Wednesday, 9 May 2012

(space)hacking the school

hacking as architectural praxis

Final Review Presentation PDF

(space)hacking the school is a slightly misleading title in that I am interested in the process of hacking and what we can learn from it is a form of architectural investigation as opposed to some sort of breaking into the school or indeed any kind of sinister behaviour as the traditional understanding of hacking may suggest. I think it could be healthy/ refreshing to pursue hacking as an investigatory process that will help us move towards a new architectural praxis. Especially when analysing current systems with a view to implementing design features on any re-interpretation of a a particular type of design. In this case school design. So I am looking at implementing some kind of theory and skill set when analysing the school.

So if we look at the traditional or at least modernist/ postmodernist approach to designing we could describe the approach as top-down. A system is analysed and then broken into smaller sub-systems that are eventually broken down again in the pursuit of a kind of grand vision. It can be said to be general-case, theoretical, grand-vision, master-plan, question the problem. It tends to make decisions based on a previous pool of knowledge. In Corbusier's case (slide 2), he might be thinking form follows function or how he likes visual expression of structure and will thus make decisions based on these assumptions.

Hacking tends to be bottom-up, analysing smaller sub-systems in detail in the hope of grouping them together to form some kind of analysis. It can be described as special-case, practical, piecemeal, non-standard, unschooled, unexpected, more immediate problem solving with a view to building on what already exists. It tries to exploit any weakness or deficiencies in a system. It is about investigating weak points in the flow of information (pathways). It is often unconcerned with any singular or complex solutions. It is a more continuous investigation that can evolve and respond to changes. This seems like an apt form of investigation for something like school design given it is an existing vast system that is constantly (or should be) changing.

I have been looking at the origins of hacking as a process in the hope of better understanding its strengths and hopefully gaining enough of a grasp to try and use it in an architectural setting. This is a still from the film Wargames (1983) (slide 3) staring Mathew Broderick. This is quoted by a lot of nerds when they discuss how they initially got into computer hacking. And that's how a lot of people still imagine hacking but it has evolved a lot since then. There are some common characteristics inherent in all hacking that I am trying to understand.

It is said to have been coined in the 50's in MIT by programmers.It is something that tends to be fairly anti-establishment but usually exists within a well established large framework. It usually occurs in a social context, it is irreverent and informal, involves hands-on problem solving and usually has an element of fun involved.
A couple of early examples I have looked into in a technical setting are phone phreaking and, earlier yet, the rural automobile hacking that occurred in the early part of the last century. 

Phone phreaking was initially about people (with a lot of time on their hands) exploring the phone system and eventually finding loopholes to make free calls. It is similar to the automobile hacking where rural automobile owners modified their cars to run farm equipment and other machines. They share some similarities. Both involves the lead-user probing and testing the limitations of their system until loopholes are found that benefit the user. I am asking if the architect, can use this probing as a kind of tool and predict where benefits might be found for the user. In this respect it differs fundamentally from most hacking in that the lead-user is not performing the hack. These are both examples of hacking in a technical sense but hacking also exists in a social domain.

Social or civic hacking is something I believe more applicable to Portobello school in that it is concerned with how people interact and use a system as opposed to purely technical hacking. Dan Ariely is a researcher in behavioural economics and has described a civic or social hacking example:

In a cafeteria, there is a problem with some of the users with over eating. He then analyses the steps that the user goes through when using the cafeteria. looking at where the customers stand, what they see, who they see, what tempts them, how they decide what to take, where and how they pay, and so on.  Next, we would try to identify possible points in the process that seem to encourage or enable overeating, and then try to come up with different ways to influence peoples’ decisions at these weak points. For example, we might notice that people pass by the burger-and-fries station on the way to the salad bar. If the cafeteria is set up this way, it’s very hard for hungry people to resist temptation. So with this in mind, we might suggest to push the burger stand off into to the far corner and place the salad bar front and centre. Alternatively, we might realise that people fill up their plates to their capacity, so we might recommend decreasing the plate size (a strategy that Brian Wansink shows to be effective in achieving weight loss).

By conducting this kind of  “hacking analysis” of the way people behave in a cafeteria “system,” we can discover the most promising ways to intervene in the process and improve behaviour. This is a very simple example of social or civic hacking as an analysis tool. What I like about this example is how the investigator is not looking for an absolute solution but prefers a simpler approach using whatever tools already exist within the system. There are of course other forms of hacking like urban hacking or culture jamming but a common criticism is that it simply offers critique but never alternatives so I am aware of that when it comes to the school.

Data collection and Investigation
It gets a little more complicated than the cafeteria example when we start to look at Portobello. I tried to keep a kind of hacking point of view when I was in class. There aren't really that many clear "problems" when it comes to the school. In fact I found it to be functioning pretty well to be honest. But we are in the process of implementing the curriculum for excellence so there are some relatively clear aims and goals involved. With my first class I was introduced as Mr. McNamara. This was to establish some authority. So already we are witnessing a particular flow of information (pathway). Although I am portrayed as a figure of authority the students smell my fear and I rely on the protection of Ms Gallagher. I get scared when i think what might happen if she leaves. During the class this power struggle is evident in almost every conversation and action to the point where it really is a type of game with an unending set of rules. These rules are mostly unsaid/ unwritten and are in constant flux.

