180 Studio - Trung Le and Sam Chaltain

180: Changing The Story of How We Live And Learn


During their 15-minute talks, Sam and Le discuss and explain the following:

  • The larger question of the prepared adult, the prepared community, the prepared society and the prepared living system;
  • Nature-inspired building, architecture and learning;
  • Small projects with big impacts;
  • Building schools in Chicago and Ho chi Minh City;
  • Story-telling to set the conditions of the epiphany and at scale;
  • Changing the way we think about about education

Trung Le defines a "Prepared Adult" as someone who is: Culturally literate and empathetic. Equipped, by design, with the resiliency and agility to adjust your philosophy of life. Live life with a purpose. Know your origin story and are always connected to a community. Know the responsibility of being free.

Sam Chaltain defines a "Prepared Adult" as: One who knows who they are, what gives them life, and how they can contribute to building a better world (by design)


Sam Chaltain and Trung Le are partners at 180 Studio, a global design collaborative dedicated to advancing people’s understanding of the future of learning — and what it requires.

Le Trung’s work has yielded awards from the Chicago, Illinois and national chapters of the American Institute of Architects during his 25 plus years career. Trung’s projects have been published in such periodicals as Architectural Record, World Architecture News, and Edutopia. He collaborated with Bruce Mau on The Third Teacher (how design can transform the ecology of learning.) Trung blogged for Fast Company and is a frequent speaker at national and international venues. In 2010, He launched The Third Teacher+, a multidisciplinary design think tank that treats the future of teaching and learning as a living question.

In 2014 Trung co-founded WONDER, by Design.

In 2018 Chaltain and Trung founded 180 Studio.

Sam Chaltain is a writer (New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today), a former speechwriter for each of President Obama’s U.S. Secretaries of Education, and a write for Oscar and Grammy Award winning artists. A periodic contributor to CNN, Sam is the author or co-author of seven books; a co-producer of the PBS documentary film, 180 Days: Hartsville; and co-creator of the 10-part online film series, A Year at Mission Hill.


You know, I'm going to speak through it through the lens of an architect and a designer. And I think that trying to address the larger questions of the prepared adult, I mean, that was just a really interesting thesis that we were invited to this conversation. And as I was thinking about it, I kept thinking about kind of the larger the the larger picture of a prepared adult prepared community, a prepared society and a prepare living system. So maybe that's that's the way that we're going to approach this conversation. As as an architect, I've been I've spent most of my career in the landscape of education. I had a great opportunity to design schools around the world. And I'll be talking about a couple of those projects that's on the board right now relative to these particular projects. But certainly, as we're in the midst of just seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, maybe coming out of this pandemic, there's lots of conversation about going back to normality. And there's even a. A graffiti in Hong Kong that says that we can't go back to normal because normal was the problem in the first place. So so it is it is really a chance as I look about I look at back at the process of of publishing and researching, see the inspire. There's a sense of reflection that I wanted to. Invites you to, I guess. And in one of the interviewer that that we wrote about.

I was stuck with this idea and that and that's and that's why I love the idea of. What does it take or what does it mean to be an adult? Because certainly who we are as an individual makes up that society. Right. And makes up the humanity ultimately. So it really is how we are, the small scales, how we are at the large scale and through the context of design and this horrific tensions between humanity and the rest of the ecosystem. This is a really interesting two images. One on the right hand side is Mumbai in India, and the other one is a 60 lane tollbooth in China. Certainly this is pure brute force human intervention. But but I think that given where we're at and given the challenge that we're facing, I think that we just need to be highly aware of how we continue to build and what we design beyond the fact. And I think there's certain extent that this is lack of any sense of humanity or the human experience behind it. In one of the previous projects that I worked on, collaboration with Bruce Mao that resulted in this publication called The Dirty Shirt. I'm sure you recognize that that idea of the environment as a third teacher is a Malagasy idea in the Reggio approach to learning. But what I took away from collaboration with Bruce in the conversation that we've had and really, really expand the idea of what design is.

