The Wonder Years

The Wonder Years

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Anne Hildenbrand
Contributed by:
Anne Hildenbrand
Lisa Lamkin
Contributed by:
Lisa Lamkin

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The Wonder Years: Nurturing Potential

A diverse group of educators, architects, and designers recently met to discuss why wonder is an essential element for creativity and how it can be nurtured at school and in the workplace.

Participants included: Don Gatzke, FAIA, professor at the University of Texas at Arlington / Oswaldo Rivera Ortiz, Assoc. AIA, Dallas ISD teacher / Lester Ortley, Garland ISD teacher / Monica Ramirez, Dallas ISD director of early learning / Megan David, territory manager at VS America / Michael Nelson, interiors manager at BRW Architects

How we learn and what we learn is important. We all learn differently.

There are so many different modes of learning. There’s the auditory learner who needs to be listening to things. There’s a kinesthetic learner who needs to be touching things because that makes a connection to the brain, and the brain’s making all these synapses and things happen. You have the visual learner who needs to see the things — and they need to see bright colors. So thinking about your multidimensional learners that you have, you have to set up those spaces for all of the learners because you don't know at what age or stage the light bulb is going to come on, they are going to connect and those students are going to understand, be able to comprehend. Their cognitive development really begins to develop very young, from birth to five — they’re like sponges with the most opportunity for building capacity.

Things that we thought were joyful and nurturing and appropriate for the early childhood learner, they’re now in the workplace because there’s something about the different kind of environments that opens up the creative spirit or perhaps creates the conversation of the adjacent possible. That makes a more creative environment because those different kinds of learners can all excel. There’s a lot of research about furniture, particularly focused on the kinesthetic learner. Many of us remember well back in the “sage on the stage” era of teaching where chairs were all equally uncomfortable — which didn't do justice to anyone, even the introverted students who were more compliant with that approach.

I think if you look at how children do homework, it’s a probably a little more illustrative. You send them home, say this is your homework for tomorrow. So they go home to an environment in which they aren't necessarily structured. So not every child’s going to go right to the kitchen table to do their homework. Some will go to the desk in their bedroom, some will end up in the living room on the floor, some will curl up on the sofa. Whatever is going to work for them that day is the mode of operation for doing homework. And I think it's the same. It should be probably heading that way in the classroom and the workplace.

We have an increasingly diversified student body. When I was young, the “dumb” kids, who didn’t fit the rigid norms, just disappeared. Our objectives are now to keep everybody in school and get them through an educational program. So that means kids on the autism spectrum, and behavioral and physical challenges. We’re talking about a much more complicated group of individuals than in the past. Even when you say, well, every kid is a little different, the “little” is really big.


Virtual experiences for young children should never replace actual kinesthetic. There's so much research about the human touch and just feeling — children feeling secure, and just the voice, some body language, everything that children are developing — the virtual experience will never replace or be as suitable.

[The virtual experience] already has replaced the kinesthetic! Because if I see a couple of 8-year-old boys out on the street in my neighborhood, I start to think something must be wrong ...

We’re worried about the future because it’s not re-creating our past and looking like our past. And a big part of that, too, is the new social and emotional learning movement. That’s sweeping the stage, sweeping across the nation that we’re now creating environments in classrooms for children who come from trauma, from homes where they’re not being nurtured, where they’re not receiving interaction. Now we have to create an actual space in the classroom to support this — the management and the development of the children who come in, who are throwing chairs across the room at four years old — we definitely see this movement happening. … At the same time, the classroom has to start becoming a place to nurture what did happen in the home from zero to five. And so those spaces are being created. We have calming corners, different pods, different circles.  That's where you learn to do conflict resolution. That's where you solve your problems. And that’s where you make friends.

The children are on the street and having conflict and those kinds of things with their friends. Lots of things are happening when children are playing. There, all of the different modes of learning are happening. There’s the kinesthetic, there’s the visual, there’s the auditory, those things are happening. But also we think about when you’re touching things, the experiences that you’re having — whether something’s hot, whether something’s cold — all of those things have a lot to do with brain development very early on. They have lot to do with cognitive development as well, which is happening while children are exploring and they’re playing. And there’s different textures happening in the classroom. So it’s not just individual play, but it’s also playing with someone else. And then there’s that camaraderie. There’s the conflict resolution. There is lots of research about the purpose of play and making it purposeful. That’s the time when you can have those conversations and you can do some higher order thinking questions. You can become very scripted, or you can be very on the surface. But if you’re not doing those things, children aren’t developing language. They’re not talking about things — they’re not.


Twentieth-century architecture was sort of the obsession with the fit of the space to the activity, the hand in the glove — you can make a very strong argument that it’s actually the loose fit, or the conflict between the environment and the activity that is the catalyst for a kind of creative inhabitation of space.”

We are seeing in certain schools that people keep, in a way, bumping up against the environment. And then they’ve got to figure out how to manipulate it in order to use it. And that becomes a kind of sense of wonder and experimentation in and of itself.

They’re shaping their environment daily, and it’s changing daily, because they might have a group project one day, or they need their retreat for 30 minutes.”

How do they react to that environment having different options — them having the choice? Are there kids that need the structure? Are they failing in these environments? Or are they figuring it out?

By nature, people are very adaptable to our environments. That’s why we’re by far the most successful in what we do is because we have to learn how to adapt. The people that are more adaptable are usually more successful. So I think people will function in whatever space you give them. But why not give them a space where they can be better? And feel better? Because if I’m in a space where I’m miserable, yes, I can cope and I can produce something, but I could produce it so much better if I actually enjoyed the space. How can we make this space better for learners? … How do we make it adaptable, flexible, bringing in natural light — there’s so many things we can do.


