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An alternative education beyond the wall

The wall is often overlooked in discussions of a learning environment, perhaps because they are simply there, and we’ve forgotten what anything else might look like.

We have known for a long time that architecture affects learning. Some of this is quite superficial, if we are looking at things like the effect of lighting, acoustics and ventilation on the learning environment. To be frank, getting those components right should be a given; our learners deserve nothing less. 

We are also not talking about decor. Patterns, designs and combinations that spark the synapses and fire the neurons are also pretty much mandatory in any learning environment, as far as we are concerned. 

On this occasion, our eye is drawn instead to the humble wall. Don’t worry, we are not about to advocate an alternative to walls (we quite like them for holding the roof up), but we do want to explore an alternative to what they mean.  

An alternative education and the wall within

The wall is often overlooked in discussions of a learning environment, perhaps because they are simply there, and we’ve forgotten what anything else might look like.  If we visit any number of international schools in Barcelona, for example, there are many interlocking languages, perspectives and cultures among the learners themselves, but the learning environment is segmented by plaster and brick. 

Between the calculation of speed as distance over time in mathematics, and analysing the great speeches of the 20th century in English, there is a wall. A traditional learning environment teaches us that problem solving exists behind one wall, and communication skills behind another. They are part of “subjects” and these subjects exist independently of each other. 

Walls should not dictate what is learned, but how we learn. A large open plan room is great for a noisy, collaborative project with lots of movement and energy, but not for small groups of learners taking time for creative reflection and discussion. Design thinking sessions rarely take place in bars, after all, and that’s no accident. 

We believe each room has a purpose, and that does not mean that we decide what that purpose is. In saying “this is the mathematics room”, we have already closed the door to anything else, and we have reinforced the idea that math is somehow separate from everything else. It’s not. 

No, the purpose of the room is with the needs of the learner firmly in mind, and the learner in the driving seat. If a learner wants to discuss a new idea, or reflect on the outcome of a project, they might opt for a small meeting space away from the fray. Another learner may need to sketch out a problem, to fill a wall with Post-It notes and arrows and step back to take it all in. That room also has to exist.

In any of these rooms, the focus is on what they want to do, and to achieve this, they can draw on numeracy and literacy, communication and problem solving, empathetic collaboration and the energy this brings to the room. How can they build their why if we have already answered the question for them? In a new and alternative education paradigm, a room can be a blank page in which learning communities write their own story.

An alternative education and the wall without

Imagine that day you learn the equation for calculating speed, in the “mathematics classroom” of a traditional school with rows of desks spaced evenly, to face the whiteboard. Racing your friends later down the city streets (much to the chagrin of outdoor diners), will the equation from just a few hours ago even enter your mind? Can you connect the experience of speed with what you learned ABOUT today? 

As you trip and knock the sandwich out of the clutches of a hungry patron and she rounds on you angrily, will your 90-minute analysis of rhetorical devices in the “English classroom” be available to you as you talk your way out of an unpleasant situation? 

Education and life are not separate. If we try to create a wall between what happens inside the learning environment, and what happens in “real life”, what is the point? If we focus on the “facts” rather than the skills and processes,  can learning and exploration really take place without the experience, the activation, the connection and the reflection? What kind of future do we truly want to prepare our children for?

An alternative education makes connections, not boundaries

Barcelona is the centre of our Learning Hub, but it could be anywhere, really, from Turku to Tel Aviv. The urban scape is a living, breathing space. Makers and inventors waiting to meet us. Facilities to be used and experiences to be distilled.  

From creative textiles at Studio El Born to multimedia experiences at studio Sitges, there are so many rich learning environments awaiting us.  We could never create that within our own walls, and why would we ever want to try?

Inside the learning environment, the real world takes centre stage. Far from “learning stuff we never use”, why not learn stuff by using it? Drawing on a range of skills and knowledge from different parts of our learning, means we see how things fit together. As Hebbs famously said, “neurons that fire together, wire together”. 

We can see that “subjects” are kept apart only for the convenience of administrators, and the world around us is just as much a learning environment as our rooms and hallways. 

Walls should hold the roof up, we must insist on that. Whatever else they may do, however, is really up to you. 


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