The first exercise was a series of simple questions that really revealed a few of these underlying pathways as opposed to providing real information through the answers. I had hoped to gain some insight into how the students view their space but the results weren't great in that respect. Another exercise I set was to ask them to map a floor of the school from memory. This was a lot more revealing both in terms of pathways and the students spatial understanding of their school. It was evident that the students are constantly learning from their peers as well as the teacher. The art department is particularly progressive in this respect given the more informal nature of the art department. Students are allowed to talk freely and exchange ideas. This is an aspect of the curriculum for excellence and modern pedagogy I am particularly interested in.

When analysing the social make-up of a place or space i have started to look at ethnomethodological experiments. One of the most famous is the lodger experiment:

He (Garfinkel) asked them to “spend from fifteen minutes to an hour in their homes imagining that they were boarders and acting out this assumption”. In short, they were to be polite to their families and note what happened. It turns out that people aren’t polite to family.

As family norms were broken the result was often pandemonium.  Unsuspecting family members quickly diagnosed their children as ill… or even insane. Speaking politely to your parents is so unusual that most families took it as cruel mockery, or as a kind of elaborate, unsuccessful joke.  Students found the experience unaccountably stressful, given the apparently innocuous instructions. Garfinkel’s experiment is now widely known as “the lodger” or “the boarder.”  He advocated this technique of de-familiarising everyday life by challenging some unstated assumption as a way to discover the existence of hidden norms.  He called it “breaching.”

So through observation and data collection I hope to observe the existing pathways and try to understand the role that space plays. But to what end? it is clear that the over arching pathway is still the student- teacher and for good reason. It is born of an older model of education but still maintains all social order in the classroom. The teacher is still portrayed as the primary source of information. A problem alluded to by Paolo Frieir in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. One of the primary ways to move towards a new pedagogy is to try to create more pathways and exchanges of information. This seems to be starting to happen through the use of technology (smart phones, laptops) but currently, the main interaction between students concerns social status and very little information exchange. The students use of space is highly territorial and is used as a tool for enforcing social order/ status. In a school like portobello it is immediately clear that the space constraints have seriously limiting effects on the students. This is most evident in the interactions evident in teaching and non-teaching spaces.

Curriculum for excellence
The curriculum for excellence is a lofty and ambitious document but at times very vague. The four main categories or aims of the document are to produce; successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. Goals I would have assumed would go without saying. it gets a little more specific and useful within the documents divided by subject. I am focusing on the art class. Under expressive arts its aims for students are;

• be creative and express themselves in different ways 
• experience enjoyment and contribute to other people’s enjoyment through 
creative and expressive performance and presentation 
• develop important skills, both those specific to the expressive arts and those 
which are transferable 
• develop an appreciation of aesthetic and cultural values, identities and ideas 
and, for some, 
• prepare for advanced learning and future careers by building foundations for 
excellence in the expressive arts

They make up a good clear set of guidelines but art class is really about creativity. With respect to art how can our spaces nurture creativity? The architecture studio culture is a great example of a system that is completely open to encouraging creativity. It is not a slave to the timetable which has its own problems but imagine being asked to design a building but only work on its design between two and four each day. This is something the Art department is aware of and attempts to address through lunchtime and after school access as well as art club outside of school hours. The school is attempting to personalise the timetable to accommodate and encourage more creativity. I wonder how we might start to design spaces that allow for a more personalised approach to making art?

Proposed breaching 
All of these breaches aim to expose these hidden sub systems and pathways that dictate how the classroom works and the role space plays. Curriculum for excellence - Interactive learning, project based learning, peer learning

Breach 1 - The restaurant
Propose setting up a restaurant in the classroom. 
Expose underlying peer pathways as well as teacher-student pathway

Breach 2 - Furniture
Get rid of all furniture for a class. Ask students to choose a square tile each and work on that for double class.
Expose furniture's role in flow of information and teacher-student pathways

Breach 3 - Displacement
Move all furniture outside and observe class 
Expose the role of the classroom as a space in all underlying pathways

I think there might be some answers in the exploration and analysis of teaching and non teaching spaces. It could help in creating a more autonomous atmosphere. A space where decision making and hence, responsibility and personal development might be more autonomous. There are some examples of this in the Scandinavian system where they are starting to get rid of the traditional classroom all together. It is an interesting approach but seems a little simple. Truely autonomous zones, the type suggested by anarchist Hakem Bey could contain inspiration for the art class. They use the socio-political tactic of creating temporary spaces that elude formal structures of control. One of the goals of modern pedagogy seems to be a desire to break free from the hierarchy and deeply ingrained ways of thinking left over from the industrial revolution. He suggests that throughout history these kinds of spaces have sprung up where ones mind is freed from the controlling mechanisms that are imposed on it. In the formation of a TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone, Bey argues, information becomes a key tool that sneaks into the cracks of formal procedures. A new territory of the moment is created that is on the boundary line of established regions. Any attempt at permanence that goes beyond the moment deteriorates to a structured system that inevitably stifles individual creativity. It is this chance at creativity that is real empowerment. I wonder can we design a space, say an art wing of a school, that creates an atmosphere akin to one of these temporary autonomous zones for they represent the ultimate in creativity nurturing and freedom of thought space.

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