, in many cases they inhibit the educational process. In times of limited resources and faced with an increasing demand for students achievement and accountability, it is critically important for architects and designers to embrace the strategies and concepts that lead to the creation of environments conducive to learning. Unfortunately however, "knowing what needs to be done" does not necessarily mean "knowing how to do it"!(4)

My personal interest, acquaintance, and experience of learning environments come primarily from working with Henry Sanoff in the early nineties on a research project—funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and conducted at the School of Architecture at North Carolina State University—addressing environments for young children, in which a number of collaborative mechanisms for understanding and anatomizing the learning environment are developed, while exploring the wide variety of needs and interests that are mandated by different user types (5,6). Such an experience was further deepened by my involvement with Adams Group Architects in Charlotte, North Carolina in a research and consultancy capacity during the period between 2001 and 2004 (7,8,9). Several strategic planning projects, pre-design studies, and participatory programming and design were developed for schools in North Carolina.

Exploring the work of Adams Group, a pioneering American firm with 20 years of practice in Charlotte, North Carolina reveals a lot on "how to do it." Their work incorporates several ideologies into a collaborative design process leading to environments that foster learning - responsive environments. The purpose is to meet the needs of students and teachers, the teaching/learning processes, and the community at large. The Adams Group has developed many cost effective techniques for involving a large number of school community members in the design process since the late eighties. These techniques form the basis of several visioning sessions and workshops where the process allows for an open discussion of ideas and participants listen to each other and select the best design alternative from an array of options.

On visioning sessions, it is believed that a vision should present a picture of how the future that we intend to create might be, and that the school community must prepare and give direction to a vision (10). It is argued, and rightly so, that without these sessions architects and designers will not be able to understand and explore the educational program, teachers' attitudes, and students' capabilities, and thus will not be able to design a responsive environment. In this respect, it is crucial for designers to understand that not all students learn in the same way. With some students visual learning such as printing, pictures, signs, and instructional films, has the greatest impact. Other children learn from verbal and spoken words or kinesthetic such as acting, modeling, and constructing.

Figure 1: Ideas generated by children are an integral component of the process

The Adams Group design process often begins with interviews and walkthrough evaluation of the existing facility. This establishes the basis for an initial workshop where participants working in small groups write wish poems of their desires, free of any constraints. Special sessions are conducted with children or students based on the school type, these allow them to voice their opinion about their new school. Next, the school board and teachers and, in some cases, Parent-Teacher Association, develop a dialogue about their educational objectives, the variety of teaching methods generated from those objectives, and the types of spaces and places that would be supportive of these activities. A follow-up design workshop and a site walkthrough are conducted to explore options and design concepts, while rediscovering the site, its constraints, and realities. In these workshops the basic organization of the site and the school building(s) are discussed with consensus arrived at about the future direction to be pursued. It should be mentioned that this work has received considerable coverage and featured in the many books written by Sanoff on designing responsive school environments and community participation methods (5,10,11, 12).

One can conceive the preceding process as an important form of Appreciative Inquiry, which is a practice for approaching change from a holistic framework (13, 14). Based on the belief that human systems are made and imagined by those who live and work within them, Appreciative Inquiry leads systems to move toward the generative and creative images that reside in their most positive core — their values, visions, achievements, and best practices (15). In theory, Appreciative Inquiry is a perspective, a set of principles and beliefs about how human systems function, a departure from the past metaphor of human systems as machines. In practice, Appreciative Inquiry can be used to co-create the transformative processes and practices appropriate to the culture of a particular organization. In essence, a culture of an organization represents the practices involved and the environment that accommodates them. Contrary to problem solving where the primary focus is on what is wrong or broken, Appreciative Inquiry focuses attention on what works in an organization and on its physical environment (13). The tangible result of the inquiry process could be developed in the form of a series of statements that describe where the organization wants to be, based on the high moments of where it has been.

The assumption that a good process will by default lead to a good product can be tested. It is proven in a variety of learning environments designed by Adams Group. Four remarkable designs are selected from a wide range of projects that illustrate excellence and innovation in design. My intention here is not to compare between the projects, but to highlight how Appreciative Inquiry and the ethical architectural practices involved can lead to environments that meet users’ needs while satisfying cultural behaviors and attitudes.

Minnesota Center for Arts Education in Minneapolis, a public school and resource center was created to enhance opportunities in the visual and performing arts. The analysis of the existing campus suggested the need for new buildings while demolishing some deteriorated existing facilities because of excessive renovation costs. By implementing the participatory process, the new design of the campus master plan proposed all new developments to occur around the administrative building, which is expanded to include a new performing arts theatre, dance studios, music rehearsal hall, and technical support area. The expansion also includes science classrooms, laboratory areas, and classrooms for literary arts, social studies, and communication. A research and technology center and media arts complex has been proposed. The overall design emphasizes way-finding aspects and creates dialogues between the old and the new facilities. Sky-lit spaces have been provided to create an indoor environment that is visually pleasing and amenable to creativity in art.

