A Conversation With Susan Whitmer, Education Design Expert

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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.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

I have a natural sense of curiosity. When you spend time in research, it is easy to stumble upon interesting thoughts or ideas. At one point I got caught up in the idea that we had to embed technology into our furniture because I knew that others were going to do it. I was wrong. Fortunately, I am surrounded by a great team of folks who rein me in when I need it. I realize now that because technology is evolving at warp speed, we must create solutions that accommodate technology, not embed it.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

The first is actually a team. It would be Ray and Charles Eames. The Eames' were such visionaries. Their products are timeless, including a documentary short film that they created in 1968 called Powers of Ten. This film is still viewed in first-year engineering classes around the world. The second person is Max De Pree, son of DJ De Pree, founder of Herman Miller, Inc. Max led Herman Miller as CEO from 1980 to 1987. He is an important teacher and mentor in the field of leadership whose work continues to inspire students in business schools throughout the world. Last, but certainly not least, is my mentor and friend Jeanne Narum. She led the transformation of undergraduate education in the STEM disciplines at PKAL, and now leads a think tank of educators, architects, and facilities leaders in developing a framework for strategic, continuous planning of learning spaces for nurturing innovative thinkers, practitioners, and leaders of the 21st century.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Interestingly enough, I started my education as a pre-med student. I still think that I would have made an excellent physician. Unfortunately, I had a professor who was determined to convince us that we were not good enough or smart enough to be in his presence. I wasn't as strong then as I am now. He did convince me, so I changed my major. I met a wonderful biology professor last week who is so passionate about his students succeeding in life. I thought to myself that if I had met this professor when I was in school, I might be a really great physician today. The power of words continues to fascinate me.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

I use the Kindle app on my iPad everyday. I have downloaded several books that I reference for my work from my Kindle app. It allows me to highlight important points and then go back and reference them when I am writing.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

One area I continue to struggle with is work/life balance. So, the song "The Best Part of the Day." which is on the The Union collaboration means a lot to me. I am a huge fan of both Elton John and Leon Russell. This is such a meaningful song to me because I am fortunate enough to be married to my best friend who "shares my crazy ways" and supports me always.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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