And I think that he actually said in massive change, that design is only visible when it fails. Right? And the whole idea of design being very precious with small boundaries around it, it's going away. There is now an understanding that everything we touch, everything that we see is design. And we're getting to a phase right now where we are actually designing nature itself. So another another great sense of responsibility. I'm also hanging on to this quote by Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis to to define perpetual growth on a finite planet as a sole measures of economic well-being, is to engage in a form of slow collective suicide, to deny, to exclude from the calculus of governance and the economy. The cost of violating the biological support system of life is a logic of delusion. And I think that this is definitely kind of coming out of the pandemic, and everyone is really urging that sense of reflection in terms of how do we create the next phase of humanity and knowing that we're sort of all trapped in this capitalistic structure that we're in. I remember reading on Facebook, someone post that of forests doesn't have a value until its trees are cut down. So that's kind of stuck with me for a little bit as I contemplate reading this quote, Bye bye, Wake. Davis So obviously our work and seed in Spark is trying to uncover and remember and bring into practice what we perceive to be the seven living to seven principle of nature and seeing just the remarkable way in which nature thrive and allows ourselves to consider that we should be looking through nature rather than at nature, because we have to seriously realize that we're part of it.

We're part of the ecosystem. This is a beautiful image of the Aspen Grove, one of the largest living system on Earth, because it's not individual trees. This whole system is connected by single roots. And we also have to contemplate this is really kind of an interesting perspective in looking at where humans are not. I remember 30 something years ago when I was studying in in France, Chernobyl blew up 85 and there was there was real concern from from parents back then whether we should be returning back to the States because of the worry of the radiation. But 30 something years right now without humans at Chernobyl, life is thriving. It just really caused us to pause in terms of life really thrive and we're not there the same way. This is the DMZ zone between North and South. It is so rich with natural ecological life that scientists from from Japan have actually asked permission to come in and study the thriving, thriving life that exists there. And a simple abandoned village in China has been taken over by nature itself. So I think that we're constantly reflecting upon the fact that we think that the future of learning is connected to the future of humanity.

This is an article written by Nicholas Abdulkadir. He's actually a practicing architect's living in Paris. And he, he's really. He wrote this article calling for a rethinking in kind of the post capitalistic architecture. You know, the industry of architecture actually produced 40% of the CO2 that escaped into the atmosphere. And so there's there's really kind of a resurgence in questioning what should we build and what we should not build, right? In a way, this is kind of the human condition story that's sort of unfolding. And it's kind of highlight that, you know, in a way that we think about information which we should be noticing in the living system. This is a story that I read a few years back and it still stuck with me. It was an interview by a really famous architect. She is past. This is Zaha Hadid and the BBC interview, the project that was being constructed. This is the stadium that's going to be supporting the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. And reporting is still coming out about the number of migrant workers that are dying from working on these stadiums. And I think that the interviewer asked what she thought of this situation, and her answer was, it's not my problem. So so I think that we we really need to sort of contemplate I mean, this is this is for us designers and architects who really kind of own some of the history of our professions.

And I think that some of the things that's been discussed today is all of us are having to kind of find the origin stories of our own professions in a way that we know that all of these will be intersecting. They're intersecting now and intersect in the future as we think about prepare humans, prepare society, prepare for as we have to face tremendous challenges. Obviously, you have you have recognized in the last four years that here in America, where we're dealing with just trying to own our own origin story of slavery and the continuing unfolding story of social injustice that's happening in America and certainly happen in my profession of architecture itself. So I'm intrigued by some of these really small project that has such tremendous, tremendous impact in the world. And at one point, you actually you actually see the power of design to some of these simple projects. So this is the statistics in terms of the number of people that are being displaced from their home due to conflicts or climate change, environmental disaster. So roughly 68 million people are being displaced by their from their home. 25% nearly 50% of of the of the humans are actually children. And the average average stay in camps in refugee camps is roughly between 10 to 13 years. So if you're a child, you're basically spending your entire child childhood in a refugee camps.

And a few years back, this is a really cool collaboration between the UN and IKEA Foundation in which they're just trying to bring some dignity of of a living shelter to these displaced people around the world. It comes in the spirit of IKEA. And for boxes you can assemble this this shelter in just a few hours using very simple tools. It is a regenerative structure in which it has ability to collect water, generates electricity because of the integrated PVS into the roof. The insulated panels in the walls keeps the inside warm during cold weather and keep the inside cool during hot weather. And it's supposed to last roughly ten more years than the average canvas can shelter that's typically deployed to these regions. Some some of that some of this is is already being deployed around the world, especially with the ongoing crisis in Syria. And the other projects that caught my attention was to deal with Future Cities, whether they're these types of city in South America or Dharavi. One of the. Largest but highly regenerative and sustainable city in in India. This is this is the statistic in which this particular brilliant architect's. Kind of surface less so by 2030. They're estimated to be 5 billion people that will live in cities. And 2 billion of these people live under the poverty rates. Right. Which means that we have to build a million people city at the cost of 10,000 a unit every 15 weeks for the next 15 years.