Maybe it’s not so much the environment, it’s not so much the layout, but it’s the people leading. You can have a space that is great, but if the teacher or the curriculum or the leadership is  not utilizing it in the way it was designed for, or not creating those conditions where that friction creates wonder, then it is a waste of time.

We don’t stop learning when we enter the workforce.  Teaching has evolved: In lieu of teaching subject matter, we give them the tools to learn. … Teaching a student how to learn, providing a space for them to explore that simple notion of how we acquire information, I think, is a critical role of being a teacher today.

Employers are looking for people who can solve problems, not people who just know how to do math – that’s a calculator.

But the people you are describing can also do the math. … We talk about living in an interdisciplinary world in which boundaries of knowledge are not in silos and not divided up, and we’ve got to teach interdisciplinary. But before you could have interdisciplines, you have to have disciplines. … You put eight people in a room, all of whom know nothing or know the same thing, you’re not going to get genius out of it. It’s when you put eight different people who know eight different things that then something interesting might come out of it.

I think that with project-based learning — bringing students together so that they understand that they have a role gives them purpose, gives them importance, gives them a sense of wonder. … I have noticed that I am a better teacher because of the environment that I’m in. And so it is not just simply that the environment can help the student, but it can help the teacher. … I noticed in this environment that there is more collaboration, there is more exploration – including my own exploration as a teacher.”

Many students are struggling because they don’t understand the protocols. I had a professor in an architecture school that gave me a quote once. He said: Often we're given limits and we seek freedom. But more often, we’re given freedom and we seek the limits. And for some of our students, that’s really true. They need those boundaries, they need those bumpers. And I think maybe I should say for the whole school, I am struggling, and a creative environment for that. My first experience of being able to control my environment was in architecture school where I was given a desk. And I was given a desk next to someone else. And that desk taught me socialization, it taught me a lot of things because I had to work with my neighbors and we shared ideas. Finding that freedom at 11th or 12th grade, I’m not sure that they all have the maturity to handle that responsibility.

Or is it because we’re hybrids? With a foot in each camp?

We’ve set up an environment that has restrictions, but with liberties or with freedom. Because it’s kind of a choice where they want to go to the centers. But the teacher plays a really big role in facilitating that and scaffolding for their learners on a daily basis, because a student may come in one day and work really well in this, doing and touching. And then the next day, you just want to be alone. They don't want to be with the other kids. Things are happening in their lives that every day are different. So we do a lot of teacher training with the group setup. It’s not just you set up and come in because we’ve also had to switch some of our schools for the flex spacing where they can sit on the floor, and the teacher comes in and says, “I can’t teach with this furniture.” And it’s because their mindset is very traditional and they don’t have any formal training on how to make these flex spaces work for their students. What we see a lot is really interesting in our pre-K is that by about December, these students are pretty much running the classroom, the teacher’s facilitating. They know where to go. They know where to move their nameplate. It’s very much choice-based in our pre-K classrooms. Across the hall in a kindergarten classroom, nobody’s moving for most of the day. So you go from a choice area — give them these opportunities to become independent — and then you move into a very restricted place. Maybe they move across town to a personalized learning school. It looks a lot different. Or to tech school itself. When you get them all in high school, they probably had many different experiences. So adapting to one or the other, there’s just lots of back and forth with them, but it’s confusing for the student to go from one environment to another environment.

Are the pre-K students the new normal? Are they going to take over kindergarten at some point? I think it’s very challenging for the students to be present and to listen to learn when they’re stressed out by trying to figure out, ‘How am I going to learn in this environment? Or how am I going to learn this way when last year was so different?’

The sense of students being in competition with each other, I think, is almost completely gone. They do see it as they’re in an experience together and that they can achieve more if they’re doing it collaboratively. I think there is far more recognition of the difference of people and that gender, culture, ethnicity, learning disabilities, students as a whole.

Now, as things have moved on to the computer and everything is in the magic box, and it moves with the students from home to the studio space that is actually not the same. It’s physically the same. We’re making it work. I think there could be lots of improvements in it, but it’s not being used the same way. And none of the students do anything, you know, to enhance their space, or, you know, the shanty towns are gone.

But I think that’s absolutely true in the workplace, too. It needs to take time, because of the people who have feet in both camps, but with the laptops, probably 80% of our workforce, are very portable. You can pick it up and move it anywhere. That is true in the workspace also, the physical office is not as personalized.

Virtual experience is already there, right? It gives you that exploration in real time, or, you know, you can do a conference with Africa and plan with them there. Does this mean that education will have a element? Personalization of the team experience through virtual tools?

It has already changed. Look at the tool throughout human history. The tools we have chosen to pick up and use and favor have shaped our culture in our environment. It’s just different tools.

There’s something irreplaceable about the real experience, the wonder and surprise that, we as humans strive for, can’t be created for the virtualization of that experience.

If I let my imagination run with me on this, we end up with a very different set of architectural principles, underlying design of most everything we do. And if you put that together with some of the changes in technology that are going to come, we’re going to grow buildings, buildings are going to become biological, they’re going to become biomorphic. They’re going to become genetically constructed and epigenetic, where they will respond, because that has almost nothing to do with certainly the architectural principles that I learned — the simplification and minimalization of 20th-century modern architecture.


The comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Lisa Lamkin, FAIA is principal at BRW Architects.
Anne Hildenbrand, AIA, ALEP is associate principal at BRW Architects.