Figure 2: Art students are engaged in conceiving the future of their environment

Figure 3: Minnesota Center for Arts Education

In its original condition, the First Ward Elementary School in Charlotte was a repelling learning environment to the community and the neighborhood in which it is located. It had a negative appearance because of a mismatched collection of buildings and poor landscaping, with conflicts in walk-in traffic and drop-off and pick-up areas within the campus. The design process involved several workshops where teachers and children explored future possibilities. The final AIA Award Winning project was a series of free-standing buildings proposed to transmit a positive image to the community, and the environmental courtyard was created as a hub for community activities, while offering opportunities for displaying children’s’ art work. Sculptures are installed in the yard and clay tiles are displayed on the buildings where children and teachers have sufficient opportunity to personalize their clusters. Materializing the concept of "School without Walls", the First Ward Elementary School became the heart and the focal point of the community. As an ethical practice, an evaluation procedure was conducted after occupancy, revealing a marked improvement in the morale of teachers, and many positive changes in the spirit of the students resulting from their involvement in the process. Part of this process involved interviews with parents and many of them noted that the whole campus does not look like a typical school, it became inviting!

Figure 4: First Ward Elementary School: A Community Hub

Located at the urban periphery of the city of Charlotte, Davidson community formed a vision of their new elementary school and with the help of Adams Group to accommodate that vision of an appropriate learning environment that meets the aspirations of the community. It was a positive reaction to a set of pedagogical challenges. This project won the Progressive Architecture Award since the central design concept was to translate educational objectives into a responsive solution. Team teaching, small group interaction areas and outdoor learning were all determining factors. Displaying the student work was achieved by creating an art spine connecting visual arts and media center to the classroom wings. The result of the participatory process with children and teachers was reflected in an unconventional school building where atria, skylights, bright colors, and wide hallways are emphasized. One of the most striking aspects in this project is that the building image that children desired was materialized in the final design. Again, one notices the commitment of the design team to evaluate the building after it has been occupied. The result of this procedure illustrates how collaborative design processes can be seen as a form of Appreciative Inquiry that would achieve educational objectives defined by the clients and users.

Figure 5: School building image conceived by children is reflected in the final built form

The increasing student population in the City of Guilford, North Carolina mandated the need for more learning space in Millis Elementary School. Funding was designated to offer new classrooms, resource rooms, relocated offices, upgrading of technology, and reconfiguring and adding more parking spaces. A comprehensive collaborative process has been envisioned where a major component was a Post Occupancy Evaluation procedure for the existing building, but this time acting as prelude for the development of the Architectural Program. The design team has developed a solution based on extensive research and teachers and students input in the process. Ideas that pertain to healthy environments, safe outdoor learning, parking and accessibility have been explored and developed.

The design solution was developed based on an L-shaped classroom concept, adopting the premise that direct access to outdoor green areas would positively impact learning. The solution includes a hallway that connects the existing building to the new classrooms and to the student bus loading area. L-Shape classrooms were created as physical settings that allow for flexibility, variety of seating arrangements, and provision of team teaching opportunities. All classrooms faced south since it provides the brightest levels of daylight, and offers direct access to the outdoors, fostering additional learning opportunities. The final project sensitively interacts with the surrounding built and natural context.

The design product and process both express a set of dialogues. While the product resulted from a coherent process involving a silent-hidden dialogue between the built and the natural, the old and the new, the process involves another visible dialogue between all key players in this process. The hierarchical relationships between indoor and outdoor spaces provide a dynamic teaching-learning environment, while the L-shape classrooms enhance multiple teaching methods that emphasize trans-disciplinary learning, and recognize students' different cognitive styles and special needs.

Figure 6: Teachers reactions to classroom typologies were translated
into a new type of spatial environment

A new role for the architect is palpable. On the one hand, this type of practice forms the basis for creating a new revolutionary approach for designing learning environments. I would conceive this approach through three major qualities: 1) identifying educational objectives and students and teachers needs within the environmental context in which socio-behavioral, cultural, climatic, political, and economic aspects are employed, 2) evaluating school environments in order not to repeat the same mistakes over and over again and to make adaptations and adjustments, and 3) involving the school community affected by design decisions in the process of making those decisions. On the other hand, the new architect role replaces other conventional roles architects used to play as egoists or pragmatists. It is the facilitator role; a role that goes beyond superficiality in responding to people’s needs and wants or accepting the social values as they are. It is envisaged not to solve people’s problems but to create a process that enables people to solve their own problems.

