Form Follows Engagement

Like many of you, I am looking forward to the close of 2009 and the start of 2010. This past year has presented many of you with quite a few challenges, from increases in tuition costs, to decreases in investment income, to a lack of funding that forced teacher and administrator layoffs and budget cuts in areas like class size, field trips, bus transportation, deferred maintenance and facility construction. Hopefully the reports that the recession is over are correct and 2010 will be a better year for all.

Despite the negative effects of the economy, the one factor that has helped students thrive in school this past year is an increased emphasis being placed on engagement. On the college level, there is growing participation in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), an annual questionnaire by Indiana University researchers to help college assess and improve student learning. NSSE doesn’t directly measure learning, the end goal, but it does measure student engagement and research shows that students who actively participate are more likely to learn.

Engagement is fostered in many ways. It is about building connections — students to teachers, students to students, students to community. The use of technology and its integration into educational spaces encourages connection. On a personal level, technology improves communication — student to student and student to teacher. The integration of technology into the classroom also facilitates teamwork and group interaction.
The physical space also plays a role in creating an environment that supports building connections and facilitating active and collaborative learning. This past year, I was fortunate enough to serve on a number of architectural award juries. A common factor amongst the award winning facilities was flexible space that encouraged student engagement. These spaces all supported the concept of learning-centered education, were extremely flexible and included movable furniture to support unlimited teaching and learning configurations. The ability to rearrange the environment allowed students to own the space, not just occupy it.

One of my favorite quotes has always been “Form ever follows function,” coined in 1896 by American architect Louis Sullivan. But this next year, I think we should all switch to a quote I heard used by Sam Miller, a colleague of mine, “Form follows engagement.” As the economy improves and new construction begins, keep spaces that promote engagement in mind!