Educating Architects and Planners
Urban Crossroads #44

The competence of a given professional depends to a great extent on the quality of education that he or she received. This fully applies to professionals who play a major role in shaping our built environment, as with architects and planners. The importance of education clearly is understood in Jordan, and there is much talk in the country about education, specifically about architectural reform. The debate on education also covers the various levels of education, ranging from primary schooling to graduate studies. The result of this debate will very much define the direction in which our educational policies will head.

Education is partly about empowering students to acquire information that is of use to them in their personal and professional lives, and also as citizens in society. A good part of education, however, is about helping students develop ways of thinking that allow them to master a variety of skills ranging from analyzing data to problem solving. Often, this requires people to be able to think beyond accepted conventional approaches, or as the worn-out, but nonetheless still applicable, clichés states, to “think outside the box.” Such thinking often depends on totally redefining the problems at hand.

A well-known example of such a redefinition that relates to the built environment is that of addressing traffic congestion problems. A frequent reaction to which decision makers have reverted when dealing with this problem is to increase the capacity of the city's street network to accommodate increasing traffic. This entails widening existing street systems and laying out new streets. A redefinition of the problem, however, would shift this emphasis on increasing street capacity to an opposing emphasis, that of minimizing the number of vehicles using streets. Once one accepts this framework for approaching the problem, a different set of solutions emerges, as with developing efficient and extensive public transportation systems, or emphasizing the use of telecommunication systems according to which information - rather than people - does the traveling.

Our educational system should be re-thought in a manner that helps students develop such thinking skills. It would be difficult to achieve such a goal within the context of traditional, highly structured, and centralized educational systems. Instead, such thinking skills are best developed within the context of experimental, flexible, small-scale, and decentralized settings. Some of the most effective educational systems around us today evolved from small-scale experimental approaches. It is this sense of experimentation that we need to develop and nurture.

A good example of this sense of experimentation in the case of architecture and the visual arts is the Bauhaus, the German experiment dating to the 1920s, that evolved into one of the most influential (if not the most influential) architectural movement of the modern period. It was the brainchild of a group of dedicated and creative architects and artists (interestingly enough, not academics). They cooperated with local industry to create an institution that aimed at rethinking the making of buildings, works of art, and utilitarian everyday objects in a manner that visually, functionally, and technologically incorporates the developments of the industrial age. The members of the Bauhaus carried out their mission both through the production of objects and through teaching students. The Bauhaus consequently has redefined both the making and the teaching of architecture throughout the world, and many of today’s leading institutions of architectural education are based on the Bauhaus model.

The educational environment within the context of a country such as Jordan seems to be a world apart from the spirit that created an institution such as the Bauhaus. Instead of the experimental discourse that brought about the Bauhaus, the debate about the making of educational institutions in Jordan seems to focus on quantitative issues such as their paid in capital, square area of facilities, number instructors and the degrees they obtained, … etc. We even are moving in the direction of national centralized university exams in certain fields. It is doubtful that any of this will bring about positive transformations in our educational systems. Often, all that is needed to create a positive educational environment is to bring together a good, dedicated instructor with a group of students, and simply provide them with a roof over their heads, a blackboard and chalk. The resulting intellectual and academic exchange most often is incredibly stimulating. However, considering the manner in which our educational system is being defined in Jordan, it seems we will continue to produce large numbers of graduates in various fields who, at best may have accumulated a lot of information, but will continue to think in a conformist and non-imaginative manner.

We function in a highly competitive, information based, globalized environment. Unless we can develop an educational system that produces effective and creative problems solvers, we will not be able to effectively compete in this world.

Big is not necessarily good, and many great accomplishments have their roots in very humble beginnings. Let us not forget that even Harvard University, during its early years in the first half of the seventeenth century, had a little more over 300 books and less than a dozen students!

Mohammad al-Asad

June 30, 2005