The question that remains a challenge in this context is: Have we reached the time in which this role is adopted and these practices are promoted, recognized, and generalized? I would assert that only by applying Appreciative Inquiry mechanisms alternative bright futures can be envisioned and environments that enhance learning and that foster creative teaching can be created. It is the responsibility of architects and designers for future generations.

Thanks to Henry Sanoff and Graham Adams. Their work has been indispensable in writing this editorial.

Image Credits:
All images are courtesy of Adams Group Architects, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA.

1. KNAPP, E., NOSCHIS, K, and PASALAR, C. (eds.) 2007, School Building Design and Learning Performance with a Focus on Schools in Developing Countries, Comportments, Lausanne, Switzerland.
2. SALAMA, A. M. 2004, Viewpoint: Learning Environments: Shaping and Coloring a Bright Future, Architecture+, Dubai, PP. 19-21.
3. SALAMA, A. M. 2007, Investigating the Learning Environment from Users’ Perspective, In J. Coulson, D. Schwede, and R. Tucker (eds.), Proceedings of the 41st Annual Conference of the Architectural Science Association – ANZASCA 2007, Geelong, Australia, PP. 207-214.
4. SALAMA, A. M. and ADAMS, G. 2003-a, Designing Sustainable Learning Environments: Rethinking the Missing Dimensions, CD Proceedings of Al Azhar Engineering International Conference, Al Azhar University, Cairo.
5. SANOFF, H. 1994, School Design, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.
6. SANOFF, H. 1995, Creating Environments for Young Children, College of Design, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina.
7. SALAMA, A. M. 2003, A Transformative Thinking for Designing Learning Environments, Proceedings of the Environmental Design Research Association – EDRA 33, Minneapolis, Minnesota, P. 291.
8. SALAMA, A. M. and ADAMS, G. 2003-b, Teachers Reactions to Classroom Prototypes, Proceedings of the 80th Annual International Conference of the Council for Educational Facilities Planners International-CEFPI, (September 27-30), Chicago, Illinois.
9. SALAMA, A. M. 2009, The Users in Mind: Utilizing Henry Sanoff's Methods in Investigating the Learning Environment. Open House International, Volume 34, Issue 1, Urban International Press, United Kingdom, PP. 35-44.
10. SANOFF, H. 2001, A Visioning Process for Designing Responsive Schools, National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities-NCEF, Washington, DC.
11. SANOFF, H. 2002, Schools Designed with Community Participation, National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities-NCEF, Washington, DC.
12. SANOFF, H. 2009, Research Based Design of an Elementary School, Open House International, Volume 34, Issue 1, Urban International Press, United Kingdom, PP. 9-16
13. COOPERRIDER, D. (2000). Al, Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking Human Organization, Toward a Positive Theory of Change, Stipes Publishing, Champaign, Illinois, USA. .
14. HAMMOND, S. (1998). The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, The Thin Book Publishing, Bend, Oregon, USA.
15. WATKINS, J.M. & MOHR, B. J. (2001). Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination, Jossey Bass Publishers, San Francisco, California, USA.

Ashraf M Salama
Architects for Peace, May 2010

Dr. Ashraf M. Salama is member of the editorial board of Architects for Peace. He is an architect, scholar, and professor of architecture, He is the Chair of the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning at Qatar University, has held permanent, tenured, and visiting positions in Egypt, Italy, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom. He is the chief editor of Archnet-IJAR: International Journal of Architectural Research, collaborating editor of Open House International-OHI, editorial board member of Time-Based Architecture International, and International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.


beatriz said...

Thank you Ashraf for another insightful editorial--this makes me think that we should put them all together in a publication one day.

I was thinking of what you said about "problem solving where the primary focus is on what is wrong or broken". This is also an approach used (or perceived as used) in design studio (Donald Schön). Would in you view an "Appreciative Inquiry" ("principles and beliefs about how human systems function"), be also useful in design studio?

Ashraf Salama said...

Thanks Beatriz. I am beginning to see appreciative inquiry as a good approach to design--just an approach that could stimulate discussion in the studio and perhaps becomes a basis for looking at design thinking (not necessarily design process). This can be linked to understanding sustainable systems or social systems/organization. Design students may be able to look at their design through a bio-inspired approach that appreciates system related to "Nature" or a system related to a specific segment of a "society" or a "community". So, looking at systems that work and relating them to design is an approach that deserves attention (a departure from the approach of reacting to a problem). I recall an article written by Chris Alexander in the sixties titled "Systems Generating Systems" which addresses similar thoughts. Now, there are some discussions on how can we learn from and appreciate nature by applying a bio-mimetic approach that examines biological methods/models found in nature and apply them to the design of artifacts. Same thinking applies when conducting participatory sessions or workshops with users of a school or a workplace to examine (educational-teaching/learning systems, work flow system, productivity, etc.) and what works best in their environment. I tend to see these approaches valid while representing a form of appreciative inquiry. My best, ...

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