Businesses have moved toward open, collaborative work spaces for several years now, but the reaction isn’t all that positive. The idea was simple enough: When workers spend unrestricted time around each other, ideas flow, innovation grows, and productivity could only get better.
But that’s not what happened, at least not in a lot of offices. So why is this open plan that’s already met with fairly harsh criticism finding new traction in education? Students need a place to be alone and think. And with forced collaboration, design might have a negative effect on education.
Collaboration is Great Until it Isn’t
The collaborative work environment isn’t really new. Offices have used it in one form or another for generations, although it was more often used in the earlier 20th century for tasks that were decidedly not collaborative. Typists in a typing pool are an obvious example.
The open floorplan office as it’s used today is shown to reduce productivity, not boost it. But Linda Kaufman explains at the Washington Post that it does save on costs. Unfortunately, she also experienced the distraction (and flu virus sharing) of a group of workers sitting at one table bouncing ideas off each other all day long.
Schools have always had an open classroom environment, but there have also been quiet spaces to think and work independently. Even libraries are less likely to hold to the quiet rule, and finding places to be alone is difficult.
Students Need Space to Think
Arch Daily explains that the collaboration trend has been on the minds of educators for about 10 years. But the time and expense being used to design collaborative spaces might be shortsighted.
Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” believes that too much collaboration, which hails from the business world and not from education, can hurt the very innovation that it tries to promote.
Students need spaces for quiet work. But in a world that’s moving more and more toward removing all barriers and pushing people together, it’s hard to find. Arch Daily mentions the Roeper School in Michigan, which initially focused on collaboration. But after student input asked resoundingly, “Where do I go to be alone?” the school has reevaluated and gone a slightly different direction.
A Blend of Spaces Might Work Better
Architecture is a living thing. It’s always changing, always adapting, always striving to improve. But those improvements aren’t based on what ought to be the next big thing. It’s not like fashion design where a whim raises or lowers hemlines just to be different. Architecture focuses itself on the people that it serves, not the other way around.
Collaboration isn’t inherently bad and isolation isn’t, either. It appears that forced collaboration is what’s difficult. The Roeper School’s solution was a “Continuum,” which offers wide open spaces at one end, then works toward progressively more private spaces at the other. Students can even choose how much social interaction they want by using one doorway over another.
Openness and transparency is trending now, but that might not serve workers or students as well as it does on paper. In reality, people get distracted. Students need to think without a sea of noise and interruptions. And they need access to choices.
The idea of collaboration is the natural flow of ideas, which was thought to improve innovation and productivity. But collaboration should be organic, not forced. Where students have no choice, the nature that open architecture tries to promote actually ends up as restricting as any closed space.
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