Thursday, 3 March 2011

Should human instinct be considered in the learning space design process?

I have for some time believed that modern human kind is neglecting its instincts in all sorts of ways.
Below is a list of instincts taken from:
James Rowland Angell. "The Important Human Instincts", Chapter 16 in Psychology: An Introductory Study of the Structure and Function of Human Conscious, Third edition, revised. New York: Henry Holt and Company, (1906): 294-309

List of Human Instincts.-- Waiving, then, the question of the order of appearance, we find the generally recognised instincts in man to be as follows: Fear, anger, shyness, curiosity, affection, sexual love, jealousy and envy, rivalry, sociability, sympathy, modesty ( ?), play, imitation, constructiveness, secretiveness, and acquisitiveness.

My questions are should these instincts, or at least some of them, be considered during the design process?
Is it possible to address the issues raised  if the answer to the question above is yes?

It was interesting that pupils at St Columba's stated that not having someone behind them and being face to face on the new  tables was one of the best things of the new layout.
Is this instinctive? You tell me.


  1. Nigel...thank you for posting this blog and inviting me to participate. I now look forward to checking it each morning over coffee, and to echo Peter's sentiments, in our Student Affairs Division at UVA, I'm really the only person who thinks about space beyond its functional utility and considers it an important tool in our toolbox. It is wonderful to have a (virtual) space for this collegial and instructive dialogue. Do most of us work in isolation? Strange given the focus of the work.

    I have always enjoyed our conversations (debates?) about the term flexible and your outspoken disdain for the word. In my opinion I think we are moving past the "flexibility" trend, efforts to create spaces intended to be the everything to everyone and then ending up with an end-product that is not great for any purpose, but mediocre in supporting a handful of purposes.

    I was guilty of this mindset a few years ago when we had an opportunity to create a small "black box" theater space for student performance clubs at UVA. We were limited by size and ceiling height, and at the time, what the student groups needed more than anything else was a great rehearsal space. While it can be difficult for the groups at UVA to find space to perform, they can usually find a spot to stage their productions without too much trouble. On the other hand, it is almost impossible for the groups to find spaces that are consistently available for regular rehearsals. Rather than creating a GREAT rehearsal space, we attempted to create a performance/rehearsal space. As it now exists, the space does not work for performance but it is a well-used, solid rehearsal space. It is over-equipped for rehearsals and the money spend on the extra equipment required to support performance could have been better allocated elsewhere. I succumbed to the pressure to attempt to accomplish too much in a space that in retrospect I can see had serious inherent, physical limitations. I should have accepted this fact during design, I knew it intuitively but didn't listen to my gut and instead attempted to achieve the impossible.

    It has been interesting to engage in our current student center renovation project with a mindset that we will create a collection of individual spaces to serve well defined purposes. I spent a good deal of time writing descriptive program statements for each space and provided them to the architect during the feasibility study and design processes, we then worked collaboratively on how to use common spaces, passageways, exteriors, etc. to bring some coherence to the building. We talked a lot about creating an "experience" and "pathways." We are striving to create a collection of GREAT, purposeful individual spaces that when combined offer the visitor/user a memorable experience.

    I'd suggest that when we receive approval and funding to create a new learning space rather than buckling down with an intense focus to determine how we're going to spend the money to satisfy every need with one project, our first step should be to broaden the lens and think about what unique niche a space can fill and how it will enhance and contribute to the total experience of the community (building) in which it will live.

    Nigel, remember our many fun and informative walks around and through the buildings in Dublin where we gained an appreciation for the views and adjacencies before we ever began to think about our specific assigned task?

    Keep at the 8-ball, if you played him close in the early stages of your studies, I imagine as you continue to collect information and process into knowledge all that you're learning about spacial relations new shot opportunities will begin to appear all over the table, regardless, you'll be in a better position to dismiss the inevitable claims of "luck" and argue that the shots were all well thought out visionary strategies...right?

    Take care.

  2. Yes, because we are social beings who are programmed to respond to visual cues and we are instinctively frustrated when required to make judgements and respond without access to them. This is the issue at the core of the debate about the limitations of some virtual environments.

  3. Yes, because learning is a social activity and recognised widely as such hence the huge rise in "Social Learning Environments" being created on many of our campus'. This is further supported by research undertaken at Oxford Brookes CETL "ASKe" whose annual conference in 2009 (or was it 2008) was all about social learning spaces and the impact upon teachers and learners.

    Something which is interesting is that we all have our boundaries in terms of when we feel that our "personal space" is being encroached upon and we naturally don't stand too close to people when we interact with them. Consider however, our large lecture theatres where we force everyone together in very confined spaces and expect them to ignore their feelings of general discomfort and get on with learning.

    If in the longer term we have to continue delivering information to a large audience because it is seen to be efficient, effective and economic, this is an area of design that needs serious and careful consideration


  4. This is very interesting, I am having meetings with stakeholders as part of the planning and design process for a site relocation. A key feature has been the need for designated spaces, rather than shared spaces that suit the timetable and wishes of senior managers. This will give students and staff a sense of identity, they want a 'home' for their course, we all need a sense of place but it's something that I remember talking to Peter about, the idea of creating a home type environment, where people feel comfortable. So they can then be engaged, feel safe to experiment, take risks and be social able about their learning.

  5. It appears from the comments so far, thanks to all, that human instinct is important in space design. The next question is do we consciously consider it when designing. A supplementary question is are we allowed to consider instincts when many of us are being regularly asked to shoe horn students into spaces, a point Toni raises above.
    Peter and I had the discussion the other day about the incompatibility of providing excellent learning spaces and servicing ever increasing class sizes.
    James, your comment about designated v shared space is interesting. This links to the 'flexible' debate. I am sure that this approach makes your task somewhat easier. Is this correct?

  6. Yes, flexible is a tricky word. I was chairing a design group meeting last week and the word was thrown around as a solution principle. I said lets try the word adaptable. We'll end up pleasing no one while trying to please all. My current task is not easy with a big project at an East End site. A number of garment technology courses are relocating and want shared technology but also they want their own space.


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