A Conversation With Susan Whitmer, Education Design Expert

Whitmer-Post.jpg For most of us, "back to school" conjures up images of desks arranged in neat rows, crisp new school supplies zipped up in fresh backpacks, and the anticipation of reuniting with teachers and friends. For Susan Whitmer, "back to school" is her default mode. As a strategic education consultant for furniture design shop Herman Miller, Whitmer embraces life-long learning and strives to provide the optimal environment for today's students.

Years of her research have revealed insights ranging from how best to design a community college to what environments teachers and students love -- and hate. Here, Whitmer discusses the pros and cons of a wired classroom; the intersection of social science and design; and how she almost became a physician.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

As a strategic education consultant, I have the privilege of continuing the Herman Miller legacies of research and storytelling. I spend every day researching, thinking about, and sharing stories about the 21st century life-long learner and why space matters in the learning experience.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on your field?

Access to information has changed the game for education. Today, anyone can find out anything on a hand-held device from anywhere in the world. That is powerful. It also presents a challenge. Access is not learning. Learning is how we develop the critical thinking skills and knowledge that make us innovative, creative, responsible global citizens. Howard Gardner talks about these skills in his book, Five Minds for the Future. They are the disciplined mind, the creative mind, the synthesizing mind, the respectful mind, and the ethical mind. Our challenge is to develop learning spaces that facilitate the learning process.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?

Its complexity. There are so many challenges. Our world is changing at a rapid pace, yet education is mired in hundreds of years of tradition where change occurs at a glacial pace. We cannot continue to go about the business of passive learning in 300-seat lecture halls when the 21st century demands a fully engaged learner. The vastly diverse student population is an additional challenge. The days where the traditional student was 22 years-old no longer exist. Today, students on a campus range from 15-80 years of age. They bring a variety of experiences with them, and often are first-generation and from diverse nationalities. Add to this the challenges of educating all of these students in a less than stellar economy.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up your field?

We are at a watershed moment in education design. The convergence of knowledge and circumstances provide us with the opportunity to revolutionize the built environment for all of education. There is an increasing body of research from the neurosciences, cognitive sciences, and social sciences that provide us with valuable insights about how people learn. Combine this knowledge with the skill sets required of the 21st-century worker and there is only one thing for us to do: We must create physical and virtual spaces that foster innovation and design thinking across the educational spectrum.

What's a trend that you wish would go away?

The dependence on technology to solve all of the challenges in education has become a big issue. Over the past few years there has been a push to place expensive, complex technology in every classroom without careful planning and faculty development considerations. In many cases this technology is now sitting idle, and in some cases the technology is being removed. We must begin to think of technology less as an anchor and more as a sail.

Presented by

Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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