Christopher Alexander and the Architecture of Learning: When Systems Collide (Part 1 of 2)

June 19, 2013

Architecture quite clearly can offer an inspiring framework for teaching-training-learning—an idea that becomes obvious as we read between the lines of Christopher Alexander’s latest book, The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-Systems.

Alexander--Battle_for_Life_and_BeautyAlexander, whose extensive writings have been coming our way for more than 40 years, always writes first and foremost of his architectural endeavors. The books, however, are far more than explorations of his chosen field. Whether we’re reading some of his earliest works, including The Timeless Way of Building or A Pattern Language, or immersing ourselves in the 2,000 pages of his more recent four-volume The Nature of Order, we always find ourselves in the company of someone who looks beyond his own craft to see how it creates a world that works better—a phrase familiar to those of us who are active in the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD).

Making a world that works better is at the heart of almost any endeavor worth pursuing, and Alexander’s thoughts on the subject as it pertains to architecture often resonate for those of us continually striving to make training-teaching-learning something that results in a more beautiful, cohesive world.

At the heart of The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth is a compelling description of a challenge any trainer-teacher-learner can understand: the conflict between creating something that fits a predetermined template and uses the same approach everyone else uses just because it’s all we know, and creating something that meets the unique needs of each situation and set of clients (learners) we are called upon to serve.

In The Battle, Alexander describes an almost epic struggle to complete a project using what he calls System A—“…a type of production which relies on feedback and correction, so that every step allows the elements to be perfected while they are being made…”—rather than System B—“…a type of production that is organized by a fixed system of rigidly prefabricated elements, and the sequence of assembly is much more rigidly preprogrammed” (p. 19).

This clearly parallels the struggle we face in training-teaching-learning endeavors. We have abundant evidence that trying to rush learners through the learning process in the shortest period of time possible produces little more than test-based learning that is forgotten or quickly cast aside by learners who find little reason to apply newly-gained skills and knowledge to situations that do not support the use of those skills and that knowledge. We also have abundant evidence that densely-packed PowerPoint slides filled with far too much information for learners to absorb serves only to allow instructors to prove that they delivered the information they were meant to deliver—regardless of whether it results in the behavioral change great training-teaching-learning is expected to produce.

There are numerous beautifully-written, artful passages in The Battle that make us want to keep turning those pages as if we were reading a best-selling suspense story or a dramatic novel with characters we have come to love and care about. But in this case, the characters are compelling because we have come to understand their aspirations; are rooting for them to succeed; and become emotionally involved when they discover they have been betrayed and stand at the edge of a precipice from which there appears to be no escape—just as our learners understandably feel betrayed if we do not design the flexible, interactive learning opportunities that foster their—and our—successes in workplace learning and performance and other learning endeavors.

“Be patient, and take this in slowly,” Alexander counsels us at one point in his narrative (p. 394). If we take his advice and linger over that line itself, we realize how much of value that single line imparts to us in terms of all we dream and think and do. More importantly, we slowly and deeply begin to assimilate the lessons he imparts; see ways to translate them into training-teaching-learning and any other creative endeavor we commit to undertaking; and remind ourselves that books as inspiring and rewarding as The Battle require far more than a single cursory reading if we want to absorb all that the writer is offering us.

Next: Christopher Alexander and the Architecture of Collaboration (Applying “The Battle” to the Volunteer-Drive Community-Based Hidden Garden Steps Project)


William Whyte, City, and the Spirit of Collaboration

February 5, 2011

For those of us involved in training-teaching-learning, almost anything we read offers something we can bring back to those we serve. And every once in a while, we need to step back from newly released books and return to those which have been around for a decade or two—if not much longer.

If we’re interested in themes such as collaboration and community, we find works including Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Towns – Buildings – Construction (1977), The Timeless Way of Building (1979), and just about everything he has written since then to be essential reminders that certain ideas remain consistent and worthy of our attention.

William Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center (1988) is another of those gems, and not just for students and lovers of architecture and city streets—and the way we use them. Whyte’s dynamic work, drawn from 16 years of filming life on the streets of New York, is, ostensibly, a study of what makes cities work; it actually is far more than that. In exploring simple themes including how pedestrians in crowded urban spaces manage to navigate sidewalks and streets without continually bumping into each other, he highlights the larger, more intriguing issue of how we learn to collaborate almost wordlessly and effortlessly with one another. When he explores the importance of well maintained trash receptacles (pp. 90-92) and well placed drinking fountains (p. 87) in making communities attractive to residents and visitors, he reminds all of us to not overlook the elements that make our homes, communities, workplaces, social gathering sites, and learning spaces—onsite and online—compellingly attractive. When he suggests that stakeholders in business districts might benefit from actively seeking new proprietors to provide what is currently missing from those centers (p. 323), he is also subliminally reminding us to actively seek to fill the gaps in what each of us does and provides in our own personal, social, and professional lives.

“It is the asking of [questions] that is the critical step,” he suggests at one point (p. 270), and it is with that simple yet profound reminder that Whyte makes us not only look at the communities of learning we inhabit, but makes us want to question why they are the way they are—and what we can do to make them even better, regardless of whether they are classroom-based or virtual.


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