What We’ve Learned About Learning


By Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA



Ah, yes, leave it to Plato.  Just when you think that it’s enough to impart information and hope that people absorb it, the great philosopher reminds us that we must set the bar much higher.  As designers, we must train our sights on the possibility that we can engage people’s minds in such a way that they make connections, imagine new possibilities, and perhaps make sense of the world and innovate to carry it forward.


Concept Sketch for the creation of Summit Elementary School in Casper, Wyoming


At SKOLNICK, this has always been our Holy Grail.  I’ve written extensively in the past about the virtues of design that induces revelations and epiphanies.  But how does this relate to places of LEARNING?  Well, the first thing to realize is that EVERY PLACE CAN BE A PLACE OF LEARNING.  Let’s look at how we’ve tried to embody these beliefs in our best educational work over the past four decades.



The crux of the matter is that we can and must design places that are ENGAGING.  That welcome and nurture.  That invite exploration and discovery.  That encourage participation and, by doing so, hint at relevance…what does this have to do with my interests, my life, my world, my future?   If we can aim to – and even partially achieve these goals, we create a bridge between people’s lives and the true purpose of LEARNING.


Children’s Gallery at the Royal Alberta Museum, Edmonton, Alberta, CA


This epic crusade has manifested itself in a wide range of projects, both explicitly and implicitly educational – both academic and more informal.  We have designed public schools that have taken their place as centers of learning for all ages as well as served as the new town squares.  We have created learning environments of varying types for large private school campuses around the world.  And we have been leaders in the field of interpretation that has informed our planning and design of children’s museums, history museums, science centers, visitor centers and more from our hometown of New York City to North America, Europe, the Mideast and Asia.



What have we learned from these rich and challenging experiences?  First of all, we understand that not everyone learns in the same way.  As Howard Gardner observed years ago, there are many types of “intelligences” and we must tap into all of these innate developmental traits if we are to ensure that we have succeeded in reaching all learners.


The “Tree of Knowledge” Information Desk at Port Washington Children’s Library was inspired by Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences


We have also come to know that places of community, combined with project-based learning and true collaboration, educate in ways that go far beyond the lecture, test, and textbook.  It is abundantly apparent that social interaction is a powerful teacher and that there are critical and life-changing lessons to be learned from working with others.


We have been guided by the theories and practices of Reggio Emilia that “environment is the 3rd teacher”, following close behind parents (and caregivers) and teachers themselves.  So we know that how we design both schools and informal learning settings has a tremendous impact on the future development of the young and the enhancement of the lives of all.



While the types of learning environments noted above are quite explicitly recognized as educational, let us not forget that there are other crucial components in the spectrum of lifelong learning.  One that is particularly compelling is that most democratic of institutions, the public library.


Children’s Library Discovery Center at Queens Library


We have had the distinct privilege of collaborating with many dedicated Board members, library professionals and community stakeholders in the creation of the library as the “new town square”.   These lively and stimulating local resources have gradually evolved into places that offer a wide range of services, all geared to the idea that not all learning is found in books.


As such, they demand a variety of spaces, both for gathering and quiet study, interaction and reflection.   Maker’s spaces, community rooms, events spaces, technology labs, classrooms, even outdoor places to gather, to read, and to garden!  In locales of great diversity and a multitude of cultures and languages, we have had to find strategies for wayfinding that do not rely on signage or the written word.


And we can never forget that the greatest resource of all is the friendly and helpful library staff, at one’s disposal to assist, direct, interpret and engage.



In the end, those of us who design places of learning need to understand that our job is to help spark a lifelong love of learning.  Not something that is apart from our lives.  Not something that is drudgery from which we need relief.  But, instead, a natural activity that enhances the pleasure we derive from being alive.  From broadening our horizons.  From connecting with others.  From developing masteries that are all our own.  From succeeding in ways we never thought possible.


In Dayton, Ohio we designed Aileron, a 114-acre campus to help seasoned entrepreneurs continue to learn how to bring their skills forward and to grow their developing enterprises


As designers, we play but a part in this play.  But it is a critical part without which learning can only be partially successful.



What’s in it for us?  Well, obviously the pleasure that we, ourselves, derive from the meaningful interactions we have with dedicated, talented and truly civic-minded individuals and groups.  This, combined with the gratification of knowing that through our efforts we are making a tangible contribution to the creation of a better world.


Summit Elementary School, Casper, Wyoming


But there is another dividend that might come as a surprise, although really it shouldn’t.  If we are to successfully engage in the complex and multi-faceted endeavor of improving HOW PEOPLE LEARN – if we are to address with confidence the multi-layered conceptual and content-laden landscape that characterizes this specialized field of work, we must actually be lifelong learners ourselves.




And this is, perhaps, the greatest gift of all: that this journey sends us to places we might never have dreamed of.