Should architecture be taught in grade school?

Few students will become architects, but architecture may be able teach them more about real-life problem-solving than geometric proofs.

  • Contemporary schools are reconsidering their subjects and teaching methods in order to offer the best education for children.
  • Vicky Chan launched an architecture program designed to teach students STEM, creativity, sustainability,and problem-solving.
  • Chan is hardly alone; others have integrated new subjects and methods into curriculum, hoping to instill in students the skills necessary to be engaged, thoughtful citizens.

It's a well-worn joke that many of the subjects we learned in school aren't terribly useful as adults. High school calculus forces us to memorize L'Hôpital's rule but glosses over the practical math of budgeting. P.E. fills our days with dodgeball and the box step, not knowledge of how to maintain an active body and mind while working 40-plus hours a week. And then there's cursive. You know what we mean.

The state of contemporary education has led many experts to argue a changeup is in order. Are there subjects that would enrich the average student's life and impart a more versatile skill set than, say, calculus? Vicky Chan, founder of the design firm Avoid Obvious Architects and the voluntary organization Architecture for Children, believes one candidate is architecture.

Designing buildings and minds

\u200bGrade schoolers learn design by building a bridge out of LEGOs during a STEM event.

Photo: Kevin Gaddie/U.S. Air Force

Grade-schoolers learn design by building a bridge out of LEGOs during a STEM event.

Most students won't grow up to be architects. That's probably for the best since the career's projected growth rate is slower than average. But that's not Chan's goal. In a recent CityLab interview, he tells why he began instructing grade-schoolers in architecture. At its heart, architecture is about problem-solving.

In an example relayed to CityLab writer Mary Hui, Chan discusses a class tasked with designing an eco-hotel on a former quarry site. The students chose to place the hotel on a hill's crest for the luxurious views and wanted to include a tram for easy travel accommodations. As they began to plan, they ran into problems with the concept, but rather than scrap it for something else, they were required to evolve the process and develop beyond their original thinking.

This offers a unique approach to STEM and much of school, where too many classes ask students to solve a problem with a predetermined answer or memorize and recite key information.

"With design, no solution is 100-percent right or wrong," Chan said in the interview. "It's not like solving a mathematical problem. In sport, you can teach team spirit, but at the end of the day, it's a competition and it boils down to winning and losing. But in design, there is no absolute answer, and it's very much like in real life."

Lessons in sustainability

Flickr user Jeremy Vandel

The Lotus Temple in Delhi, India, one of the most beautifully designed buildings in the world.

Chan then uses the class to help student understand modern connections, especially regarding sustainability. As he notes, a lot of students think sustainability is recycling water bottles — which is probably true for most adults, too. But Chan wants people to view the environment and their approach to it differently. He introduces his students to concepts like the wall effect, helping them to see that although something is commonplace, that doesn't mean it's the most effective or salubrious design.

In Chan's view, the goals of architecture and education align nicely: "The other thing is learning how to see opportunities. Once you discover a problem, you learn to see opportunities. Problems present opportunities. But if you can't see the problem, then you can't see the opportunity."

It's also worth considering how Chan's class can be upgraded from STEM to STEAM — that is, STEM with an additional focus on art. Students get to design their buildings with cardboard models, allowing them to tap into their creativity and create something that's uniquely theirs. Again, they may not become architects, but they may develop an appreciation for the aesthetic value of design that we find in such illustrious examples as Casa Mila, Prague's Dancing House, the Lotus Temple, and China's Forbidden City Temple.

On beyond architecture

Nor is Chan alone. Many experts are suggesting we add new subjects or methods to school curriculum or revamp old ones to be more viable for contemporary students.

As Fareed Zakaria told Big Think, Yale has opened a school in Singapore that is re-imagining liberal education for a global context. Rather than focus on subjects, the school's core curriculum focuses on critical thinking and methods of inquiry. When students read Aristotle, Zakaria notes, they aren't just analyzing Aristotle. They are reading him in coordination with Confucius to inquire what political, social and cultural influences led these contemporaries to their different views.

Often the goal is to integrate STEM, problem solving, critical thinking and the creative arts in new and interesting ways. As for the box step, if they really want to learn, they can google it.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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