Biomimicry in Learning Space Design


Here are my remarks from the Transitions17 conference sponsored by the University of Melbourne. 

Thanks to everyone involved with #Transitions17. It is amazing to share the stage with so many incredible scholars and represent the students, staff, and community of the School District of University City. My name is Dr. Robert Dillon, and I serve as the Director of Innovation for University City Schools in Saint Louis Louis. In addition, I work with teachers, leaders, and districts around the country to build the capacity needed to have rich conversations about learning space design.

Much of this journey is captured in a book that I coauthored with Rebecca Hare called The Space: A Guide for Educators. The book, much like this conference, is designed to share trapped wisdom, move the conversation forward, and get educators thinking like designers.

Many incredible questions have emerged from the last few years of conversations with educators, but there is one question that won’t go away, and it is the basis for my recent research with our middle school in University City. The question is,  “what if we already know all of the answers?” It is an odd question for a research gathering, but it is this question that shapes my work.

Does nature know the answers surrounding how we should design spaces? Is nature, even in its most violent moments, speaking to us about how we should design spaces for learning? I do believe that every step we take in nature holds clues to the types of learning habitats that support the learning habits that we desire for students.

Many artists have spent their career exploring these same questions. From Georgia O’Keefe’s communing in New Mexico with the essential aspects her surroundings to the amazing work of Andy Goldsworthy, who bring us sculptures that are baked in the wisdom of his surroundings. These artists coupled with my moments of noticing have led me to start the conversation with students and teachers at University City that before we talk optimal space design, we owe it to ourselves to explore the wisdom of biomimicry.

Many have asked why we would do this and what are the true solutions that we are trying to pursue through our design work. The answer is complex,  and it takes some background about University City,  to see the challenges that we experience and why design and spaces are central to our solution making.

6.8 miles from University City is the city of Ferguson. Just over three years ago before the wounds of racism and slavery opened in places like Charlottesville, Minneapolis, and Baltimore, Ferguson was the epicenter of anger around systemic oppression. The murder of Michael Brown threw a blanket over our community as well, writing a single narrative about the inevitable outcome of our students and how they would travel on the school to prison pipeline. Our work to envelop our students with healing spaces mattered deeply.

We were also looking for ways for our classrooms to be places that positively impacted the experience gap of students in this country. As students return to school, we knew that our students wouldn’t have the variety and quality of learning experiences outside of school, and this would figuratively coat them with teflon. This teflon suit would prevent learning from sticking to our students. To battle this, we realized that all of our learning space needed to turn teflon into velcro, so that learning would stick to our students and we could begin to close the experience gap that too many of our students experience.

Finally, we are designing spaces, having conversations, thinking about biomimicry, and noticing nature because just over 70% of our students experience poverty in their lives. Though rich in spirit, many of our students need the benefits of excellent learning spaces to combat, trauma, fatigue, and negative energy that surrounds them.

With all of this in tow, we started to design our first space with the hope that it would help to heal with nature’s solutions. The space was formerly a meeting room and computer lab that had aged and grow old, and it was an energy vampire of a space.

To begin the transformation, we studied Dr. David Thornburg’s work around promoting communication and a sense of community in classrooms. The idea of a campfire being a gathering place, the water hole filling us with ideas and conversation. We also looked at the importance of the cave and quiet space and the idea that a space needs to feel alive and energizes by all that it is.

We were also dedicated to giving the space time to breathe. We believed that the best space transformations can’t go from a full old space to a full new space. The space needs time for the mental models of its past to fade and the possibility of what could be surface.

Our new space is emerging, notice that I say emerging, and not completed because I have a hard time believing that learning spaces are ever complete. We are dedicated to continuing our journey with biomimicry and learning about the solutions that nature may have already designed for us. We are looking to nature in a few areas already.

Erosion is nature’s way of letting us know that gravity is strong. Where are the nature places where gravity impacts our rooms? Does this support learning or inhibit it?

The flow of the river is powerful, and the ancient saying that you can’t step in the same river twice pushes us to believe that agility and flexibility are cornerstones of a great space.

Sunset is my personal favorite moment of the day. I feel connected, reflective, and a part of something bigger. These are all traits that we want in our modern learners.

The nest is a powerful metaphor in learning. How can we support and nurture while preparing our students to fly. We want our spaces to be a huge part of this process.

We have considered the power of the waterfall, and how it is noisy with purpose. It is also a place where you can feel nature’s power, and we want our classrooms be places where you can feel that same power.

Finally, we consider the fire. Beyond the campfire, the fire needs oxygen and fuel, both things that our classrooms need along with the spark of an amazing teacher.

As we move forward, we are dedicated to a number of things. The first is that we continue to design with and not for students. Too much of formal education is done to kids, and space design doesn’t have to fall in this trap.

We are dedicated to linking our growing learning model around project based learning to the wisdom of nature’s solutions and coupling it with a learning habitat that maximizes possibility.

Our work is focused on a design process that asks all of us to adjust, study, and augment. All  things that can help kids with or without a huge budget to redesign spaces.

So what are our early results. We started school about five week ago in Saint Louis, and in that time we are seeing two clear positive results. Students are showing a deeper engagement in their work in this space, and the students have more joy in their learning. As a middle school principal, I knew that most of my job was to get as many kids loving learning when they left me as possible, and our early results are showing that we are doing this.

What’s next? We want to scale our work. More spaces, more classrooms, more people as a part of the conversation. We want to share our work, which is part of the reason why I’m here, and we know that sharing our work will tighten our message, our purpose, and our ability to deliver the solutions that we think are possible with learning spaces.

We return to the question of whether nature may already have all of the answers. I doubt that nature has all of the answers, but I believe together we has a group of scholars, teachers, leaders, and students that can build the solutions needed to help all students love learning, feel whole, and know that their ideas and voice matter.

Thank you.