That's really remarkable statistic. And this is an example of one of his projects in Chile, in South America. So in the way that he created a process to talk to the people that he's designing these houses for. One of the things that's surfaced that's really important to them is just the ability to expand over time. And given the financial constraints, what he decided to do was to give them half of a really great house rather than a full, really bad house. So over time, you can see that they actually have the ability to kind of fill in the other half because the structural frame is already there. I just thought it was just a brilliant way to solve the financial constraints and still satisfied that the essential thing about their their desire to expand in the future in future, future conditions. Water is already a crisis of climate change as one result of climate change. And I think this project just reminds us of the Indigenous wisdom that already exists in in nature and certainly as as drilling in humans. We should be uncovering some of these indigenous engineering and and leverage it in the way that we think about building the future. This is a really beautiful, simple structure to capture water through the changing temperature overnight. Right. And if you're a gardener like myself, when you when you visit your garden in the morning, you see these condensation do happening.

And this structure in its height just allows an engineering contraptions to basically capture that that water and store it. But the architecture itself provides shading. So it's no longer just a place to go and get water, but it's also a community place because you can you can you are you are for the sheltering together underneath it, just like a tree. So a couple of projects that we've been working on that kind of made it into the book itself, that speaks toward this idea of prepare, prepare adults and certainly contemplating kind of the future of humanity's. This is a project that's underway right now in Ho Chi Minh City, and this project is really trying to search for this sense of identity. What does it mean to be Vietnamese in the context of the 21st century global world? You hear stories like Vietnamese teenagers getting cosmetic surgery because they want to look more like Koreans. And so how do we how do we uncover 4000 years of arts and culture in the face of globalization? And the constraints of this project was quite remarkable. The kind wanted this athletic competition, athletic fields. The idea of an integrated arts curriculum was really important to him. The idea of what you guys been talking about, sort of project base. We gravitated towards studying more about phenomenon based learning that's happening in Finland.

There is a collaboration with Turku University to bring professional development to this project, but we also had to squeeze in because of the integrated arts to theaters. Sports and athletics is really important. So of a 50 metre natatorium. So we, we decided that the site constrained the idea of having multiple buildings on this particular site that is serving a K-12 academy, a two year college program, a pretty robust performing arts and athletics. The idea of multiple buildings on the same site is not conceivable. So we literally design a vertical cities in which everything gets incorporated. We wanted to reduce the amount of area that we would be cooling because of the harsh environment in Ho Chi Minh City. So all of the Occupy spaces is inward and we have this very permeable, sun shading device that basically keeps the inside super cool. And we're looking into the fabric. Innovation is taking place in Vietnam to design kind of this sheltering shape that potentially can actually cure some of the kind of the air pollution that's also taking place in Ho Chi Minh City. The other one is really close to home for me near Chicago. That's where I live. And this is a small. Ibe school on the south west side of Chicago. And we when we talk about rage, racial injustice, the scar of how we plan, the city is still here in Chicago. This school and the southwest side is just burdened with coal mine coal plants that's been operating for decades.

But this school is trying to do something that's quite unique. It is it is a public charter school. And we're trying to design a living campus. There is there is a learning component. The Academy for Global Citizenship. But we're also designing a working farm where food production goes right into the the school itself, but then can also be offered to the rest of the communities. We're having to take on the ability to change building codes and to change zoning codes, because one of the things that we wanted was to have a working, working farm with 400 chickens. And that is currently not allowed in the zoning of City of Chicago. So part of our work is actually change policy, change governance as much as proposing a new model. We've actually taking the same formula and introduce it to the typical Chicago grid. The grid was invented because of the 1871 fire in Chicago. But our our plan is that if you're if you are a community and you want to replicate this model, you can do it given the land that you have. And you can build the same kind of structure, because we're trying to meet the living building challenge with the same costs of construction, the same way that it does not relying upon a tremendous amount of money that's being introduced to it beyond what the public sector typically get.

