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Learning Landscapes


When you look around a typical classroom, you see desks, chairs, a whiteboard (or blackboard), perhaps a clock on the wall, cupboards for students to keep their belongings, and displays of student work. Teaching and learning happens in this environment. But how much teaching and learning is happening from the environment?

Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek is professor of psychology at Temple University and the author of Becoming Brilliant, Einstein Never Used Flashcards, and several other books on child development. As director of Temple University's Infant Language Laboratory, her research covers child language acquisition, learning through play, and early childhood development. She and her team also work with cities to transform ordinary, everyday places into "learning landscapes". She says "What if we transformed places where people naturally go--places where people wait--into learning landscapes that provide opportunities to spark conversation and learning?"

In 2015, Kathy and her team got permission to transform a local supermarket into a kind of children's museum. All over the shop they put up signs like, "I am a cow who gives you milk. What else comes from a cow?" They observed that there was a 33% increase in conversations between children and their parents when the signs were up. In the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, there are plans to build a huge park with many activities that can stimulate children to learn math and science skills while generating conversations between children and adults.

These projects not only stimulate young children across the country to learn every day outside the classroom, but they seek to combat the effects of income disparity reflected in educational outcomes. Kathy and her colleague Dr. Roberta Golinkoff write: "Schooling offers a powerful antidote to those growing up in poverty, but it is unlikely to be the golden ticket on its own. Two facts support that point. First, schooling often begins at age 4 or 5, so even universal preschool programs of high quality will miss the formative years of 0 to 3. Moreover, several scientists have calculated that children enrolled full-time only spend 20 percent of their waking time in school."

The Urban Thinkscape project, led by Kathy and Roberta, aims to install puzzles, games, and other learning landscapes that can generate learning opportunities in parks, bus stops, train stations, and other public areas. Pilot programs are already in place in Philadelphia.

Teachers in the classroom tend to show a lot of interest in different curricula, teaching materials, and methods and approaches to instruction in order to improve the quality of their lessons. Yet more and more research in the field of education is focused on how students learn outside of class, away from pre-designed lessons. Instead of asking "Which textbooks are best?" or "What teaching methods work best?", we should also be asking questions like, "How can the walls in my class be turned into learning spaces?" or "What can I advise the students' parents to buy and put on the wall at home that would stimulate conversations about what they are learning in class?"

As more and more schools, both in Japan and abroad, shift toward a more holistic education where the results of researches such as those conducted by Kathy and Roberta are having influence on the programs teachers who are equipped to answer these questions are likely to be in higher demand.


Transforming Cities into Learning Landscapes"

"When the supermarket becomes a classroom: Building learning communities beyond the school walls"

"Cities as Landscapes: The Urban Thinkscape Project"

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