Innovation in Learning Study Group

East Coast: Treehouses and Caves

By: Erin Hanrahan

Before yesterday, I'd never met an architect. I'd never heard the terms "hot-desking" (hipster lingo for itinerant work spaces) or "nano walls." And I'd certainly never considered the relative merits of ottomans in the classroom. But when I was a kid, my friend's mother often referred to the sections of her family home as "The Treehouse" and "The Cave." Every good home, she claimed, needs both.

Walking through the Harvard Innovation lab, MIT Teaching Systems Lab, and The Dearborn School yesterday, under the expert guidance of architect David Stevens, I was challenged to expand my understanding of space as it pertains to learning environments. Stevens talked about using "neighborhoods" within schools to build community and foster collaboration. His colleagues explained that intimate spaces are equally important for students to meet and study independently. Eventually, I found myself reverting to my old model and classifying the work spaces we viewed into treehouses and caves.


So far, we've seen a lot of treehouses. Our first stop, the Harvard Innovation lab, featured open work spaces meant to function as hives, where students would interact and even ring a communal gong to celebrate successes. (Disappointingly, it did not go off while we were there). At MIT, our hosts emphasized the importance of building spaces where people would "accidentally" bump into one another, to foster the sharing of ideas. And The Dearborn School, where construction is still underway, centers around an enormous atrium, or "winter garden," upon which all classrooms look out.

By contrast, at Woodstock, we are all cave. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Harvard students at the Innovation lab reported that the small work rooms there are always in high demand, and that there are never enough of them. A poster in the lab put it another way: "Common spaces need common effort." It is not always easy to be in the treehouse, nor is it always advisable. But the decisions around learning space are important. After my crash course in architecture yesterday, I am learning to see that the physical space a school offers, and the way students and teachers use that space, reflects more than just a blueprint design. The schools we have visited are trying to strike a balance between unity of purpose and individual freedom, between collaboration and independence, between coherence and innovation. And they are doing this by making intentional decisions around common spaces and retreats, or as my friend's mom would call them, treehouses and caves.