So the inside of the school is quite interesting because we're moving away intentionally, away from sort of that factory model. We are planning the school to be a series of villages that different level of ages and kind of development could be occupying. So that sense of, of small learning communities is really kind of the planning party that that we're taking on and certainly really trying to create a greater sense of relationship and also learning from Finland in the previous presentation that I've heard. Even though we're in Chicago, which has really harsh weather, our plan is we actually have gearing up area in which part of the requirement is that the children go and work in the farm every day, regardless of the weather. They just gear up, they put on the appropriate clothing and they venture outside and they take advantage of that, that campus and that and that farm and having to take care of the animals, that's going to be on site itself. So the three take away from me is I look back in the project that we had worked on Seed Inspire. Here are the things that I'm going to continue to to put into the project and the thinking going forward. Make sure that we uncover and rediscover indigenous wisdom of the place constantly. Think about humanity centre system and this is what I said before. Make sure that we have the ability to look through nature rather than just at nature.

And I really think that at this point in our in our development and and the world, that everything that we do, whether you're a teacher or whether you're an educator, whether you're an archetype or design designer, everything that we do is is a political act now because we are really trying to change the world. So I think I'm going to pass it on to my partner. Thank you, partner. Hi, everybody. How we doing? How we holding up? So as you're getting a sense, 180 studio is a design. And we half of our work is literal school design around the world. But the other half is storytelling. And so I know we're a little bit beyond time, so I'm going to try to take 10 minutes to give you a sense of our philosophy with storytelling and do so in a way that actually shows you two of our stories. Can you all see that? Are we good? So let's dive in. Yes. So first of all, obviously, there has always been a need to use the power of story as a way to set the conditions for epiphany. But I would say until very recently, it was almost impossible to imagine doing so at scale in order to elevate stories. If you're the Mormon Church, you have to buy all those ads. Or if you're an independent nonprofit, you have to generate earned media. But there is something about the current.

The digital ecosystem that makes possible an ability to reach and disrupt the deeply held unconscious assumptions that we all share about the structure and purpose of schooling and that we share across our different countries and cultures. So part of what I want to share with you is the the the strategy we have at 180 about how best to leverage that current ecosystem in ways that build demand. That is still sensitive to what Angeline was talking about before. It isn't just building demand for parents to ask and then finding out that no teachers can do this. It's more of a combination. And so really all of our work is trying to get people to ask and answer in their own head to questions. So what? And now what? And in the way that Ben was just talking a little bit about a little bit ago, about how the power of all this is really not logical, it's emotional. The so what question in the first two parts of this theory of change, awareness and interest are best reached and moved via emotion. And that's what story is most about. It's awakening in somebody an interest in something that makes them lean in and then want to ask themselves the now what? Question which to Joanne's earlier point about partnership is, I think how this theory of change comes to being. So all of the stories that I'm going to talk about and show you. The stories can only do the first part of this.

All we can do is lead the horse to water, and then our responsibility is to be working in close tandem with a lot of the people and organizations that are on this call, which is why I called out Joanne's point as a way to then funnel people who respond to stories and are interested in leaning in and learning more about what to do to the work of all of the other people on this call. So what I'm going to show you are just a few pieces of an effort that we've now been iterating on for the last few years in order to change the way people think about schooling. So one aspect of that is film. And obviously stories are a really film is a really powerful way to tap the emotional center of story you can do. I mean, I'm a writer, you can do it in writing as well. But man, the the immersive environment of film is an interesting way. But I want to just and so there's a lot of different examples of different stories that we tell. Here's a few I'm going to show you one and I'm showing it to go back to earlier in the morning, the conversation we were having about Carnegie units and competencies. So how on earth do you begin to get people to be aware that that's even a thing? So check this out.

Quiet on set.

One may be present. Why is learning still measured? Like 1906 and 1893? It was the Wild West and the education system in America. Kids were going to school for different amounts of time, depending on what state they lived in. So in 1906, Andrew Carnegie created a Carnegie unit as a measure of whether or not you get into college. What the heck is a Carnegie unit? Carnegie units are the building blocks of everything that goes on in education. They dictate what kind of college kids can go to loans they can get teams they can play on. How does it work? A Carnegie unit is 120 hours of contact that a student has with an instructor for a particular subject. Let me think about this for a second. With Carnegie units, it's about how much time they sit in a particular subject and whether they learn it or not is immaterial. That's not what the system cares about. Why do we still do it that way, huh? Is there a better way? You bet there's a better way. Competency based learning. Competency based means that you go at your own pace. It doesn't really matter how long it takes for you to learn. What matters is that you learn what you need to know. I'm happy with that. The point is to have children learn. That is the point. That is what education should be about. Once you go to a competency based learning system, you are equipping kids to deal with the challenges that this century is bringing to us. That's a wrap. The same way may not be the best way. I ask why? Oh, dear.

So that's a very specific kind of story. And obviously we have different ones. But I just want to show you the metrics of another one in that same series that we did that actually focuses on Montessori schools. It takes that same idea, but looks at age based learning like, why is it that we believe that you should only learn with people that were born in the same age? And you can see and this is, of course, higher. Now, that video reached 7 million people, generated 150,000 likes, comments and shares. And all of those contacts are then meaningful ways to build and sustain that audience over time. So that's part of it. But lots of different videos now. Video is one way, print is another. Lee talked about Seed and Spark. Our book and I shared in the chat. If you go to that website, Seed and Spark Live, you can get a copy for free or order a copy. But this is our effort to use the familiar form of the book to help people better understand what are the design principles of the natural world, and how can we begin to start to think about their application in our world? So, as you can see, know seven Design Principles of Nature Examples from art, science and organizational culture and interviews with a person who whose whole life and work is dedicated to the application of that principle. And so in the last chapter structures, we have Maria montessori talking about that dialectical relationship between structure and freedom that is so core to the Montessori way.

I don't think I have time to show you this video because I want to end with the last one. But we also produced a series of videos to help people be aware of that. But you're just going to have to see it later. But we have part of the thought of you can't just produce a video, like you can't just release a book. So what we were thinking is what would the modern day version of the Shackleton journey be around the ideas of seed and spark? So in the upper left there you see the original advertisement for Shackleton's journey around Antarctica, right? Men wanted for hazardous journeys, small wages, bitter cold, you know, honour and recognition in case of success. So what we did last fall is we put out our own version Humans Wanted for Hazardous Journey in search of what comes next in event of success, a new story for humanity. So we now have a group of people from all over the world that are coming together every week to enquire together into what it means to build a new story for humanity and to use nature as our guide. Part of what we also do is use social media. So these are all memes that we share across mostly Instagram every day. A little concept, just another way to put an idea out there that somebody might latch on to or share themselves.

And then we also host a series of public events, and you see that our most recent one was our very own Dr. Angelina Lillard talking about Maria montessori. Why now? What's next? But our our next two are a remarkable cellist and the woman who is basically the mother of the modern biomimicry movement. So how do all of these ideas weave together? I'm going to finish here, Lauren, because I realize we're a minute or two past, but I think the last few things I want to say are print and video are just two components. There's a great mobile component. Another way for when people are ready to think of the now what question, what we can feed them into. There are events. Remember those? We're almost at the point where we can actually be together again instead of only living our lives through Zoom. And then there's also the ways in which we have to tap into the major platforms. So the last thing I'm going to share is we're in the midst of trying to pitch three different feature length documentary TV shows that can reach people not just on Facebook, but on Netflix and Amazon. And I want to end with the trailer for one of those. And we initially thought about all these different names and then we decided, let's actually lean in and just call it school.

I created a school that does not have textbooks where the work we do comes from projects and we invented a new way for a school to work. Because if you don't have textbooks and you don't have tests, what do you have?

What we are trying to do here together is to bring up from the child what the child has inside. It's so important to learn to take risks. And there are dangers that we need to meet. And how are we meeting them. From a place of fear or from a place of power? People need an environment where they belong. School itself is an educational idea about living on water, which they have always been doing. Music is a fundamental part of life. It helps you think outside the box. The good, risky things are these things that we actually explore ourselves. The arts is more than just singing and dancing. It should be part of our culture. The learning doesn't stop in the campus. Daniel Roebuck and Angela. We're out there to farm rice. What could be more fundamental than that? So, yeah, we started it. There is something more interesting out there, a new possibility, and it's based on a simple idea create a meaningful experience and the learning will follow. We want to hear about the new stories, the stories of hope. I guess we have to ask ourselves, what is school for? It's almost an identity for the community. Tv protagonist, Bandini is an alien.

So I think I'll just end with a sense of you see here one story properly thought of in concert with its distribution and properly understood in terms of the ways it can connect people to the existing network of practitioners. And now what doers does have the ability to get us closer to taking the most powerful delivery system ever and using it as a way to change the way we think about this thing we call school?

Made possible by the Prepared Adult Initiative.